Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #2, Spring & Summer 1998]

Handwriting in America: A Cultural History
By Tamara Plakins Thornton
Yale University Press, 1996

Reviewed by B.C. Brown

Handwritten script, not one of the hip, new handwriting fonts out of a computer, but writing made by hand on paper: I see less and less of it in my mailbox at home and across my desk at work. I can hardly write a letter myself anymore without a word processor, and in my job as a business forms designer, I read about things like "digitized signatures" (that aren't really signatures at all, but computer passwords) that will dispense with that last archaic step in filling out a form the old-fashioned way. Is handwriting in America history?

The question has come up before, and not only with the advent of the computer, but with the typewriter before it. Earlier in the century, some schools experimented with doing away with teaching handwriting altogether and starting students immediately on typewriters, arguing that it was what they would need to know later in the world of work anyway. We're also not the first to lament how illegible everyone's handwriting has become. As early as 1934 pedagogues were comparing handwriting samples to previous decades' and finding the latest to be clearly inferior.

Other interesting facts I learned from Plakins Thornton's book are that in Colonial America it was common for people to be able to read without being able to write and that they might be able to read typeset text but not handwritten. In addition, the handwritten text would be in one of several different styles of scripts, from which it could be ascertained a person's gender, class, and profession. For example, if a gentleman had his secretary write a letter, it would be obvious by the old-fashioned, workmanlike script ("Running Secretary") that a hired "hand" had written it. If he wrote the letter himself, it would be clear he had written it and not his wife, who would have used a more ornamental ("Ladies Roman") script. Also, a merchant would never write in the unintelligible legal hand and a lawyer never in the merchant's with its ornate capital letters and flourishes. Eventually, the different styles were narrowed down to two, one for men and one for women, and finally the more efficient of the two (the men's) was adopted as the standard.

At one time handwriting was taught as more of a physical skill than a mental one. Students practiced at a synchronized pace, with the teacher leading the class assisted by a metronome. The Palmer method, influenced by industrialization, made you put your whole body into it -- efficiently, like a machine.

And it was probably the mechanized and depersonalized workplace that made graphology -- discovering your unique personality through your handwriting -- so popular.

Though Handwriting in America is about a craft now practiced by nearly everyone (and when handwriting becomes obsolete, it will ironically happen first among the technologically elite), the book was not written for a popular audience. The thickly-documented academic style requires some patience to wade through.

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B.C. Brown publishes her short stories as "Post a Story" postcards and note cards and occasionally in journals such as Chew, Feminist Voices, Knot, and Rosebud. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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