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Writing on the Wall

Tempest in an Inkpot

Don’t be fooled by the hand-lettering trend in movie posters and book covers—cursive is dead. Who cares? A million angry commenters around the web who extol the virtues of loops and curls. But the traditional form has a history that’s less than precious.

Katie Turner for The Morning News

Third grade was the year cursive didn’t matter. That’s not to say it definitely matters now, or that it didn’t actually matter then, but that’s what I most vividly remember repeating for the nine months that school was in session: “Cursive doesn’t matter.” It was my name, rank, and serial number. Handwriting was my enemy. Those who championed its cause: my captors. “Cursive doesn’t matter,” I’d tell them. “It can’t matter,” I’d say to myself. It couldn’t.

No matter how hard I tried, I was incapable of making my hand shape those precious loops. Despite extra classes, a school-appointed therapist, even mortifying, neon-colored rubber grips that fit like erasers over the shaft of my pencil and forced my fingers into a perfect penmanship claw, everything I put down in cursive was not just inelegant and wobbly but also completely illegible. A symptom of some disease. A signifier of a horrible shortcoming that would show itself days or weeks or years later. Eventually, someday, I’d kill, I’d steal, I’d use swear words like my brother’s friend Walter. My future failure was written in my writing. And so if cursive did matter, well, I was in for a life of trouble, so cursive couldn’t matter.

In that regard, the past two years have been good to me. Forty-four states¾most recently Hawaii (Aloha) and Indiana (Go Hoosiers!)—have tacitly affirmed what I insisted all those years ago, with their adoption of an education platform called the Common Core State Standards, which replaces decades-old handwriting requirements with a “keyboarding” mandate. “The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers,” reads the program’s website. “With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

Of course, competing in the global economy isn’t everybody’s sole concern. “How do they expect these children to sign all their papers when their kids are students?” asks Pamela on one online forum. “Sign their checks, mortgage papers, marriage licenses, personal correspondence?” she continues. “Can you imagine what it would be like to find the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence illegible?” wonders Dwain. “What if the computer goes down or the power goes off?” writes Deeply Shaded. Those are the sorts of questions asked by legions of hand-wringers in thousands of comments on hundreds of websites that have reported on cursive’s demise.

A recent CNN story tellingly titled “Nation of adults who will write like children?” opens with some unkind words about the penmanship of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber and ends with the strange warning: “If you write slowly, your hand may not be able to keep up with your mind’s attempt to have a thought, form it into a sentence, and remember it long enough to write it down.” That article garnered more than 8,000 Facebook recommendations in fewer than 24 hours.

Handwriting was about copying and bookkeeping and was every bit as regulated and regular as the font menu in Microsoft Word, with various styles (Square Text, Round Text, Engrossing, Secretary, Court Hand, Italic Print, Roman Print, etc.) used in very specific circumstances.

The litany of moral, practical, and cultural worries surrounding the fall of cursive script reflects a few basic assumptions about handwriting that confuse much of the form’s complicated past. The worries also cast a telling light on our own particular fears about the future, which may or may not include an electricity-less, memory-deficient world, where poorly understood documents are ratified with iterations of a droolingly scrawled X. But before we start stockpiling pens and manuscript-ruled paper, let’s look back a bit and take a deep breath, because handwriting hasn’t always been the sort of sign that it is today.

Long before schools in this country stopped teaching cursive, most didn’t teach writing at all. Though reading, which afforded colonists direct access to the scriptures, was a crucial part of the education of children in 17th- and 18th-century America, writing, as well as the ability to read handwritten documents, was a rare skill reserved for the wealthiest boys and girls, as well as for young men with accountant’s dreams or aspirations for the itch of a barrister’s wig.

For the latter, handwriting had yet to develop a connection with the idea of an individual style. It was about copying and bookkeeping and was every bit as regulated and regular as the font menu in Microsoft Word, with various styles (Square Text, Round Text, Engrossing, Secretary, Court Hand, Italic Print, Roman Print, etc.) used in very specific circumstances. The Constitution of the United States, for example, was rendered in near-perfect Round Text, for a price of $30 by the engrosser Jacob Shallus—a boon for legibility if one considers the blotchy scrawl of signatories like John Morton or Robert Treat Paine—but a mere drop in the comprehension bucket given the inability of most contemporaneous Americans to read handwritten documents.

Unsurprisingly, the wealthy, when they chose to write, had a little more leeway. They were allowed to indulge a bit, to add a curl here or an aristocratic flourish there. And the wealthier they were, the more that held true: For a period of time poor penmanship, like long fingernails, became a signifier of a lineage that had little need for crass commercial dealings. Still, handwriting had yet to gain the profound association with individuality that it carries today.

Such was the case into the middle of the 19th century, when the pedagogic institution of “writing masters” was slowly overwhelmed by swarms of low-cost copy books and itinerant instructors who had as much in common with patent-medicine salesmen as they did with Oxford dons. These “teachers” traded on their pupils’ aspirations. Penmanship became not only a means for class mobility at a time when social structures were more fluid than ever before, but also a hallmark of character, an indication of a man or woman (for in this period female literacy in most states rates rose to match that of men) who was part of a new and cultured nation. These people were genuine individuals, with the proof written in their writing. This period—coinciding with the dose of eugenics that helped birth the psuedoscience of graphology, which is still used by some corporations to screen job applicants and by some fans to analyze the minds of pop stars—is when the modern ideas that underpin cursive handwriting, elegant penmanship, and all those worried blog comments were born. 

“Not only is it a wise provision of Providence that the hand-writing of every man should be different from that of every other, but a man’s penmanship is an unfailing index of his character, moral and mental, and a criterion by which to judge of his peculiarities of taste and sentiment,” opined the National Magazine in 1855—a sentiment seconded in the late 1980s by my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Bryant.

Concurrent with the rise of handwriting-as-indicator philosophies were the technological innovations that threatened the role of penmanship in society. In the 1860s a commercially successful typewriter came to market, and by the 1880s those machines and their operators were technically able to outpace professional copyists working with pen and ink. Add to that the rapidly decreasing costs of the instrument, and its increasing availability, and one can sense the earliest moments of both the practical and personal panics that surround handwriting today.

By 1894, a penmanship instructor named Daniel Ames lamented, “No one has a license to say how long… it will be before the urgent commercial need which called the typewriter and shorthand writer into being will invoke and materialize some still more potent agency to relieve the busy pen and the clicking keys.” 

In 1955, an observer quoted in the Saturday Evening Post complained, “Nowadays people compose all their letters on a typewriter, or dictate them to a tape recorder, or sign them with a rubber stamp, and, as a result, the muscles of the thumb and forefinger which were formerly employed to grip a pen have fallen largely into disuse, except for picking olives out of Martinis or occasionally pinching stenographers in crowded elevators.” Swap in a dismissive LOL, a quip concerned with sagging pants, and a moralizing mention of thank-you notes, and this could be a concerned reader’s rejoinder today.

Responses to cursive’s technological challengers haven’t been limited to jibes, gripes, and letters to the editor. More creative sorts also reacted to the worry that the demise of penmanship was somehow a threat to personal and cultural identity, and they, too, found a certain synchronicity with the technological advancements that have threatened linked-up script over the years.

Along with the recent rise of the Common Core State Standards has come a hand-lettering trend that trickled from the graphic styling of various indie scenes to Jonathan Safran Foer books, posters for the movie Juno, Hewlett-Packard ads and lots of places in between. Steven Heller, a former art director at the New York Times and the co-chairman of the MFA Designer as Author Department at the School of Visual Arts even wrote a book about it called Handwritten: Expressive Lettering in the Digital Age.1

In a phone conversation, he told me, “The return to script means a lot of things: becoming more personal; conforming to another aesthetic; the idea that you could have a personality in your handwriting; a way of rebelling against cold technologies.” Every inch of HP’s ‘The Computer is Personal’ campaign seems to confirm that hypothesis, and even though the type the company has chosen isn’t cursive, but a hand-drawn style, it carries the human scratches and individuating sweeps that have fascinated Americans since the middle of the 19th century.

The same impulses drove the psychedelic poster craze of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which synched up nicely with a fertile moment in the history of modern computing. They also spurred the American Arts and Crafts movement’s interest in calligraphy at the turn of the 20th century. “At root it was a protest against the soullessness of modernity and the human alienation engendered by the machine,” writes Professor Tamara Plakins Thorton in Handwriting in America.1

“I’m fine with cursive going the way of the dodo. There’s a trend toward typing, so let it be. It’s not a major loss. We’re not losing our democracy.”

The more things change, the more we react the same, it seems. Ever since handwriting became a vehicle for implicit, coded meanings, along with explicit written ones, it has been caught up in a fight about the roles of technology and individuality. That battle can’t be bested by bringing back script or worried into stasis, but only waited out. That’s, in part at least, because the very idea that handwriting says something special about its writer developed in concert with technologies that threatened it and notions of individuality that reaffirmed it.

And so for better or worse we’re still bound to handwriting and still bound to the hand wringing. We re-enlist our individuality with signatures, ratify our cultural complicity with academic traditions, and reinforce assumptions about the look and feel of “human communication” through type design and its style swings.

So does that mean cursive does matter?

Steven Heller doesn’t think so. “I’m fine with cursive going the way of the dodo,” he told me. “There’s a trend toward typing, so let it be. It’s not a major loss. We’re not losing our democracy. We’re losing a skill because of custom and technology.”

Steve Graham, a professor of special education and literacy at Vanderbilt University, who has studied both handwriting instruction and writing proficiency, shares that opinion. He points to research that correlates the legibility of handwriting with the perceived quality of the ideas expressed, but doesn’t favor cursive over manuscript print. “I think handwriting instruction is important because there isn’t a keyboard at every school desk,” he told me by phone. “Whether the writing is in cursive or manuscript or typed doesn’t matter. Legibility and fluency do.”

Still, I can’t help worry that cursive has something more to it, something we risk losing. Perhaps that’s a byproduct of my own poor penmanship and the strange emotional baggage it has saddled me with over the years, or maybe it’s just appealing to believe that my thoughts, written in my dreadful hand, reveal some deep personal truth. It’s actually soothing to think that, as I type out these final words and wonder whether they’re original or smart or at all profound. Even if my ideas aren’t new, their expression is mine. And that salve is at least as old as the comfort of handwriting on a page.

Footnotes

  1. Professor Thornton’s book was the source for the vast majority of the historical details drawn upon throughout this piece and is a delightful read for anyone remotely interested in handwriting.

TMN Contributing Writer Graham T. Beck has written for the New York Times, the Believer, the Daily Beast, and the Awl. He is a regular contributor to frieze and hard at work on a very funny book about the end of the world. More by Graham T. Beck

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