[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.
in America from Amazon.com.
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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