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!)
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.
Thomas J. Rusk’s lament.
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.
Emily Austin Perry’s hand.
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.
Frederick Douglass’s penmanship.
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.*
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.
Immediately upon awakening this morning, August 1, I spoke the words “rabbit rabbit” to my dog. I can’t remember how I learned of this superstition—that uttering those two words first thing on the first of any month will assure you good luck for all its days—but I’ve remembered to do it nearly every month for years.
Of course I don’t believe it’s a guarantee of luck. It’s more of a memory test. Deep down I’m more of a rational sort of guy.
That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in magic—there are miracles everywhere. But they come in the form of the births of baby animals, the cries of northern loons, the emergence of plants from seed, or the rare and evocative aroma of petrichor. I don’t do pseudoscience, though. You won’t find tinfoil headwear on my hat rack.
Detail of a letter written by U.S. Lt. Daniel Ruggles from Mexico home to his wife.
The pseudoscience of graphology—a.k.a., handwriting analysis—has been around a good while. Supposedly a trained graphologist can, from simply studying handwriting samples, describe personalities, diagnose mental (or physical) illnesses, even tell the sex of a pregnant writer’s child. No. Nope. Uh-uh. That stuff’s just parlor games.
But having closely studied scores of the letters and journals and diaries of famous (and not-so-famous) people of the past, I do see in penmanship evidence of mood, of age, of temperament. There’s a connection between handwriting and personality. A thoughtful soul might write more neatly. A wallflower might write small. Older hands will tremble more. A hothead might write messily, an egoist large.
Below, for your consideration, is my brief appraisal of the penmanship of a dozen people whom, for one or another reason, I’ve come to know—and whose personalities and handwriting seem to agree. (Click on any image for a larger view.)
Two hundred forty-one years ago, a tiny fraction of the planet’s population knew how to write, and many who did made a living at it—as did the scribe who kept records for the British military at a time of unrest in the American colonies. This particular clerk (whose hand gave rise to Military Scribe) was painstaking, scrupulous, neat, exacting. I imagine a man who spent a lot of time alone at a desk in The Penmanship Zone. Smart, disciplined, tidy. A person who was frugal with ink and paper, and who embraced the mission at hand: of keeping a legible accounting of important matters for future reading.
From historical records we know that Timothy Matlack was a Quaker, an abolitionist, a judge, a soldier—and a master penman whose careful roundhand engrossed perhaps the most famous American document (and inspired American Scribe). He was hired to do the job, a job he clearly took seriously. From his straight, clean, legible script, its compact letterspacing and narrow linespacing, I imagine a serious person, a thoughtful person, a man with strength of mind and strong convictions. Matlack died at 99 years old.
Although our first second lady and second first lady had no formal education, her mother (a Massachusetts Quincy) homeschooled her on reading, writing, and ’rithmatic. From her voluminous writings (mostly in the form of letters to her husband, John), it’s clear Abigail Adams was highly intelligent, curious, engaged, insightful, and philosophical. I.e., she was a brilliant thinker, correspondent, confidante. She also had to take care of business back home while her husband was off doing political things. Mrs. Adams’s untidy, disconnected cursive (immortalized in our Abigail Adams font) was clearly dashed off in a hurry, which—along with her creative spelling (not uncommon in those days)—actually makes a lot of sense: here was someone with a message to get across, never mind insignificant details. Her hand suggests a doer, a talker, a communicator, one not so concerned about style as content.
Abigail’s son, John—the sixth U.S. president—was an orator, a diplomat, from youth a traveler (who spoke numerous languages), a politician, a negotiator, an abolitionist, and a famous diarist. For nearly 70 years he kept a daily diary. You can flip virtually through its pages at the Massachusetts Historical Society’s highly engaging website, where right away you’ll notice Adams’s upright, bold, legible, loopy hand (Old Man Eloquent is our interpretation). I imagine John Quincy got some of his communication skills from his mother, but his handwriting seems far more disciplined, more plodding, more firm, more straight-and-narrow. I see some obsessiveness there (nearly 70 years, every day?), and a very slight slant. I see fairness, equality, conscientiousness, formality, and an almost classical attention to detail.
Years ago I found a three-page letter in a local antique shop, a letter written by the pastor of the Congregational Church in Princeton, Massachusetts, appealing for donations for a family whose belongings were lost at sea. (The graceful script, in fact, compelled me to make Schooner Script.) I know of Samuel Clarke, the pastor, only from this single bit of history, now going on 200 years old—but from his handwriting’s consistent slant, its long descenders, its curly loops and airy linespacing, I gather Samuel was careful (i.e., full of care), generous, a little formal, perhaps, but also full of grace and attentive to decorum. I envision sermons partly down-to-earth and partly lofty, with a flourish or two. I can almost hear the music of the choir.
Hero of the Battle of San Jacinto, first president of Texas, and one of the new state’s inaugural U.S. senators, Sam Houston is one of those larger-than-life characters from history. His handwriting, too, was large (see Houston Pen), with ample space between its lines and characters. Houston seems also to have written swiftly but with a certain grace and aplomb—in keeping with the self-assured leader that he was. (He’s the only person who served as governor of two states, Tennessee and Texas.) His script is forceful, declarative, almost principled. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that he was a friend (and blood brother) of America’s natives when many of his fellow Texans wanted to drive them out of the territory—or that, in vain, he opposed secession, while Texas joined the CSA. And it might be said he also wielded a noble pen.
I modeled Texas Hero, our first historical penmanship font, after the handwriting of Thomas J. Rusk, unquestionably a heroic early Texan. I chose his hand because it was typical of the period, comparatively legible, not too fancy or plain. Similarly, Rusk himself seemed regular, dependable, and sober. He moved his family from South Carolina to Mexican Texas, joined his fellow settlers in opposing Mexican hostility, fought bravely under Houston at San Jacinto. Rusk served as the new republic’s first Secretary of War, got more votes than Houston as one of the new state’s first two senators, carried on through various personal losses until the end—when illness and his wife’s death drove him to suicide. A good font, a good man.
Perhaps the most popular face in our “Texas Heroes” collection, Lamar Pen is an interpretation of the stylish hand of a man with a stylish name, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar. Lamar grew up in Georgia as a reader and writer, a poet and newspaper man. He entered politics at an early age—but then lost his wife and brother, and set off to see the world to assuage his grief, arriving in Texas just in time to join Houston and Rusk at San Jacinto. He, too, fought bravely (famously even coming to the rescue of Rusk) and ended up first vice president under Houston. From there things went south, though, as he and Houston clashed on several matters: he ordered attacks against the Cherokee and Comanche, resulting in the massacre of women and children, and opposed the annexation of Texas by the United States. I read in Lamar’s strong, if stylish, hand a man both bossy and emotional, full of righteousness, used to getting his way—albeit someone who also valued higher education. (He is credited for allotting land for school development statewide.)
As you might gather from her eponymous font, Emily Margaret Austin Bryan Perry—sole heir of her brother Stephen F. Austin—was a brave, determined, spunky, busy pioneer woman. She was also one of the richest women in Texas, and plenty adept at managing her ample fortunes (never mind that men had to sign all contracts, and it’d be generations until women won the right to vote). From her small, distinctive script, which made good use of the margins of a page, you might gather she was frugal, thrifty, and meticulous. Spelling didn’t matter as much as accuracy and clarity. Traveling with her daughter, Mrs. Perry wrote many a missive home to Peach Point Plantation, essentially passing along fresh gossip and listing chores she wanted done. But she was reportedly a beloved matriarch to family and servants (i.e., slaves). And it’s not hard to find in her chatty scrawl a mother hen.
Orator, statesman, abolitionist, Frederick Douglass stands among the most distinguished of Americans. His gift of words, of communicating grand ideas and fostering great social change, is surpassed by few. As you might gather from his handwriting (replicated in Douglass Pen)—a neat, balanced, legible, utilitarian hand. You can see from the even spacing, from the letterforms dense but clear, that here was a person who placed importance on each sentence. The pace of the writing seems even, not rushed, but steady—stately, even. The script seems fair and controlled, neither tentative nor dashed off in anger. Here was someone who placed value on the written word (as he also did photography), and who expected his own to be read and heard and thought about. As they are still, nearly two centuries after he was born a slave on the Chesapeake Bay.
A. Leslie Willson
A. Leslie Willson (my father, diary entry, 1946).
Much closer in time—just 70 years ago—a young man named Leslie Willson kept a daily diary. Maybe not as obsessively as John Quincy Adams, but nearly so. His legible Palmer Method cursive has a consistent slant, with open loops and pointy “p”s. Even if you ignore the words, you can see a sort of artistic evenness in this handwriting style; there’s a clear attention to stroke and placement. The script easy to read and pleasant to look at—important factors when your mission is communication. It’s what you might call “nice handwriting.” This man was a nice man and a communicator. A writer, a poet, a teacher, a translator—and one who wrote pretty much exactly the same on into his 80s. I know, because Leslie Willson was my father. (Dad thought it a hoot that I modeled Professor after his hand.)
Jeanne Willson (my mother, letter from 1993).
Finally, here’s a sample of the handwriting of my mother, then in her late 60s. Mom was an inveterate letter writer, a correspondent extraordinaire. (John and Abigail Adams were among her heroes.) In fact, her handwriting looks a little larger than usual here: she filled pages of smallish stationery with compact lines of her distinctive curly script, although these seemed to loosen up as she grew older. They used to be straighter, too—you can see the sort of ups and downs of age. Mom’s handwriting, while meticulous, is not as legible as my dad’s. (I remember as a kid being unable to read her signature.) But it seems to be that way to encourage study, to ask for a commitment of time and attention. Perhaps written by a quiet-voiced person with a lot of big things to show and tell and say. The script, perhaps, of a historical librarian. (And my mother was a very good one.) I have no plans to make a font of it—perhaps because I love this handwriting most of all.