Old penmanship and handwriting fonts
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The Antique Penman
     H O M E  
  F A Q  
Posts Tagged ‘old handwriting’
The Pen of John Paul Jones
Monday, August 19th, 2019
Sample of John Paul Jones’s penmanship

A sample of the handwriting of John Paul Jones.

Not very long ago I announced that Austin Pen (released a year and a half ago) would be my last original font. Just kidding!

O.K., I wasn’t kidding at all at the time—but I’ve changed my mind.

What prompted my reconsideration was an out-of-the-blue query by a U.S. Navy Chief about the possibility of modeling a font after the handwriting of America’s first naval hero, John Paul Jones. He included a link to a three-page letter Jones wrote in 1779, now in the digital archives of the U.S. Naval Academy.

Not only did the letter’s author have a neat, legible, graceful hand, but somehow the idea of modeling a font after the script of an 18th-century ship’s captain—let alone the most famous naval commander of the Revolutionary War—truly piqued my fancy.

Chevalier John Paul Jones.

Commander John Paul Jones.

Just that last phrase should tell you something. Despite the hundreds of hours required, and all the tedium endured, designing these old pen fonts brings more than just a new addition to folks’ font menus—it sends me on an adventure back through time. I get to read the minds of people from the past as translated via ink onto paper. I get a glimpse of their personalities, not just from the words they chose but their writing style. And brush up on historical turns-of-phrase while I’m at it.

Of course I can’t help but imagine what those bygone days must’ve been like to the people wielding those pens. I put myself, however briefly, in their strange old shoes instead of these trusty sandals.

I’ve already begun the project by researching this famous Scots-born naval commander. His were vastly different times: He took to sea in his early teens, worked on merchant (even slave) ships, killed a mutinous crewman by sword, added “Jones” to his birth name to throw the authorities off his trail upon moving to Virginia, joined the Continental Navy, took command of the USS Bonhomme Richard, and emerged victorious from the legendary Battle of Flamborough Head (which spawned his apocryphal “I have not yet begun to fight!”). He befriended Benjamin Franklin, dined with John and Abigail Adams on multiple occasions, preferred the title Chevalier to Commander, ended his career as an Admiral in Imperial Russia, and died in Paris at age 45.

I found an elucidating mention of Jones in a letter from Abigail Adams to her sister Betsy, dated December 3rd, 1784. Here’s a snippet set in Abigail’s eponymous font:

A snippet of Abigail Adams’s impressions of John Paul Jones (set in  Abigail Adams).


“We do not often See the Warriour and the Abigail thus united.”
Ah, the delightful mental images handwritten letters to sisters leave you with.

It’ll take me a while to make this font, but stay tuned sometime in 2020—perhaps the 228th anniversary of the death of Chevalier Jones.


Miscellanea

» What if the handwriting on the wall is cursive? Anything to keep from having to point to pictures on the menu.

» How about this message in a bottle? Or this one? It might seem old-fashioned, but it’s way cooler than a smart phone.

» A 382-year-old family tree: Very old handwriting in China.

» Billy the Kid had great penmanship: The Wild West outlaw’s hand survives in more than one letter to New Mexico’s governor in 1871.

» A Tribute to the Fountain Pen: “No one writes like Abraham Lincoln anymore.”

» More recent famous people do, too: Like Meghan Markle.

» Now you, too, can learn to decipher old handwriting. (Hm, maybe I should consider teaching such a class.)

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.”

 

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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