Today, here in the U. S. of A., some celebrate National Handwriting Day.
The first National Handwriting Day happened in 1977, thanks to some folks with a stake in the practice—the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association—who decided to celebrate penmanship on the 240th birthday of John Hancock, famed signatory of the Declaration of Independence. Not a bad idea.
In the four decades since, of course, a plethora of keyboards and smartphones and tablets has rendered penmanship more of a hobbyist’s pursuit. Not unlike taking pictures with now-old-fashioned film cameras. People don’t practice it, schools don’t teach it, and kids wouldn’t know how to decipher cursive script if their lives depended on it. Never mind that it’s actually good for you.
Even yours truly, who has black ballpoints scattered handily around the house on nearly every desk and table, rarely writes more than to-do lists these days. Some Antique Penman I am.
John Hancock’s penmanship
And guess what? It turns out laments over the lost art of handwriting are nothing new. As a TIME article yesterday by points out, teachers of penmanship deplored the death of fine pen strokes way back in 1935, more than forty years before the first National Handwriting Day. The trend toward bad handwriting also made the news in 1947, again in the early ’50s, and throughout the ’60s and ’70s. But most of that 20th century hue and cry came over the death of good handwriting—not the extinction of any kind of handwriting at all.
As I’ve opined here before, it’s not the beauty of the script that most counts—it’s its far less critical, less tangible qualities. Its heaviness or airiness, its intricacy or loopiness or slant. What it says about the writer. Its familiarity to someone.
Emanuella Grinberg, writing today for CNN, outlines studies that show how learning—and practicing—handwriting benefits the mind and body, not only for children but for grown-ups like you and me. It seems printing and longhand even exercise different areas of the brain. Grinberg also observes:
While we’re not aware of scientific evidence supporting the warm feeling of receiving a handwritten thank you card or love letter, anecdotal evidence suggests there’s something there.
My dad writes home from basic training
Now, see, this is what I’m talking about.
Think of the subtle, complex, even visceral effect you get when first viewing a note card or sheet of stationery that someone far away has held, and has written on, has strung together words that communicate sentiments meant only and particularly for you. Think also of the secret knowledge on the part of the note- or letter-writer of how what they write will affect their distant pen pal. Think, too—maybe especially, in this word of instant communication—of the span of time between the writing and the reading.
In a piece today for International Business Times, William Watkinson lists a few examples of what handwriting says about a person: heavy vs. light pressure, the shapes and sizes of letters, their wide or narrow spacing. In the process of developing my historical pen fonts, I’ve read so many letters of well-known historical figures that I’ve seen a lot of these graphological clues—e.g., the large, airy penmanship of Sam Houston, the fancy script of Mirabeau B. Lamar, the scrawl of Emily Austin Perry. I’ve studied ink blots and cross-outs and what I’m convinced are the marks of tear drops.
Sam Houston writes to Chief John Linney
But what I cannot do is divine how it felt for the recipients of these missives to read their authors’ handwritten words. Recipients like Shawnee Chief John Linney. Or the husband of Emily Perry.
There’s a distinct difference between reading a novel on a tablet screen and reading a perfect-bound book. I’d argue there’s even a greater difference between reading a handwritten note left hours or days before and an email message sent thirty seconds ago. A difference—a warm feeling—that’s akin to magic.
» Um, contrariwise, here’s a robotic handwriting service—which is not exactly what I’m talking about.
[30 Oct 2019 update: The original link went dead, so I’ve inserted a link to another such service.]
» Ever hear of “penmanship porn”? (It’s actually kind of cool.)
» Australian parents emphasize handwriting.
» A century-old box in the cornerstone of a Kansas City school reveals penmanship of bygone days.