Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Brief History and the Value of Handwriting (ENG495 Final Paper)

Please note: I am this paper's original author. DO NOT use this paper as your own work. Cite me if you quote me. And don't even think you can get away with plagiarism.

In attempting to research handwriting, I had some difficulty finding relevant sources and information. If I were seeking facts about writing in general, more sources could apply, but I tried to stick strictly to the art of handwriting. Contemporary information about handwriting abounds, especially due to the resurgence of calligraphy as a fine art, but historical information is spotty. If I researched for decades, I would never be able to write a full history of handwriting, and I shall not attempt to cover every aspect of handwriting or its history in this essay. Instead, I will try to answer two important questions: first, how did handwriting develop? Second, how have attitudes toward handwriting changed as other communication technologies have developed?

A Brief History of Handwriting
Handwriting has been around since man first picked up a stick and drew a symbol in the dirt to communicate with another human. Denis Baron wrote in his essay, From Pencils to Pixels, “We normally assume that writing was invited to transcribe speech, but that is not strictly correct. The earliest Sumerian inscriptions, dating from ca. 3500 BCE, recorded not conversations, incantations, or other sorts of oral utterances, but land sales, business transactions, and tax accounts” (Baron 19). An historical gap exists for handwriting between the Sumerians and the later Greeks and Romans. Few examples of handwritten (literally carved in stone) communication still survive. Mary Bellis wrote an article on about.com about the history of writing utensils. She said, “The earliest means of writing that approached pen and paper as we know them today was developed by the Greeks. They employed a writing stylus, made of metal, bone or ivory, to place marks upon wax-coated tablets. The tablets made in hinged pairs, closed to protect the scribe's notes. The first examples of handwriting (purely text messages made by hand) originated in Greece. The Grecian scholar, Cadmus invented the written letter—text messages on paper sent from one individual to another” (Bellis). She continued about the Chinese inventing ‘Indian Ink’ around 2700 BCE. The invention of ink in China (and other cultures with inks in different colors made from different materials) paralleled the invention of paper. “The early Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and Hebrews, used papyrus and parchment papers. One of the oldest pieces of writing on papyrus known to us today is the Egyptian "Prisse Papyrus" which dates back to 2000 BCE” (Bellis). Only the most wealthy citizens of ancient societies were literate enough or had enough time to value and understand handwriting, so the skill was not widely known.

While ink made writing possible, the invention of the pencil probably changed handwriting more so than any other event. Baron continues, “Just as writing was not designed initially as a way of recording speech, the pencil was not invented to be a writing device. The ancient lead-pointed stylus was used to scribe lines—the lead made a faint pencil-like mark on a surface, suitable for marking off measurements but not for writing” (Baron 22). Modern pencils do not contain lead. All mechanical pencils and the vast majority of wooden pencils contain graphite instead of lead. The first pencils were made by joiners to scribe measurements in wood because they didn’t leave a permanent dent in the wood. The pencil was later adopted by note-takers, scientists, and others who needed to write, sketch, or take measurements in the field. “Early pencils had knobs at one end so that they could be fastened with string or chain to a notebook, creating the precursor to the laptop computer” (Baron 22).

Moving from quill pens to fountain pens also made handwriting an easier skill to master. Bellis writes, “The fountain pen's design came after a thousand years of using quill-pens. Early inventors observed the apparent natural ink reserve found in the hollow channel of a bird's feather and tried to produce a similar effect, with a man-made pen that would hold more ink and not require constant dipping into the ink well. However, a feather is not a pen, only a natural object modified to suit man's needs. Filling a long thin reservoir made of hard rubber with ink and sticking a metal 'nib' at the bottom was not enough to produce a smooth writing instrument. Lewis Waterman, an insurance salesman, was inspired to improve the early fountain pen designs after destroying a valuable sales contract with leaky-pen ink. Lewis Waterman's idea was to add an air hole in the nib and three grooves inside the feed mechanism” (Bellis). Knowing a few Waterman fountain pen owners for some time, I can attest to the design and functionality of his pens. I overheard a woman in a store once tell a saleswoman, “I couldn’t live without my Waterman so much that I bought four more just in case I lost the first one.”

Pencils and pens work well in the hand, but not all communication occurs now with the force of ink or graphite onto paper. Typewriters were the first transition to the world we know as typing. The Wikipedia article on typewriters recounts much of typing history. “In 1714, Henry Mill obtained a patent in Britain for a machine that from the patent sounds similar to a typewriter, but nothing further is known... Other early developers of writing machines include Pellegrino Turri (1808) who also invented carbon paper. Many of these earliest machines, including Turri's, were developed to allow the blind to write” (Wikipedia). The typewriter we know today was invented by Giuseppe Ravizza in 1855, however, typing speeds did not outpace traditional handwriting until after 1870. Electric typewriters debuted in the 1970’s.

The line between electronic typewriter and computer blurred toward the end of the 1980’s, and computers took the lead when it came to text production. I remember when my parents purchased our first computer. Dad told Mom the computer was simply a fancy calculator and would be phased out in favor of new technologies within the decade. Mom ignored him and got one anyway. Nearly twenty years later, Mom laughed at Dad last week when he was agonizing over which kind of processor to have Dell put in his brand new personal laptop. I should mention, though, that Dad had to correspond with Dell by hand. He refused to order his new laptop over the Internet (“Some thug will steal my credit card information and create a new identity.”) or over the phone (“The government is listening.”). And he didn’t buy a laptop to surf the Internet from his recliner, oh no. He physically ripped the Wireless Internet Card out of the laptop just in case somehow, the wireless signal bounced across the living room carpet magically into his computer where “thugs” could raid his personal data. Clearly, Dad prefers handwritten communication due to its security and formality. I don’t blame him.

The Value of Handwriting
In a study conducted by Pitney-Bowes, Inc., 66% of surveyed Americans trust their post office more than they trust their police department, Internet provider, school system, long distance carrier, the media, and the government. “Regular mail is considered to be the most private and secure form of communication with people” (Pitney-Bowes, Inc.). The USPS delivers mail rain or shine, but one never knows exactly where an e-mail is at any given point between sender and receiver. The study showed that, at the time of the survey, people preferred to use slower communication channels and handwritten messages for their most important correspondence.
Unlike 30 years ago, mail is not the primary form of communication for many people. According to the Report of the President’s Commission on the United States Postal Service, e-mailing is one of the fastest and cheapest ways to communicate, as is talking on the telephone with the advent of calling cards and “10-10-something-or-other” numbers (www.treas.gov). Instant messaging is another way of quick communication without cost. All of these forms of interaction are cheaper than physically writing a letter to someone and mailing it via “snail mail.” However, none of those forms support the intimacy and personality a handwritten letter provides. This paper was stolen from the internet without permission.
The real problem with handwriting today is the amount of time and skill it requires. Recounting his own handwriting learning process, Robert Klose commented, “Writing by hand is a slow process; the slower the better, actually. The physical act of slipping lines of wet ink onto paper is an almost organic connection between the writer and the word. And when one takes the time to emphasize shape, size, and proportion, one is lingering with those words, giving them time to percolate in the mind and settle in for the long haul. Using a computer gets the job done, but it is nothing like a meditative act. It's more like doing the dishes” (Klose). The simplicity of writing by hand allows one to think about the words and messages they are writing, thus making a handwritten letter the most intimate form of non-verbal communication available.

In addition to the intimate aspect, the value of handwritten letters goes almost unsaid. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and George Washington kept many letters and diaries that, without handwriting, would not exist. These personal diaries provide a window to the beginnings of the United States that books and official accounts cannot supply. Letters between soldiers and their wives at home during wars consist entirely of handwriting to this day. My friend Kevin commented in an Instant Messaging conversation, “While our soldiers are now able to instantaneously communicate with their families at home, nothing can replace the power and intimacy of a personally written letter. Should the worst befall a soldier on foreign soil far from home, that small scrap of paper with it's imperfect lettering and technique may be the only connection a widow or orphaned child may have to their loved one” (Perkins). My same friend later confessed, “I was good at [handwriting] and hated every minute of it. That kind of [stuff] is fine if you have a plethora of time, but when school years are cut short and test scores are in the toilet, it's time to refocus on the necessities” (Perkins). The academic, professional, and business worlds require typewritten documents, as they should. It would take too much time to write out a full inventory for a warehouse or a list of employees for a chain store. Furthermore, hand writing a twenty-page paper for class is not going to be much fun. Technology including spell-checkers, thesauruses, and other word processing advances allow people to type much faster and with greater accuracy than by traditional handwriting.

Handwriting uses have varied across every generation. Neanderthal man used his handwriting to communicate a great hunt or victory over an enemy. As above, the Sumerians used handwriting to seal business ventures. Likewise, Colonial Americans used handwriting for business and to correspond with one another when separated by a great distance. We, American twenty-somethings, use handwriting to jot down notes, to make a grocery list, and to simply leave someone a greeting. This paper was stolen from the internet without permission. However, we do not use handwriting as our most formal form of communication. I am forced to submit my term papers typewritten or electronically dropped off to my professor’s e-mail address. I often won’t even meet the person to which I correspond; they are nothing more than an e-mail address, no face or handshake necessary.

The demise of handwriting began well before technology intervened. Tamara Plakins Thornton writes in her book, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History, “In colonial America, the ability to read was treasured largely as the ability to gain direct access to Scripture. To ensure that children achieved Bible literacy, reading instruction took place at age six or seven, before the child assumed any substantial burden of work, in an informal, domestic (and therefore female) environment. Typically, children were taught by their mothers... Because reading and writing were understood to serve entirely different ends, instruction in one was divorced from instruction in the other. Reading was taught first, as a universal spiritual necessity; writing was taught second, and then only to some. That women were entrusted with reading instruction is just one indication that reading was perceived as an elementary skill, calling for no other abilities either to teach or to acquire it... The end product of this system of instruction was the ability to read the printed word, not to write—not even to read handwriting” (Thornton 5). Handwriting in colonial America was reserved for only the most wealthy families. The fact that so many people did learn to write is a testament to the value early Americans placed on handwriting skill and tradition.

The traditional styles of handwriting were abandoned from elementary school curricula in the 1920’s in favor of methods that produced a more fluid script and greater readability. Zaner-Bloser called this new style the “Palmer manuscript method” (Zaner-Bloser). As seen in Figure 1, the Palmer method incorporated two very simple strokes for early elementary students just learning to write; a ball shape and a stick shape were the only two strokes to master. In about third grade, a student was taught to slant their “sticks” to the right, to turn “balls” into ovals, and how to connect those two shapes into simple cursive handwriting. An example of the Zaner-Bloser script can be seen in Figure 2.

Newer forms of handwriting taught in classes across the country try to simplify cursive to a form hardly worthy of the name. “Monkey tails” and other odd terms are used to describe small hooks or loops added to the Palmer manuscript method to make it more complicated without decreasing speed or ease of writing. An example of the D’Nealian method is shown in Figure 3. The drawback to this new “D’Nealian” style is that students learn four strokes to print and then must learn four new strokes to write in cursive (Zaner-Bloser). My own sister learned the D’Nealian style of handwriting in elementary school, and then later learned the more traditional Zaner-Bloser method as her primary form of cursive because she thought it looked nicer and was easier to read. I learned the Zaner-Bloser method and use it for note-taking and general correspondence. For formal documents, I will sometimes even switch to the old Spencerian scripts of my grandparents.

The International Association of Master Penman, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH), founded in 1949, is the oldest and largest penmanship association in the United States. IAMPETH's goals are to: “one, practice and teach the fine art of beautiful penmanship; two, restore the teaching of penmanship in schools; three, improve the handwriting of young people; four, honor the Master Penmen of today; and five, preserve and share with others the rich tradition of American Penmanship” (IAMPETH). The IAMPETH Master Penman Society was founded in 2001to recognize association members with exceptional handwriting ability. Clearly, the value of handwriting has not gone down even with the advent of computers. The greatest honor awarded to the Master Penman is the certificate: the Master must write his own. Figure 4 is one of many examples of such certificates (IAMPETH).

When handwriting became wide-spread, it was the fastest form of communication across great distances. This paper was stolen from the internet without permission. People valued handwriting for its permanency and beauty. Typewriters and computers threatened the age of handwriting, reducing and changing its use in modern society by many people. However, the fine art of handwriting remains a skill we each learn as children. Technology may have changed how we write and communicate with each other, but handwriting is still all around each of us. Every time we sign our names, send a letter, jot a note, pen out a grocery list, or simply scratch a reminder to ourselves, we employ the art of handwriting regardless of new technology. Handwriting is traditional. It is functional. And it is necessary.

Works Cited

Baron, Denis. “From Pencils to Pixels.” Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies. Ed. Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe. Logan, Utah, Utah State University Press, p15-33.

Bellis, Mary. “A Brief History of Writing Instruments.” 6 Dec 2005.

The International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH). Dec. 2005. 6 Dec. 2005. .

Klose, Robert. A Palmer-method Penman Recalls the Write Stuff.” Christian Science Monitor, 16 Apr. 2002: Vol. 94 Issue 99, p14, 1p.

Perkins, Kevin. Trillian Instant Message Conversation to the author. 24 Nov. 2003. and 14 Mar. 2004.

Pitney-Bowes, Inc. “America’s Feelings about Mail.” May 2000. 6 Dec. 2005.

Thornton, Tamara Plakins. Handwriting in America: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 5 Dec 2005. 6 Dec 2005. .

www.treas.gov. “Embracing the Future: Making the Tough Choices to Preserve Universal Mail Service. A Report of the President’s Commission on the United States Postal Service.” 9 Mar. 2004. 6 Dec. 2005. .

Zaner-Bloser Handwriting. Columbus, Ohio: Zaner-Bloser, Inc., 1993.

1 comment:

chris farrell said...

Handwriting is becoming a lost art, but I learned it in school and have written paper journals for years.....I find it relaxing. I correspond with another sketch artist, and we send each other written letters, ......despite both having email and being computer literate. Then there is the handwritten Japanese character, which is another whole art....