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The Antique Penman
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Posts Tagged ‘cursive script’
Looking Back at Texas Hero
Sunday, October 21st, 2018
Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

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 on the death of his son.

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.

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. AustinEmily Austin PerryDavid 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.

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.*

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.


Miscellanea

» 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.

Our Flimsy Digital Words
Sunday, February 11th, 2018
From a letter from my mother as I was designing Texas Hero.

Page of a letter from my ma.

For decades I’ve ranked typing as the most useful class I took back in high school. I hated showing up for this particular summer school elective, my story goes, but by the end of the class I could type 40 words a minute. It was like magic. And now I can type 100.

Well, lately I’ve begun to regret my supreme keyboarding skills.

It took a good while to sink in. But just the other day, during my morning hike with Jack, my dog, the true ramifications hit me. Having somehow reached Retirement Age, I’d been ruminating on the written materials I’ve produced over the past 40 or 50 years, both personal and professional. And it occurred to me that—for the past 30 of those years, anyway—nearly all endure as but flimsy digital words. Many thousands of email messages, hundreds of letters in Microsoft Word, text files cram-packed with thoughts and notes and reflections. Intangible, ethereal. All stored, like thoughts, in memory.

A page from my dad’s diary.

A page from my dad’s Army diary.

Even the drafts and revisions of books I’ve authored abide only in digital form.

These things I’ve written exist on various hard drives, in cloud storage—even a few old Zip drives. Remember floppies? SyQuest disks? I’ve got a few of those squirreled away in boxes somewhere.

Projecting time forward a generation or two, I realized that the chances any of my stuff will stick around long enough to find its way into a historical museum somewhere (not that it should) are paper thin. Because none of it’s on paper. And the only way to get it there is to find a way to translate all those 1s and 0s into computer text and print it out. In any old font you want.

Boooring.

But project time backward a couple generations and, and you’ll find journals and notebooks and postcards and stationery filled with handwritten words. Whether cursive or printing, neat or sloppy, slanted this way or that—each style reflects the unique hand of its author. And none of it was put down at 100 words a minute.

From my grandparents to my great-grandparents, 10/22/1943.

Card from my grandparents to my great-grandparents.

I have handwritten letters from my mother, diaries written by my father, postcards from my grandparents. I recognize their familiar cursive styles on envelopes, on the backs of old photos—photos developed in a darkroom, I mean. There’s probably even an old handwritten recipe collection somewhere.

Yet where does my penmanship appear? On a few old love letters and poems perhaps, in a couple or three decades-old notebooks.

On that hike the other day I decided to pick up a pen more often, to write lists and notes, cards and letters, maybe even fill a notebook. My hand might not be practiced, or cursive, or neat. It might take me a while to get over the hand-cramp. But I expect it’ll mean more to the future reader than a bunch of digital words set in, say, Comic Sans.


Miscellanea

» See? “[A]ll that will be remembered of them is what they typed on a piece of paper from a computer.”

» Turns out this gang of fourth graders are diggin’ cursive these days.

» Some might even (like me!) become experts on deciphering old penmanship.

» But neatness counts: A doctor rediscovers the importance of a legible hand.

» The uniqueness of individual handwriting makes the news again (Roy Moore).

» Random aside: There’s actually a bull named “Penmanship.”

» And, hey, with Valentine’s Day coming, maybe it’s time to write a love letter—by hand.

 

Long Live Longhand! The Upswing in Cursive Handwriting Instruction
Monday, March 6th, 2017
A showing of Geographica Script font.

A showing of Geographica Script.

Are cries of “long live longhand!” being heard? Although I don’t dare declare it so—it’s starting to seem that reports of cursive’s demise are premature.

I am remiss, meanwhile, for not having at least dashed off a little update here on The Penman over the past few months. Instead, I had my head down, working to finish our latest font, Geographica Script, a replication of 18th century roundhand. The task of type design is, for me, a matter of sustained fixation—so many tiny tasks to complete over the course of hours, days, weeks, and (in this case) months. When it comes to font work, I just dive in and go.

Perhaps it’s because elsewhere in my life I tend to procrastinate.

Our Professor font, as it might appear on a blackboard.

Professor, our modern cursive simulation.

But the font is done, and delivered to distributors, and now’s a good time to sit back and ruminate over my odd mission to preserve and make accessible old penmanship styles. It’s a mission I question often. (Is my work in fact having the opposite effect?) But when an early licensee of Geographica Script mentioned his reason for ordering—he’s up in his 70s, has missed the days of longhand, and wants to ensure that his grandchildren can read and appreciate a cursive hand—I remembered one reason I’ve been keeping the discussion alive.

That’s when I ventured a quick scan of recent online mentions of penmanship and handwriting. Lo, there’s been a shift—and the news is encouraging.

For one thing, schools in a few U.S. states have begun requiring handwriting instruction again, instruction not required by the Common Core Standards adopted in 2010. A state rep in Ohio has recently introduced a bill to require students to be proficient in cursive by fifth grade. Arizona has similar legislation on the books already. Louisiana has also begun learn cursive from third through twelfth grade. Education officials in New York City, meantime, are distributing handbooks on handwriting instruction to schools—which have the final say on whether to teach it.

Google image search for “old letters.”

Google image search for “old letters.”

And support for a revival isn’t just coming from older folks lamenting how things used to be. A younger, online crowd is showing an interest in the “ancient” art of hand-lettering. Just google “old letters,” and you’ll get more than 300 million results, and scores of lovely images of vintage script. Ironically, it seems, easy new imaging technology is managing to preserve—perhaps even popularize—that old outdated longhand.

Current typographic trends also show a fascination with loopy cursives. Just check a graphic design site or two, and you’ll see what I mean. Never mind the science that describes cognitive benefits from manipulating pens and pencils—and their tendency to slow you down.

Of course, it’s never wise to underestimate the lament of a grandparent. Nor is it a bad idea to make sure new generations can still read their ancestors’ letters—or even becoming adept at writing that way.

Examples of Library Hand, from A Library Primer (1899).

Examples of Library Hand.

Cataloguers’ Hand

One interesting historical handwriting relic I stumbled over the other day is Library Hand, a style of lettering developed in the late 19th century expressly for card catalogs. At a four-day gathering in 1887, librarians and “cataloguers” sought to standardize what at the time were wildly varying writing styles—not all of them legible.

(“The handwriting of the old-fashioned writing master is quite as illegible as that of the most illiterate boor,” this article in Atlas Obscura quotes from a New York Library School handbook.)

Both near-typewritten and “joined-hand” styles emerged from the 1887 meeting, each painstakingly, nitpickingly standardized. Eventually, of course, typewritten cards took hold—and more recently card catalogs have more or less completely vanished. Lucky for us, reproductions of Library Hand were saved.


Miscellanea

» Praise of the good ol’ handwritten letter (a powerful gesture).

» Appreciation of a good signature, and the history of penmanship.

» Another feature of handwriting (as I’ve mentioned here): it can help diagnose illness.

» Of course it can also shed light on the personality of, let’s say, the POTUS.

» Robots are even trying their mechanical hand at, well, handwriting (good luck with that).

» With longhand making something of a comeback, how will you do in this cursive quiz?


Abigail Adams American Scribe Botanical Scribe Douglass Pen Emily Austin Houston Pen

Lamar Pen Military Scribe Old Man Eloquent Remsen Script Schooner Script Texas Hero

Antiquarian Antiquarian Scribe Bonnycastle Geographica Terra Ignota

Attic Antique Bonsai Broadsheet Castine

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