The Palmer Method of cursive script.
I have my hand, and I have my pen. That’s it. —Rev. Robert Palladino
A few days ago I listened to a fascinating Freakonomics Radio podcast called Who Needs Handwriting? In exploring the question of its title, the episode features an interview with Anne Trubek (@atrubek on Twitter), a writer, editor, and former professor who knows a lot about writing by hand. Trubek, who is author of the forthcoming The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, essentially argues that kids don’t need to learn penmanship anymore.
It all started, Trubek says, when her son began having problems in second grade—strictly because of his poor handwriting skills. So she wrote an article for Good magazine with the bold and declarative title Stop Teaching Handwriting. It drew a lot of interest.
The Gregg Method of shorthand.
And she has a point: young people of today might well go far in our technology-driven world without so much as ever touching a pen. What use is it for us to continue to embrace what was originally a strictly utilitarian skill out of some romantic sense of self, a part of our individuality?
Then again, the Freakonomics podcast goes on to tell us, research shows that students who take notes by hand recall a lot more of a lecture than those who merely transcribe what’s said via keyboard. So should we perhaps be reviving shorthand (a skill my father practiced, much to my childhood incredulity and awe)? Not so much, turns out—it’s a lot closer to straight keyboarding.
Still and all, cursive script appears to be on the way out—other than as a fine art form. Fewer people over time will be able to read engrossed old documents. Who among us these days, after all, can interpret the early hand-scribblings of, say, a Sumerian skilled at cuneiform?
Rev Robert J Palladino (at Reed College).
On the other end of the handwriting spectrum, you have a celebrated scribe like Rev. Robert J. Palladino, who died a couple weeks ago. Palladino was a Trappist monk when he began learning the skills that made him a master calligrapher who, at Reed College, influenced Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’s design of the Macintosh computer. Jobs credited a Palladino calligraphy course he audited with helping inspire the whole idea of digital typography.
“[The Mac] was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”
In a delicious twist of irony, of course, a master with a pen helped further our mass migration over to the keyboard. But there’s something to be said for Father Palladino’s own unwired life—replete with its long periods of thoughtful silence—and his having never once used a computer in 83 years.
[Hang on, time to check Facebook—brb.]
In keeping with my overarching theme here (i.e., handwriting as a sense of self), I’d like now to share another old handwritten document I’ve used as source material for a font I’ve designed. Below are page scans and a transcription of a two-and-a-half-page letter written 18 September 1825 by Samuel Clarke, then pastor of the Congregational Church of Princeton, Massachusetts, seeking donations for the victims of an accident at sea. Inspired by Clarke’s extremely distinctive penmanship, I designed Schooner Script back in 1996. [Note: the boat was in fact a sloop, but Sloop was a script already.]
The Schooner Script letter, page 1.
Princeton Sep. 18. 1825
It is known probably to most of you, that several of our acquaintance and friends, in coming from the State of Maine to this Town, have been exposed to the most imminent danger, and also sustained a considerable loss of property. As their danger and misfortunes have excited much sympathy; and as it is believed to be a Christian duty to do something for their relief, it may be proper, for the correct information of all, to make a short statement of the peril to which they were exposed, and the extent of their loss.
On Saturday the 10. inst, at 12.o.clock, Messrs How, Fay and Cobb with the wives of the two last, and eight other persons, sailed from Camden for Boston in the Sloop Governor. Their passage was favourable until about 8.o.clock on Saturday evening, when the Sloop was struck by another vessel which was apparently in distress, and whose fate is not known. The Sloop was so much injured by the unknown vessel, that she very soon filled with water, which, communicating with lime in the hold, caused her to take fire. Being unable, by the greatest exertion, to save the Sloop, the Captain with his men and passengers was obliged to abandon her, and consign themselves to a small Boat only thirteen feet long and about five wide. our friends were compelled so hastily to leave the Sloop, that they had no time to secure their trunks and clothing—and had they been even able to do this, the smallness of the Boat to which they fled, would not have admitted any additional weight. In this small Boat thirteen feet long, thirteen persons
The Schooner Script letter, page 2.
passed the whole of Saturday night on a boisterous, dangerous sea, some of them destitute of outer garments, and all of them in constant danger of immediate death. It is impossible for us to know, much more to describe their anxiety, their anguish. But a benevolent and merciful Providence watched over, and preserved them, when death appeared inevitable. After having been in this dangerous, distressing situation nine hours, they were discovered on the morn of the Sabbath by another Sloop which immediately came to their relief, and rescued them from impending destruction. In this Sloop they arrived in Boston on Tuesday morning, and on Wednesday were permitted to rejoice in again beholding this their native Town, and receiving the kind welcome and sincere sympathy of their acquaintance and friends.
They desire, with unfeigned gratitude, publicly to acknowledge the goodness and mercy of God which watched over and saved them in the season of extreme peril, which preserved them from the watery element, and which has again restored them to the arms of their brethren and friends—
It may be proper to state that Messrs How and Fay saved their money, with the exception of a small sum lost by Mrs. Fay—but they lost a considerable amount of property in clothing. Our young friends Mr. and Mrs. Cobb lost nearly five hundred dollars, about four hundred of which was in money, and the rest in new and valuable clothing.
There can be no doubt, Brethren, respecting our duty in relation to the misfortune of our friends. While we sympathize with them, we should also assist them in bearing the burdens which a wise Providence has seen fit to lay upon them. It has been suggested by several respectable persons that the easiest and most effectual method of rendering them assistance, would be to request a contribution in each of the religious Societies in this Town on the
The Schooner Script letter, page 3.
next Sabbath. In accordance with this suggestion a contribution will be requested in this place in the afternoon of the next Sabbath, when it is hoped that our charity will correspond with our ability and the necessities of our friends, and manifest for us that we do truly sympathize with them in their sufferings, rejoice in their preservation, and are anxious for their future comfort and happiness—
Pastor of the Congregational Church
» Lamentations continue over the decline of cursive—from pen companies, forensic scientists, and autograph collectors.
» Does playing with old-fashioned toys help kids learn better handwriting skills?
» Handwriting analysts go to town on a note left by a guy who found a wallet full of stuff—but didn’t return it all.
» It might be fading generally, but certain local school districts continue to find time for handwriting instruction.
» A thoughtful essay by Dolly Merritt about what penmanship used to mean.