The Demise of Handwriting: It’s a Shame in Many Ways

Handwriting, and cursive in particular, is almost extinct in our modern society; that is good in some respects, but bad in most others. For me and many others like me from engineering and scientific professions, the word-processor is a God-send. For many others – and I immediately think of schoolteachers – writing in cursive is almost as easy as typing on a keyboard as opposed to being a chore and challenge.

 Penmanship BookSecond-grade penmanship exercise book from St. Williams in Chicago

My writing skills were never great; I could print very well, and my cursive was not ugly, but it has never been easy on the eyes. Writing gets harder as I grow older. My wife and older daughter are both schoolteachers with beautiful, flowing handwriting. I think women generally have better fine-motor skills than men, but there is also the influence of teacher training which in past years has always emphasized handwriting. Those of you who have ever written a book appreciate the huge advantage word-processing represents, even over the venerable typewriter – no more “white-out” to erase mistakes! As for authors of old who wrote their manuscripts by hand: My hat is off to you! Yes, it is true: In the professional arena, we are blessed to be set free from the terrible tyranny of unforgiving pen and ink.

In the social realm, we are poorer for the advent of technology in one specific aspect: The personal touch conveyed by a brief note, a birthday greeting, or a letter handwritten in cursive is a thing of the past. Autograph and manuscript collectors understand the situation perfectly well, and they chafe at the realization that very few collectable documents are being generated today in this age of mechanization. Sadly, even “personal” presidential notes from the White House to our citizens are, more often than not, realistically signed in ink by an “autopen” machine which precisely duplicates the president’s (one-time) signature – time after time after time.

George Washington: His Personal Correspondence Was
Huge in Volume, Yet Always Meticulously Written!

Washington DiaryA page from Washington’s personal diary in his ever-immaculate script

Washington Sig

Abraham Lincoln Personally Penned
 Much of His Civil War Correspondence

Here is an autograph endorsement as president in the opening months of the Civil War approving the recommendations written on the backside for promotion to Brigadier General and other ranks in the Union Army – The Army of the Potomac.

Lincoln Endorsement

The letter on the backside is from the Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac, George McClellan, addressed to Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Secretary of War. This example is very typical and illustrates Lincoln’s hands-on involvement in even the more mundane aspects of wartime machinations. Correspondence of this sort was ubiquitous during the war and, via pen and ink, reflects the personal involvement of all concerned. The letter was “Respectfully submitted to the President U. S.” by the Assistant Secretary of War, Thomas A. Scott who signs, “Thomas A. Scott, AssSecWar; War Dept. Nov 8, ’61.” On the left-hand side, the document is neatly docketed by an unidentified clerk: “Washington D.C. Nov 7, 1861; Army Headquarters, Major Genl. McClellan; Recommending certain promotions and appointments in the Army.”

The beauty and precision of the clerk’s cursive script reveals a skill which is virtually extinct, today. Such “ink-stains,” applied by a writer’s hand and pen to the paper upon which they reside, lend a charisma and persona to documents which yesterday’s typewriters and today’s computer keyboards cannot begin to match.

The latent power of handwriting turns a routine, personal thank-you note into something special: An authentic emotional bond between the person holding the ink-stained paper conveying the message and the writer who created it. A handwritten note signed by the sender is so much more personal than the efficient, but somewhat sterile message received in one’s E-mail inbox.

I increasingly miss personal, handwritten letters which are being forced into extinction to the extent that one rarely encounters them anymore. It is especially sad that one must carefully preserve any handwritten notes from today’s young set as they increasingly forget how to write cursive in the face of today’s technology seduction. As always, technology is a double-edged sword which cuts both ways – for the good and the bad, depending on how judiciously it is used.

For more on the subject, see my post titled, Word Shadows of the Great in the blog archive for June 2, 2013.

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