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!)
It’s been two months since I’ve posted any musings here. (My apologies.) That horrifying fact occurred to me this morning—after several weeks of distracting, time-consuming work on a wholly different project—when I realized I’d missed National Handwriting Day, celebrated on the birthday of John Hancock, who was born 278 years ago yesterday.
I spent dozens of hours staring at a copy of the Declaration of Independence while working on my American Scribe font back in 2003, yet I have no memory of seeing the signature of a man named Button.
Not until I listened recently to a Radiolab podcast [aside: if you haven’t listened to Radiolab, you must] that featured Gwinnett did I have any recollection of his name at all.
And yet—as Radiolab explains—his is the most valuable signature of them all. That’s because he died in a duel soon after the Declaration was signed. And rich people like to collect all those signatures.
Stream-of-consciousness took me then to those fifty-six Declaration signatures, and the early American leaders who wrote each other letters in longhand—it seems just about every day. And their handwriting, which I’ve looked at from time to time.
George Washington to the Ministers of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church.
Thomas Jefferson’s, for instance, which doesn’t seem very distinctive, rather a small, utilitarian hand. In fact, I found this quote of Jefferson’s, from a letter he wrote to his grandson:
[T]ake pains at the same time to write a neat round, plain hand, and you will find it a great convenience through life to write a small & compact hand as well as a fair & legible one.
Of course Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration contrasts sharply with the famous, finely engrossed version by Timothy Matlack.
Let’s see, who else? How about James Madison? Not a Declaration signer, but an early leader and president. Well, again, nothing too fancy—his handwriting seemingly dashed out in a hell of a hurry, and not overly legible, much like Benjamin Franklin’s.
John Hancock, extract from Journals of Congress, 1776.
Hancock himself definitely rocked a stylish brand of cursive, even when he wasn’t sending a message to the King of England: bold, dark, with a confident flourish.
As for Button Gwinnett—not much of his penmanship survived the destruction of Savannah in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Still, he had a neatly stylish signature.
Stream-of-consciousness now carries me away to thoughts of our current crop of movers-and-shakers. Just how many of them write by hand at all?
A couple hundred years from now, what subtle clues will people of the future have into the personalities of our long-dead generation? Must they simply go by YouTube videos?
One thing’s sure: there’s a lot more than written communication going on as we manually string letters and words together, applying subtle pressures with a pen.