The other day I had a thought about handwritten keepsakes. It started as a recognition of how unique are the times we’re living through. And how, to record our story, future historians will be poring over source material—that is, contemporary accounts of what’s happening. Used to be, contemporary accounts came from folks putting pen to paper. In our modern digital world, of course, putting pen to paper doesn’t happen very often anymore.
In just my lifetime, written communication has gone from thoughtfully hand-penned (or -typed) letters dropped in the mail to quick, scattershot batches of electrons in the form of email, texts, emojis, memes. And that’s just written words. In recent years, communication has trended toward the digital, the immediate—streaming multimedia, smartphone videos, TikTok. Just now, as humanity grapples with the novelty of social-distancing during a pandemic, even good ol’ face-to-face spoken language happens online via Zoom and Skype and FaceTime.
Our very signatures—once our personal mark, our brand—are in jeopardy. (I rarely even sign checks anymore.) Nowadays, we’re most likely to find pages filled with cursive script in boxes of memorabilia, collections of old letters, books of grandmas’ recipes.
Since future generations will surely view this time with fascination and remembrance, why not take advantage of our stay-at-home predicament to create a few handwritten keepsakes?
An easy way to do this? Write a letter. Perhaps a long, mindful letter to a loved one, a letter that—if mindful enough—might well get tucked safely away and passed along to future generations. Another way might be to keep a journal of your thoughts and feelings. Even simply an account of what you’re up to, maybe a diary of your dreams. If you happen to be a birding enthusiast (as I am), make a daily list of birds.
I think, for instance, of the daily diary my father kept as a young man. While in the Army after World War II (stationed at Fort Hunt, Virginia, as part of the top secret operation code-named P.O. Box 1142), he wrote these lines on March 7, 1946, the day he and a buddy caught a ride with some ladies in a Cadillac on the way to Washington D.C.
The ladies asked where we were from, and when we evaded answering, the middle wanted to know the reason for such secrecy now that the war was over. Arno said something about having tried to reach General Eisenhower for an answer to that, but that he had had no luck in finding out. We rode on very pleasantly into Washington where the rain began coming down. A the capitol building the lady driving stopped to let us out, turned and dropped her own atom bomb. “What would you boys say, if I told you that you had been driving with Mrs. Eisenhower?” What followed is rather hazy, but we thanked her for the ride, caught our train, laughed over the surprising incident all the way to New York City.
I must say, reading Dad’s contemporary account of this classic family story in his familiar, legible cursive truly enlivens a moment from nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
Consider the power of handwritten keepsakes. Chances are not only will the contents of what you pen today prove memorable one future day, your own distinctive hand will, like a fingerprint, add a personal touch to history.
(I write so little by hand these days—let’s see if I can take my own advice!)
» Seems I’m not the only one who had the handwritten-notes idea.
» A related idea, in fact, might be to spend a little time with your own handwritten keepsakes from days gone by.
» A quarantine could even turn out to be the perfect chance to help your kids brush up on their handwriting skills.
» I mean, after all, writing by hand is good for the brain.
» On the other hand, all this sheltering-in-place time won’t necessarily ensure improvement of a person’s cursive penmanship skills.
» Then again, not every notable person from history had handsome handwriting—check out this guy’s illegible scrawl.
» By contrast, look at the lovely hand on the original Juneteenth order, recently discovered in the National Archives.
» Finally—have you ever heard the phrase “handwriting happiness”?
Not very long ago I announced that Austin Pen (released a year and a half ago) would be my last original font. Just kidding!
O.K., I wasn’t kidding at all at the time—but I’ve changed my mind.
What prompted my reconsideration was an out-of-the-blue query by a U.S. Navy Chief about the possibility of modeling a font after the handwriting of America’s first naval hero, John Paul Jones. He included a link to a three-page letter Jones wrote in 1779, now in the digital archives of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Not only did the letter’s author have a neat, legible, graceful hand, but somehow the idea of modeling a font after the script of an 18th-century ship’s captain—let alone the most famous naval commander of the Revolutionary War—truly piqued my fancy.
Just that last phrase should tell you something. Despite the hundreds of hours required, and all the tedium endured, designing these old pen fonts brings more than just a new addition to folks’ font menus—it sends me on an adventure back through time. I get to read the minds of people from the past as translated via ink onto paper. I get a glimpse of their personalities, not just from the words they chose but their writing style. And brush up on historical turns-of-phrase while I’m at it.
Of course I can’t help but imagine what those bygone days must’ve been like to the people wielding those pens. I put myself, however briefly, in their strange old shoes instead of these trusty sandals.
I’ve already begun the project by researching this famous Scots-born naval commander. His were vastly different times: He took to sea in his early teens, worked on merchant (even slave) ships, killed a mutinous crewman by sword, added “Jones” to his birth name to throw the authorities off his trail upon moving to Virginia, joined the Continental Navy, took command of the USS Bonhomme Richard, and emerged victorious from the legendary Battle of Flamborough Head (which spawned his apocryphal “I have not yet begun to fight!”). He befriended Benjamin Franklin, dined with John and Abigail Adams on multiple occasions, preferred the title Chevalier to Commander, ended his career as an Admiral in Imperial Russia, and died in Paris at age 45.
I found an elucidating mention of Jones in a letter from Abigail Adams to her sister Betsy, dated December 3rd, 1784. Here’s a snippet set in Abigail’s eponymous font:
“We do not often See the Warriour and the Abigail thus united.” Ah, the delightful mental images handwritten letters to sisters leave you with.
It’ll take me a while to make this font, but stay tuned sometime in 2020—perhaps the 228th anniversary of the death of Chevalier Jones.
» What if the handwriting on the wall is cursive? Anything to keep from having to point to pictures on the menu.
» How about this message in a bottle? Or this one? It might seem old-fashioned, but it’s way cooler than a smart phone.
» A 382-year-old family tree: Very old handwriting in China.
» Billy the Kid had great penmanship: The Wild West outlaw’s hand survives in more than one letter to New Mexico’s governor in 1871.
» A Tribute to the Fountain Pen: “No one writes like Abraham Lincoln anymore.”
» More recent famous people do, too: Like Meghan Markle.
» Now you, too, can learn to decipher old handwriting. (Hm, maybe I should consider teaching such a class.)
Last February I released Austin Pen, my 14th typeface simulating real historical handwriting—and my 33rd overall. Soon after, I decided it would be my last original type design. Making a modern font takes hundreds of hours over a span of several months. At least for me it does. Probably I’m slow, or overly painstaking, or merely perfectionistic (considering I’m never entirely satisfied with the end result).
But I’ve reached an age where I feel compelled to spend time creating other things I’d like to make while there’s still time. Which is no doubt why I haven’t polished off a new Antique Penman post since February. I apologize for that.
Just yesterday I got to looking back at Texas Hero, my very first old pen font, which I started working on pretty much exactly 25 years ago. Texas Hero was, I’m pretty sure, the first typeface designed to replicate the look of genuine old handwriting, warts and all. I was new at the font game back then, having made three eclectic faces earlier in 1993. Didn’t know what I was doing at first, and certainly had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I recall one day hunting around for a font that looked like 18th century handwriting—and finding none. For not the first time, I decided to fill a void. My indispensable partner in this enterprise was my late ma, Jeanne R. Willson, a historical librarian who then worked at what is now the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas (my alma mater). I knew she had long studied historical letters and documents and would certainly be able to supply examples of old cursive script.
And she did. I got photocopies of letters from several famous Texans (naturally) dating back to the time of the Republic. I got to see the handwriting of folks like Sam Houston, Mirabeau B. Lamar, Stephen F. Austin, Emily Austin Perry, David Burnet (I think), and Thomas J. Rusk. All their hands were distinctly different—fancy, flowery, bold, intricate, and/or a bit messy—but one had just the balance of legibility and period authenticity: Rusk’s.
When people think of Texas heroes, they don’t usually think of Thomas Jefferson Rusk. But he served as a general at the Battle of San Jacinto, as the fledgling Republic’s first Secretary of War, and in 1846 was elected one of the new state’s first U.S. Senators (the other being Houston). He died in 1857, at age 53, by self-inflicted gunshot wound.
I remember vividly having to look extremely closely at Rusk’s handwriting, getting intimately familiar with his loops and curves, reading and rereading several of his official letters—and one sad, oft-folded lament of the death of his two-year-old namesake son. It was the first of many times I found myself both deeply moved and somehow changed by the words and penmanship of a person who’d died more than a century ago.*
Over the next two and a half decades, I’d go on to replicate the hands of Stephen Austin, his sister Emily, Lamar, and Houston—along with such other famous pen-wielders as Abigail Adams, her son John Quincy, Frederick Douglass, Timothy Matlack (engrosser of the Declaration of Independence) and a few lesser-known writers of old. It all still seems implausible and crazy and sort of wonderful.
And still I think often of the closeness, familiarity, and nuance we stand to lose in this era of keyboards and texting and speech-to-text. We might even end up communicating like we did before the age of literacy: verbally or visually or via smoke signal.
I hold out hope, though, that writing by hand will remain a thing—even if only a sort of calligraphic art form.
*So moved, in fact, that I wrote this novel.
» Handwriting the Constitution: Hand-copying produces “an intimate connection to the text and its meaning.”
» Royal Archives, Hamilton, and King George III: “Pieces of paper with old handwriting on [it].”
» Big Trouble in Canada: “‘I can’t read writing. We didn’t do it in school.’”
» The Magic of Handwriting: I’m truly sorry I missed this exhibition at The Morgan Library & Museum.
» A Tribute to the Fountain Pen: “No one writes like Abraham Lincoln anymore.”
» Apple Patents Handwriting Recognition System: This just seems so wrong.
» The Tragic Death of the Handwritten Message: Survey shows people age 25–34 prefer emojis to words.