Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Quills, pens, & pencils: the once-flourishing art of handwriting

Freddy the Pig makes a list
In these days of omnipresent keyboards, do you ever try to write something by hand and find it somewhat difficult to form the letters? That probably never happens to Kitty Burns Florey, the author of Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting: "True calligraphy (from the Greek for 'beautiful writing') becomes more endangered with each technological incursion into its traditional territory. But, like literary fiction and heirloom tomatoes, calligraphy survives as a niche market, supported by a small but fiercely enthusiastic band of practitioners and supporters."

Page from Book of Hours (Horæ Beatæ Mariæ Virginis) France; Early XVIth Century.
When printing came along, italic fonts such as this were modeled on particularly beautiful examples of Italian Renaissance cursive writing (above). The use of a quill pen then and in medieval times often gave an aesthetically appealing variation in the width of the stroke.
Florey allots a chapter to two Americans who tried to instill conformity in the penmanship of businesspeople and school children: Platt Rogers Spencer (1800-64), whose style survives in the Coca-Cola logo, and Austin Norman Palmer (1860-1927), creator of the infamous "Palmer method" (below). She believes that children should be taught a modern version of italic, partway between block letters and longhand. That way they'd only have to learn one writing style.
Another chapter delves into graphology, the attempt to elicit traits of character from samples of handwriting. I've often thought it would be fun to show a graphologist samples of manuscripts or letters by various mystery authors and see what they come up with. (One would definitely infer from Elizabeth I's signature that she had no self-esteem problems, even as a princess!)

Example of graphic whimsy from the book: "Official Document" by Saul Steinberg, 1967

9 comments:

  1. Ever since I learned cursive writing, I've doodled by practicing my signature -- it's changed so many times over the years I've lost count. You'd think with all that practice I'd have better handwriting, but I really don't.

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  2. I've all but lost my second grade cursive lessons! Even my signature is a srange hybrid of the remembered and forgotten:) I will say, however, that I don't think it has much of a place or use in today's world. Education has more important things to focus on...

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  3. Oh the dreaded cursive, I always got satisfactory in handwriting class, to this day I have no idea how to write the letter "Z"

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    1. Penny this is for you: http://www.janbrett.com/coloring_alphabet/coloring_alphabet_tracers_cursive_z.htm

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  4. There was a time when European employers required of job applicants a handwritten sample so that their characters could be better scrutinized. The Germans particularly considered graphology as a useful gauge of education and trustworthiness. Their books on the subject are extensive and detailed--quite convincing. But I haven't seen the graphologists go through the kind of blind test that you suggest. It would be an interesting challenge.

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    1. Fascinating ... almost like discounting someone because they're left handed.
      Maybe we should collaborate on a book ;) I've been wanting to do one but haven't rustled up a graphologist yet.

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  5. I believe all personal written communication, as opposed to business correspondence, should be handwritten. A friendly handwritten letter is like a gift of oneself, an act of sharing. And I always found an excitement to receiving and opening a personal letter that clicking on e=mail cannot provide.
    Of course, a lover who cannot produce a suitable billet doux in a fine hand should not be given the privilege of a second meeting!

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  6. I correspond with my Grandma on a monthly basis via the old fashioned way - letters. Even if we it's a simple "hope all is well" we take the time to send one another notes. We've been doing it for over 2 years now. It's always nice to get something personal in the mail like that too.

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    1. You and Gioconda provide evidence that elegance and intimacy are still among us! Brava.

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