UBToday Online Alumni Magazine - Winter 1998
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The History of Handwriting:
   Handwriting in America
   Handwriting Q&A

Mini Med School

A Player on the Stage

Handwriting in America

When people ask me how I came to write a cultural history of handwriting in America, I often joke about my own scrawl, because I know that if I were to mumble something about "shedding light on the history of the self," I would lose my audience. I prefer to let my questioners do the talking. Many people relate their own experiences with learning how to write, in stories that include drills in the Palmer method, nuns with rulers and sore palms. Others wonder if I believe in handwriting analysis or ask me what Abraham Lincoln's signature says about his personality or – more sheepishly – what their own handwriting reveals. Everyone has something to say and wants to say it. Handwriting, it would appear, matters to us.

I have spent several years steeped in the literature of handwriting, finding out just how and why it matters. Some of the sources I have used, like the exquisitely engraved penmanship manuals of the 18th century or the copybooks of the Victorian era, have been dignified with residence in rare-book rooms and research archives.

Tamara Thornton sought to illuminate the history of handwriting, an activity through which people define themselves.

Photo: KC Kratt/Frank Cesario

But the ephemera of handwriting – school-board reports, books on penmanship, autograph albums, graphology manuals that explain how to read character from handwriting (often given away with boxes of penpoints), pulp magazines with columns on handwriting analysis – were harder to find. For these, I had to look in libraries with omnivorous collecting appetites, such as the Library of Congress; or, sneezing from dust and filthy from red rot, sidle through rows of ceiling-high cardboard boxes of teachers' materials saved in the libraries of normal-schools-turned-state colleges. I even made the rounds of flea markets.

Having looked at a motley assortment of documents, I have come to some understanding of why handwriting is important to us. Since the 18th century, I have found, handwriting has functioned as a way to define and reveal the self. In the ways that we have taught handwriting, practiced it, and perceived it, we have tried both to shape what we ought to be and to express what we hope to be.

In the early 1900s, for example, the Palmer method ruled. Mr. Palmer promised to deliver a tireless arm that could compete with the typewriter, but what really attracted educators were his handwriting drills. Any survivor of these drills will be happy to describe them to you. Sometimes they began with "preparatory calisthenics." Then, at the teacher's command (educators recommended using phrases such as "At Attention!" and "Present Arms!"), students executed row after row of ovals and "push-pulls." School officials were blunt about the value of these drills. The lessons they conveyed – conformity to standard models, obedience to authority – would reform juvenile delinquents, assimilate foreigners, and acclimate working-class children to their futures in the typing pool or on the factory line.

Students practice Palmer method "push-pulls" in 1912.

(Click to view larger image)

But, at that time, the rank and file in the penmanship army were interested in other things. These were the people drawn to the message of graphology. Whatever they try to do to you in school, graphologists insisted, your handwriting will remain your own, indestructibly unique and, in the record of traits and talents that it provides, a guide to the singular life waiting for you. "Pick up your pen and stir the sleeping fire," intoned one graphologist. "You may have the potentialities of a Napoleon or a Paderewski. Your handwriting will tell you." It was these same would-be's who bared their souls in the many graphological-advice columns that appeared in the pulp magazines and tabloid papers of the 1920s and 1930s. "I wish that you would tell me of some talent that I have," wrote one woman to the graphologist Louise Rice. "I feel so unimportant."

Here, then, was a run-in between the forces of conformity and those of individuality, an argument about the nature of the self. We often think of the self as an abstraction, something that philosophers or psychologists might ponder, but nothing you can put your finger on in the comings and goings of daily existence, the little events of the lives of ordinary people. Tracing the history of handwriting shows us that ideas do not float above us in some intellectual stratosphere. When people defined the self, they did so not as an abstract intellectual exercise but in the very real ways that they lived. Self-definition "happened," I realized, in the Palmer-method manuals and the sad letters to Louise Rice.

But why, I asked myself, was handwriting, of all things, an activity through which people defined themselves? I concluded that it must have something to do with the peculiar properties of handwriting. After all, the question we ask of handwriting is the same we ask about ourselves. In forming our "characters," should we conform to a universal model or express our individuality?

Still, I wasn't content to leave it at that simple answer. Some of my reluctance had to do with being a cultural historian. Many of us in the humanities are loath to assign any phenomenon – script, self, you name it – a fixed definition or inherent meaning, preferring to interpret each as a human construction shaped by culture and society. But, more important, my research gave me a clue that something else was going on besides self-expression.

As late as the 17th century, men and women hardly recognized an association between an individual and his or her script. Only in the early 18th century did the English legal authority Geoffrey Gilbert advance the new idea that "men are distinguished by their handwriting as well as by their faces." Only at the end of that century did Johann Kaspar Lavater, father of physiognomy – the judging of people by their facial features – advance the equally novel opinion that character could be read in handwriting just as surely as it could be read in the countenance.

A 1935 ad touts graphology.

(Click to view larger image)

What inspired such new ways of thinking, I figured out, was the increasing presence of print. Print had existed since Gutenberg, of course, but only in the 1700s did many kinds of printed matter become available, along with a growing number of literate people to read them. Only at this point did script come to be defined as distinct from print. If print was the impersonal product of a machine, then script became the creation of the hand, physically – and conceptually – linked to the human being who produces it. If the mundane fact that people write by hand had never meant anything before, it was because in a world with no other way of generating writing, there had been no need to think about it.

In the age of the computer, we think about that link with renewed seriousness. Search "computer" and "handwriting" on electronic data bases, and you will find dozens of newspaper and magazine articles published each year bemoaning the decline of penmanship. That decline may or may not be real – identical jeremiads appeared in the 1950s, blaming the typewriter and the telephone – but there can be no doubt that the anxiety we feel about the state of handwriting runs deep. In an age when handwriting is perceived to be obsolete, it symbolizes the past, a past we remember as blessed with the moral certainty represented by penmanship rules and social intimacy, epitomized by the handwritten letter.

This nostalgia may be the reason that an academic book in the field of cultural history seems to have hit a nerve. After its publication, I received many letters from non-academic readers. Some wanted me to know that old-time penmanship still lives: a Midwesterner on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia asked a visiting American to hand-deliver to me a letter detailing the history of the Nebraska Handwriting Contest in his home state. Others asked for help with their writing, like the teenage boy from Liberty, Mo., who asked me how he could improve his Victorian-era script. Some of the letters included gifts, such as a stenography magazine from the 1930s.

My replies have been handwritten, even though I can only scrawl. I know it matters.

Tamara Plakins Thornton is the author of Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 1996). This article previously appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education [August 15, 1997].

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