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!)
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 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.
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.
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.
“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.]
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.