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The Antique Penman
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Posts Tagged ‘cursive’
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.

My Cursive Handwriting Sucks
Sunday, September 17th, 2017
My cursive handwriting test.

My cursive handwriting test.

A confession: my cursive handwriting sucks. I write by hand so rarely these days, and when I do, it tends to come out as a sort of stylized printing I forced on myself thirty or forty years ago. So I just tried writing a few short cursive sentences on an index card to see what it looks like.

Yeah, it sucks. In fact, I couldn’t even remember how to write a capital “T.”

Alas, I’m not alone. What got me testing out my cursive today was a recent news item about how Cambridge University educators are considering dropping their handwritten exam requirement—after more than 800 years. The problem being that the faculty is having trouble reading students’ handwriting.

18th-century penmanship from Kentucky County, Virginia.

18th-century penmanship from Kentucky County, Virginia.

“There has definitely been a downward trend,” says history lecturer Sarah Pearsall. “It is difficult for both the students and the examiners, as it is harder and harder to read these scripts.”

Bummer.

A Need for Speed

But I’ve long predicted this. Our smart digital devices are feeding our need for speed when it comes to all forms of communication. I mean, let’s face it: it takes a lot longer to write a thank-you note by hand than to tap out a text with your thumbs. Sure, taking the time to learn cursive might be good for your brain, your manual dexterity, and your memory, but first-world humans just prefer living in the fast lane these days, apparently.

The handwriting of Meriwether Lewis

The handwriting of Meriwether Lewis.

This got me wondering (not for the first time) how things might change if the grid goes down. Say a computer virus, an asteroid, a natural (or nuclear) disaster, solar flares, or Siri Personified takes us all offline in an instant. How will we communicate over long distances in such a post-apocalyptic scenario? Well, I reckon we’ll have to go back to scribbling out notes using charcoal on birch bark and handing them to a courier, who will deliver them to our remote recipient in person. And I can imagine the dismay on the face of our correspondent who can’t read a word we’ve written.

“Return to Sender. Illegible.”

Learn by Doing

Perhaps at the very least it’s worth practicing—if not your cursive—your hand-printing every now and then. Maybe by jotting down a grocery list, composing a thank-you note by hand, or authoring an actual letter, inserting it into an envelope, and dropping it in the U.S. Mail. I daresay pen makers and the U.S. Postal Service will appreciate it, as will your recipients. So long as they can read your writing.

The irony is that, during the decades of the decline of my penmanship, I’ve taught myself to decipher various styles of cursive handwriting from centuries gone by. And you can bet there’ll be someone with similar skills to help us out centuries from now:

“Siri, read me that old cursive letter.”


Miscellanea

» Cursive makes you smarter: a wonderful essay about all this stuff.

» Another articulate argument for not scrapping handwriting instruction.

» To heck with handwriting recognition: recognizing handwriting is a moving experience.

» Geneva, Ohio, honors the master penman who created Spencerian Script.

» Yes, truly exercising the brain sometimes takes a little time.

» On the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, a graphologist reveals a few secrets.

» Finally, Darick “DDS” Spears has released a new hip hop album called “Penmanship.”

 

My Case for Cursive
Sunday, July 23rd, 2017
My own peculiar hybrid of printing and cursive.

My own peculiar hybrid of printing and cursive.

We humans are lazy. We’re always looking for a shortcut, an easier method, a faster way. We aspire to achieve a sort of wizardry, the ability to change our environment with a thought, a word, a wave of our hand. Witness Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod—our wish is their command.

Trouble is, the easiest way is rarely the most rewarding. If I’d brought home a store-bought birdhouse instead of building one myself, the first flight of those fledglings wouldn’t have thrilled me so. If I planned my bicycling routes to avoid all hills, I wouldn’t have such an excellent resting heart rate. If I’d decided to stay cozy instead of hiking that hill in a snowstorm, I would’ve missed that Snowy Owl.

Recently I stumbled on a blog post whining about a growing interest in preserving the “lost art” of cursive handwriting. In this world of swift, silent keyboards, the blogger thought it crazy that anyone would want to revert to such a slow, tedious, old-fashioned mode of communication. “We have machines to do this stuff for us now,” he wrote. Of course, this blogger’s (rather ill-written) diatribe reminded me of a slew of arguments in my case for cursive. Here are three.

Detail of a handwritten letter from my ma.

Detail of a handwritten letter from my ma.

Purposefulness

Making time to put pen to paper slows your thought processes, giving you time to edit those sentences before you write them down. Without the ease of digital deletion, you tend to get more words right, first time. Because you know ahead of time that the task will take a while, you’re not so prone to speeding headlong through your composition. A dashed-off email is a completely different beast from a handwritten letter: the act of writing by hand is far more contemplative, more deliberate. You’ll find it more relaxing, too, and will be happier with the result—that is, at least, my well-considered opinion.

A page of Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

A page of Stephen F. Austin’s prison diary.

Personalness

Write a letter by hand, put it in an envelope, address the envelope, and send it to a friend or loved one through the U.S. Mail. You know, the way they used to do in bygone days. I guarantee your recipient will be thrilled to find an old-style letter in their pile of computer-generated snail mail—especially if this person recognizes your handwriting. And chances are good (if you’re like me, anyway) that your handwritten letter will become a keepsake, outliving even you and your friend or loved one. I have scores of handwritten letters from my mother (an epistolary champion who eschewed newfangled word processors), but only a handful from my dad (an early computer enthusiast).

Regular and “blot” styles of Austin Pen.

Regular and “blot” styles of Austin Pen.

Playfulness

If you’re still unconvinced, what better way to send private messages to your intrigue-loving kids than by teaching them to read and write in cursive? Few these days will manage to decipher your secret code. (And your kids will forever be able to read those old family keepsakes without having to consult an expert.)

Even if you don’t mind cutting corners now and then, consider this: using cursive actually takes less time than printing—now considered “handwriting” by most people who still use pens and pencils.

Update on Austin Pen

The particular penmanship I’ve been studying these days, of course, belonged to Stephen F. Austin. Slowly and surely, letter by letter, Austin Pen takes shape. And I’m excited to be creating an alternate “blot” alphabet—one that’ll replicate the look of an over-inked pen. I’m still deciding whether to add this as an OpenType stylistic alternate or a separate font. Stay tuned!


Miscellanea

» A graphologist claims to be able to tell whether you’re a Great Briton.

» Read a thoughtful, lovely tribute to the charm of a handwritten letter.

» Get a look at Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence.

» Huzzah! for the “groundswell of support” for bringing back cursive.

» Here’s news of some interesting old manuscripts discovered in New Zealand.

» I’m inevitably moved by any celebration of handwritten communication.


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

Full Library Historical Pens Antique Texts Old Map Fonts Modern Hands

Handwritten History Bundle


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