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The text face used here (as well as elsewhere) is Broadsheet™. The home page letters are set in Emily Austin™ & Lamar Pen™. All typefaces referenced on this website—Abigail Adams™, American Scribe™, Antiquarian™, Antiquarian Scribe™, Attic Antique™, Austin Pen™, Bonhomme Richard™, Bonsai™, Botanical Scribe™, Broadsheet™, Castine™, Douglass Pen™, Emily Austin™, Geographica™, Geographica Hand™, Geographica Script™, Houston Pen™, Lamar Pen™, Military Scribe™, Old Man Eloquent™, Remsen Script™, Schooner Script™, Terra Ignota™ & Texas Hero™ (as well as all other fonts in the Handwritten History™ Bundle)—are the intellectual property of Three Islands Press (copyright ©1994–2015). For site licensing contact:

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Posts Tagged ‘handwritten history’
Power of the Pen: The Handwriting Connection
Monday, August 24th, 2015
Bonnycastle font under development.

In progress: Bonnycastle

Lately I’ve been tackling a type design project that marks something of a change of pace for me. As usual, this font is inspired by hand lettering, but it’s a more formal, titling sort of face. Bonnycastle is inspired by the legends on the maps and drawings of Sir Richard Henry Bonnycastle (1791–1847), an English officer who served in the War of 1812 and ended up settling in Canada. A military engineer, Sir Bonnycastle left behind some interesting historical materials—and even wrote a couple books (such as Canada and the Canadians).

Love letter from Johnny Cash

Love letter from Johnny Cash.

So, technically, yes, the source material is handwritten, but it’s not handwriting—something these days I seem always to have on the brain.

Because lately I’ve also been thinking about the power of the pen. And I don’t mean in the traditional sense of the phrase—not written content, not literature, not “the pen is mightier than the sword”—but the kind of extra gut-punch you get when reading someone’s words as put down by their very own hands and fingers.

My go-to example of this: “Victory or Death,” a powerful enough message when printed, reaches a whole nother level when you notice that young Colonel Buck Travis, writing a fortnight before he died at the Alamo, has underscored those words three times. But less dramatic, more recent, more intimate examples will likewise move the reader.

Note from Paul McCartney

Note from Paul McCartney.

I’m thinking in particular of a letter from Johnny Cash to his wife, June Carter Cash, that appears in House of Cash (by son John Carter Cash) and has been circulated widely online. Who knew John Cash had such stylish hand-printing, with its consistent tilt and distinctively double-looped “I”? I notice that Cash, like me, had taken to using a two-story “a,” and that the tails on his “y” and “g” tend to curve to the right. It seems easy to match his hand with his on-stage persona, his flair. As cute as his endearing “Princess,” to me, is his little cross-out of the extraneous “y” at the end of “ever.” Typewritten or sent via email, such a love note wouldn’t carry anywhere near the soul.

Decided to hunt around and see what the handwriting of other musicians looked like, and I happened on a Christie’s auction lot, a letter by Paul McCartney to surrealist Desmond Morris, written in 1987 after McCartney’s wife Linda had purchased Morris’s painting “The Survivors.” It’s a brief letter, written on Blossom Wood Farm stationery in a dashed-off upright hand. The former Beatle’s style is a connected cursive, nothing fancy (although the double-stacked “c”s in his surname are interesting)—really, the kind of casual, modern handwriting you might see every day. What stands apart about McCartney’s note is how he closes with a couple of doodled portraits, apparently representing himself and Linda. They’re good. They attest to his creativity, suggest that it comes pretty easy for him, and hint at a personality people have seen since the ’60s—McCartney’s playful air. To doodle, of course, you need a pen or pencil.

Emily Dickinson’s hand

Emily Dickinson’s hand.

Googled around a bit more and found samples of the penmanship of a couple of well-known American writers, Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) and Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961).

The handwriting of the 19th-century poet and the 20th-century author could hardly be less similar. Dickinson, a famous introvert and recluse, wrote in a large semi-scrawl that seems almost impossibly loose and airy (a fact that’s prompted a number of handwriting analyses). Her words are not only widely spaced but often separated further by small, peculiar dashes. Her “C,” “A,” and “W” are open and round, but the crosses on her “t”s are like sword slashes, angling viciously down. Although mostly unpublished in her lifetime, Dickinson’s poetry was for the period experimental and expressive and free—in keeping with her hand. But it could also seem intense, probing, and open-ended. Looking at her striking script, I can imagine why one of her correspondents, literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, might’ve written, upon finally meeting Dickinson, that he’d never been “with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”

Ernest Hemingway’s handwriting

Hemingway’s handwriting.

Hemingway’s handwriting is peculiar in a different way: compact, loopy, legible—and composed along a precipitous slant. In this letter on Cuban stationery dated 20 February 1948, Papa’s loopiness is so profuse that you get the idea that his pen is simply making lines of tight, close circles, from his curvy “f”s to his rounded double “t”s—check out the words “getting” and “little”—to the curls of his “g”s and “y”s. And those “t”s are crossed just barely, very high on the circular stems. By contest, note Hemingway’s straight, vertical parentheses, or parenthetical dividers, separating his aside about Uncle Wolfie, the dead gray cat. What’s that about? (And did he really spell “gray” two ways?) Finally, those sloping lines! I thought perhaps they were an aberration, perhaps due to having to write on a cramped surface, but I found plenty of other examples of Hemingway’s slant. Everything travels downhill—until the very bottom of the page, where he has to sneak a few words above the edge of the paper.

Letter from Isaac Newton

Letter from Isaac Newton.

But even going back centuries you can feel an intimate connection to handwritten words that’s impossible via typeset text. Composed along a gentler (and opposite) slant than Hemingway’s is a letter by Sir Isaac Newton to Dr. William Briggs, written on 20 June 1682 and beginning, “I have perused [your] very ingenious Theory of Vision.” Despite its obvious age and the spread of the ink from the quill, the lines are so straight and the words dashed off with such seeming confidence that at once you get a mental picture of this 17th-century thinker as if he’d sat at his writing desk no more than a decade ago—not 333 years. There’s a clear personality here.

Try this out. Below is a note written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, written to longtime friend and correspondent Charlotte von Stein a hundred years after Newton’s letter. Even if you can’t interpret the words, isn’t this collection of strokes and curves (ending with a great “G”) more evocative of their polymath author than if you were staring at a text-only representation of the original German?

Collectors of such bits of history understand. Heck, autograph seekers abound. But how ironic it is that there’s something so intangibly powerful about reading words actually written by hand.

Note from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Note from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.


» Finnish schools to phase out handwriting.

» Then again, calls to bring it back are growing louder.

» And then there’s handwriting’s reflection of character.

» Surely handwritten thank-you notes are powerful, like Taylor Swift’s

» …or even this old hand-printed one from golfing phenom Jordan Spieth.

Handwritten History: Mustering the Tenth of Foot
Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015
Military Scribe, a vintage handwriting font.

Military Scribe.

Historians solve puzzles by reading multiple clues. Their job is to interpret information gleaned from manifold sources—archaeological discoveries, ancient books, newspaper archives, boring old handwritten records—and come up with as accurate a narrative as they can of a particular time, place, event.

Sounds like a rather dry, academic pursuit—but is it really?

Heck, my devoted ma spent time as a historical librarian—and even I have only yet begun to appreciate the allure. Turns out those old handwritten records aren’t as boring as they might first appear.

Take my latest historical typeface, just released—a font I call Military Scribe. The inspiration came from a group of digitized military records from the 1770s sent to me by a friend and correspondent: muster rolls of the Tenth Regiment of Foot, a unit of British soldiers who fought on American soil in the early days of the Revolutionary War.

Compact, legible 18th century script.

Compact, legible script.

Muster rolls. Lists of names of Englishmen, surrounded by dates and contractual boilerplate. Routine records written at a desk in an office somewhere by obscure military clerks who knew how to wield a pen.

I had about fifty pages to work with, spanning 1774 to 1779 and drafted by at least three or four different scribes. Right away I decided to concentrate on the work of one penman in particular—a clerk from the earlier part of the period with a particularly legible, compact hand—with some help from the script of another who wrote with a little more flair. The former seemed to take his job seriously, wrote legibly while cramming a lot in; the latter I took for a bit of a dandy, someone who might’ve stopped to admire what he’d written.

Fancier 18th century script.

Fancier script.

What I do involves looking very closely at strokes and curves and shapes while also contemplating things at arm’s length. Mired in this kind of study, I can’t help but get a feel for the personalities of these people. And then the mind plays a sort of trick, and the years sort of slough away, and “history” starts to seem like a year or two ago.

First are the names of the men of the Tenth of Foot. A few sound old and peculiar, like Bartholomew Haycock or a soldier named William Frapwell, but I think I met Frank Cooper and John Marshall at a party. Then come the verbs that appear next to the names—“transferred,” “discharged,” “sick,” “deserted,” “died.” You start to get a feel for the time and place and people.

18th century dittos

18th century dittos.

Invariably you learn things. From the rosters of the Tenth of Foot I found out that the British spelling of sergeant was “serjeant” until about a half-century ago. I also learned that, in handwritten history, the term “ditto” was as serviceable 240 years ago as it is today—and that “do” was an acceptable abbreviation. In fact, I learned so many new abbreviations for names that I included a few in the font.

But one name in particular caught my eye, a captain named Mundy Pole. I’d never heard the name before and had to make sure I was reading it right and googled the fellow—and come to find out he played a role in the famous events of April 1775 in and around Concord, Massachusetts.

Mention of Capt. Mundy Pole on a muster roll.

Mention of Capt. Mundy Pole.

“Captain Mundy Pole of the Tenth Regiment with one hundred men had been detailed by Lieut.-Col. Smith for guard duty at the South Bridge. He was also instructed to destroy any public stores that he might find in that vinicity.” —The Battle of April 19 1775, by Frank Warren Coburn (1912)

[My listing of Capt. Pole is from later that year.]

And this discovery got me researching other old accounts of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—one of the most interesting coming in the latter pages of the Massachusetts Historical Society’s copy of General Gage’s Instructions of 22d February 1775. Captain Pole is mentioned there, too. Check it out.

Historical re-enactors still faithfully recreate this expedition of the Tenth of Foot—the grenadiers and light infantry units who were among the first to come face to face with the “rebel” militias and Minutemen of inland Massachusetts, scene of Emerson’s “shot heard round the world.”

But no one writes muster rolls by hand anymore, I’m pretty sure.


» Beautiful old love letters in a box.

» Century-old chalkboards found preserved in Oklahoma.

» The power of a handwritten letter from Dad.

» New pen designs are still a thing.

Military Scribe font

Military Scribe font

Abigail Adams American Scribe Austin Pen Bonhomme Richard 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

Geographica Hand Terra Ignota Attic Antique Bonsai Broadsheet Castine

Historical Pens Old Map Fonts Texas Heroes Set Geographica Set Antique Texts Modern Hands

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