Feb/Mar 2009

Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting

Albert Mobilio


One day each week in grade school, I took pen in hand to practice penmanship. I painstakingly traced letters of the alphabet and made long strings of o’s that looked like Slinkys when completed. My teacher would rap my arm, insisting I conform to the prescribed Palmer Method position. Those circles—and the exhortation “Wider, wider, wider, rounder, rounder, rounder”—are inscribed in my hand even today. Kitty Burns Florey also turns to childhood memories to enliven Script and Scribble, her pithy account of the history of handwriting. It makes sense: We never forget our earliest experiences making our mark. The act is intimate, physical, and integral to developing a sense of being in the world, alert to communicative possibilities.

Florey begins, of course, with the Sumerians and Egyptians and their pictograms; the Sumerians used styli to write on clay tablets, while the Egyptians employed brushes on papyrus. Although the quill dates from before 250 bce, it wasn’t until the early eighth century that bird feathers became the chief tools in a burgeoning literate culture. Apparently, they didn’t last long; Joyce Carol Oates would have gone through one every day or so. Thomas Jefferson, Florey tells us, kept a flock of geese at Monticello so his words might flow unabated. Until the nineteenth century, mostly the wealthy and businessmen wrote in script, but the advent of public education disseminated the skill and brought advances in writing technology. Fountain pens could produce beautiful shapes with lovely filigree but couldn’t compete with Laszlo Bíró’s invention, the ballpoint (portable, no need of messy refilling). Still, in my Catholic school, we used Sheaffer fountain pens; there was something vaguely Protestant about clicking your Bic.

The “father of American handwriting,” one Platt Rogers Spencer, originated his own personal script, which became, by dint of his energetic promotion, the standard from the Civil War through the Victorian period. In lectures, he tied class mobility to penmanship and articulated degrees of “fanciness” that could be adapted to everything from love letters to contracts. Spencer was an avid poet, but his most enduring legacy is his lettering of the Coca-Cola logo. The next handwriting expert to come along was A. N. Palmer, whose eponymous method was detailed in over a million textbooks by 1912. Unlike Spencer, who prized design and expressiveness, Palmer aimed to optimize speed and regularity. He provided teachers with explicit instructions on how the pen was to be held and on the role of the right forearm muscle in perfecting those o’s. “See that pupils’ arms are free of heavy clothing,” he wrote. “Many good writers consider this of such importance that they cut off the right undersleeve at the elbow.”

Florey makes a solid case for handwriting as a social indicator, and her affection for its art is thoughtful and aesthically informed. She acknowledges the apparently irresistible claim that the computer now lays to all written communication and opines, “Why can’t the keyboard and the pen lie down together like the lion and the lamb and live in harmony?” The two may indeed do so. But for the foreseeable future, there most likely will be a million lions for every lonely lamb.

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