Friday, December 9, 2011

Old Fashioned Writing

     Many people become more conservative as they age. Part of this shift is surely the wisdom of experience, but it would be pointless to pretend the process is entirely rational. Some of the drift toward conservatism derives from the loss of the world we knew in youth. When young, we learn all about the world. We learn how to talk, dress, and behave appropriately in that world. Once that world begins to disappear, we feel mal-adapted, and it is no wonder we resist further change. Yet again, another part of the conservative drift has to do more with æsthetics than anything else. It is not so much that we feel mal-adapted to appreciate the music of the young, for instance, as it is that we feel the music of our youth was simply better. We feel this all the more keenly when the change in the world is not just a shift in taste but the effective demise of what we love. For instance, the rise of the keyboard, the mouse, and the touch screen has effectively killed the old fashioned art of penmanship.

     The typewriter had already wounded penmanship. Why take the time to learn to write clearly when one can always type faster and more clearly than the best Palmer-trained penman? Still, as late as the mid-twentieth century, there were older people who insisted that thank you letters should be handwritten. Plain, clear handwriting was therefore an essential skill for everyone. There were even some who drew dubious inferences from the shape of one’s handwriting. At one point in living memory employers would occasionally submit an applicant’s handwriting sample to a graphologist, who would then be able to warn the employer of any character flaws the applicant might be hiding. Although the claims for graphology are pseudoscientific, the common assumption was that something of one’s character inevitably flowed onto the page with the ink from one’s pen. References in literature speak of a “spidery hand” or “an honest hand,” and certain authors took trouble to make their own handwriting as beautiful as their diction. J.R.R. Tolkien famously devised a signature that was as much calligraphy as penmanship.

     Nowadays, those who take trouble with their handwriting tend to be artists. What was a modest skill across the general population has become a highly refined art form practiced by specialists. There is even an organization of these practitioners. They preserve the old knowledge of ascenders and descenders, of loops and capitals and Spencerian Script. In doing so, they remind us that the world has not yet wholly lost old fashioned writing, a lovely fragment of the past.


  1. What I find interesting is that we still expect the (typed) thank-you letter to have a handwritten signature at the bottom of it.

    The typed letter itself is still a bit impersonal. It suggests (often rightly) that the thanker has a stock format on their computer with blanks to fill in for each individual letter.

  2. Hortensio, I wonder how much longer it will be before Siri just handles the whole portfolio of social obligations for us?

  3. On your previous post on Skeptics I left a warm holiday greeting which, electronic as it is, I'd be honored to have you recognize as handwritten since 45 years have made the keyboard a natural extension of my hand. LOL.

  4. GTC: Anything posted by you, whether heretofore or henceforth, will be considered honorary handwriting! And Happy Holidays to you as well. Cheers, C.

  5. I'm using my new iPhone app Cards for all thank you cards this holiday season. I wonder how many parents/grandparents will feel slighted that the cards use a handwriting font.

  6. I think they'll have to sit down for a spell to recover from their astonishment that anyone sends any thank you notes at all these days. The handwriting font is just a bonus.

  7. Out of topic -- just want to say Merry Christmas to you and all readers here.


    1. Tikno - Thank you! Apologies for the long hiatus, but my real job keeps getting in the way of my hobby. Hope 2012 is off to a good start for you.