Some of the historical figures whose penmanship I’ve replicated over the years were true heroes—like Frederick Douglass (abolitionist, statesman, orator, and inspiration for Douglass Pen). But some also had a shady side. For instance, most of those whose hands inspired my Texas Heroes Font Set owned slaves; then again both Sam Houston (Houston Pen) and Thomas J Rusk (Texas Hero), Texas’s first two U.S. Senators, opposed secession from the Union.
Bonhomme Richard, my latest, just-released old pen font, is modeled after the fine cursive script of John Paul Jones, who happens to fall into the latter category. On the one hand, he was the hero of one of the earliest and most famous U.S. naval engagements, the Battle of Flamborough Head; on the other, Jones demonstrated something of a disagreeable nature, leading to lifelong disputes, accusations, and clashes with authority.
As a Scottish youth named John Paul, Jones went to sea, sailed the Atlantic on merchant and slave ships, and worked his way up to ship’s master—albeit with an apparent affinity for violent leadership. He spent time in jail for flogging a crew member who died as a result, and later he killed a mutinous crewman with a sword. Although he claimed self-defense in the second incident, he doubted he’d get a fair trial and fled to the American colony of Virginia, where he added the last name “Jones.”
In the Colonies, thanks to his undeniable mariner’s skills, Jones soon found himself a commander in the fledgling Continental Navy. In France in 1777, appealing for the Colonial cause, Jones met (perhaps even befriended) American Commissioner Benjamin Franklin. Two years later, he took command of the Continental frigate Bonhomme Richard, named after Franklin (from Les Maximes du Bonhomme Richard, the French translation of Poor Richard’s Almanack). Although his ship was lost at Flamborough Head, Jones and crew emerged victorious over the British warship HMS Serapis, commanded by Richard Pearson. When Pearson challenged Jones to surrender, he’s said to have replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!” (It’s likely to have been something more like “I may sink, but I’m damned if I strike!”)
The next year,King Louis XVI of France honored Jones with the title “Chevalier,” likely the high point of his career.
After the war, Chevalier Jones had various commands fall through or expire until 1887, when he entered the service of Catherine the Great of Russia. But there, too, he found himself mired in controversy—including an 1889 charge of having sexually assaulted a ten-year-old girl. Although very likely guilty of the deed, he managed to avoid punishment and died in Paris three years later, at age 45.
Humanity is full of good and bad characters. But just to be clear, the old pen fonts I design don’t celebrate the characters of the historical figures who wrote that way—just their writing styles. Some folks just had very cool handwriting. And the ability to write clearly and stylishly by hand seems a dying art these days.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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: