Disappearing Ink

The rise and fall of handwriting.

“Don’t forget to write” was once a commonly-expressed sentiment among friends parting ways. But in the age of the personal computer, Blackberry and iPhone, people don’t just forget to write, they have forgotten how. Not only are most adults loath to spend time on handwritten correspondence, they have long since lost the ability to produce legible cursive script—assuming they ever learned it at all.

Those lamenting the decline of handwriting will want to read “Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting” (Melville House), by best-selling author/copy editor Kitty Burns Florey, who might be cheekily described as a “woman of letters.” Filled with quirky facts and compelling asides, “Script & Scribble” takes a long look back at the golden age of American penmanship, while also examining the steep, sudden decline in handwriting, which has been almost entirely displaced by the much-less-romantic practice of keyboarding.

Feeling nostalgic, I recently took the opportunity to step away from the computer and interview Florey about the history and current state of handwriting, and to ask whether her penmanship stands up to scrutiny at book signings.

How did you get the idea for “Script & Scribble”?

I got the idea when I came across an article in the Washington Post about how keyboarding is taking over in schools and how there is not much emphasis on handwriting anymore. First, I was amazed to hear typing called keyboarding. I had never heard that term before. I was also horrified that this was happening. 

Then I thought about it and said to myself, What do we need to handwrite for? We all work on the computer now, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing that handwriting is being phased out. 

Eventually, I started to believe it would be a good subject for a book. And I managed to persuade my publisher that this was a good idea—something that people could get interested in and possibly excited about. And that is happening. People feel very strongly about this, on one side or the other.

Did you write your book by hand?

[Laughs]. No. I didn’t. I haven’t written a book by hand since the eighties. What I do, however, is when planning out a book I do it with a notebook and a pen and a cup of tea at the ready. And while I’m writing, if I come to a part I’m having trouble with, it really helps to sit down and write it out in longhand. 

Why has handwriting become a thing of the past?

It’s a chicken and egg situation. It’s not being taught as much in schools because we don’t use it and we don’t use it much because it’s not being taught in schools. As for people who learned it in school, their handwriting has probably gone downhill. If you don’t use it, it’s not going to stay usable. 

But the main reason handwriting is in decline is that it’s not valued. It’s the digital age and everyone is enamored with what can be done with a computer. Personally, I couldn’t live without a computer. I have a huge email correspondence, but I only correspond with one person by letter—an elderly ex-aunt writes me letters and I write back. So handwriting is not being used, even by people like me who think it should be used. 

Why isn’t handwriting taught in schools?

They haven’t stopped teaching it [entirely]. They teach printing in the first grade, and cursive in the second or third grade. But then it stops and the kids are not required to use it after they master keyboarding. So there is no pressure on them to develop legible handwriting because they go on to type their assignments. And this is peculiar to the last ten years, as keyboarding has taken over. 

In the course of writing the book, did you work on your own handwriting? 

Yes. I got very excited about a method of handwriting called Italic. It dates back to the sixteenth century in Italy, which is why it’s called Italic. It’s very attractive and very easy—the kind of script where you can connect letters if you want to but you don’t have to. I was amazed that with just a few practice sessions I improved my handwriting, and I have before and after pictures in the book to prove it. 

How did you practice Italic? Did you take a class? 

I didn’t. I had a few books. I also sent a sample of my handwriting to a woman in Albany, New York, who is known as the Handwriting Repairwoman. She sent me pages and pages of ways I could improve my writing. And for an afternoon or two I really worked at it. Then I incorporated what I learned.

Tell me about Platt Rogers Spencer. 

Spencer, who was born in 1800 and lived until 1864, remains the biggest name in handwriting history. He taught himself to write at a very young age and was completely obsessed with handwriting. He was inspired by the forms of nature—pebbles on the beach, branches of trees, flower shapes, and leaf shapes. And he devised a handwriting system based on these natural forms. 

Spencer was fortunate that he came along when commerce was just taking off and there were a lot of handwritten documents that had to be neat and beautiful. And when he got older he opened a series of business schools—Spencerian colleges. The curriculums included classes like accounting, but also they taught beautiful handwriting. In his time, everyone who could write wrote some version of Spencerian script. Of course, no one uses it today except for Spencerian devotees. 

What is the hallmark of Spencer's “method”?

His capital letters are very large, elaborate, and shaded, so you need a wide nipped pen. At its most extreme it’s pretty complicated, and when A.N. Palmer [arguably the second-biggest name in handwriting history] came along at the turn of the twentieth century, he devised a stripped down method, one much better suited for the world of business. Palmer observed that the people who were most successful at being clerks in offices were those who could write fast and legibly. So he developed variations on Spencerian method [now known as the Palmer Method], which swept the American school system in the first half of the twentieth century. 

Can you give me an example of a usage of Spencer’s script that most people would be familiar with? 

The only one I can think of is the Coca-Cola logo. It was apparently devised by someone at the company, who happened to have beautiful Spencerian writing. 

Was there a golden age for writing or penmanship? 

It was the nineteenth and early twentieth century, when Spencer and then Palmer were at their peak and handwriting was considered essential. Back then you had to have good handwriting because that was how people communicated.

In the book you note that the A.N. Palmer Co. went bankrupt in 1987. Can we assume it was the decline in writing instruction that killed it?

That had a lot to do with it, but the rise of rival companies played a role as well. Palmer dominated writing instruction through the first half of the twentieth century. But competitors came along and schools just couldn't accommodate three or four different handwriting systems. 

These days, the most common system is the Zaner-Bloser system, which is a stripped down derivative of the Palmer Method. So we went from Spencer to Palmer to Zaner-Bloser, and now there are methods even more stripped down than Zaner-Bloser. 

Do men and women approach handwriting differently?

I think women are more interested in having neat handwriting. Historically, there’s been a tendency for men to feel that handwriting is beneath them, that fussing with something as trivial as handwriting is the mark of someone who doesn’t have anything better to do. The real-men-don’t-have-nice-handwriting attitude prevailed for a long time. Meanwhile, it was considered important for ladies to have a really nice script because they would keep diaries and write letters and notes. 

Today, it’s mostly women who are interested in handwriting, although the greatest Spencerian advocate is a man—Michael Sull. He travels all over the world, and every summer he teaches a handwriting workshop on the banks of Lake Erie, where Spencer devised his script. He also has a wonderful video [Learning to Write Spencerian Script] that I tried to learn Spencerian from but I had only middling success. I worked on it for a very long time and I could barely write my first name [laughs]. It's like drawing—like art.

What can you tell about a person from their handwriting? 

That’s a complicated question. A graphologist would say that you can look deep into a person’s soul by the way they dot their i’s and put tails on their g’s. Of course, a lot of people with good handwriting are older people. So you can immediately cast them as old fuddy-duddies. Younger people tend to have messier writing.

There is also this notion that to have good handwriting means you are a conformist. But I think it’s kind of a cool thing to have nice handwriting. The other day I got an appointment reminder card from the veterinarian, and the young woman who wrote it had beautiful handwriting. I commented on it and she was very pleased. She said she always gets compliments on her writing and she was quite proud of it.

Do you envision a comeback for writing or penmanship? 

In my dreams [laughs]. I don't think it will ever die because there are people who are very passionate about it. But I don’t see a comeback. Someday only specialists will be able to read and write cursive script. And if you can’t write it, it’s pretty hard to read it. I have a lot of old documents and I can imagine that my great-grandchildren will not be able to read them. If they are interested in their family history and want to read these things they will have to take them to a specialist. 

Are there any times when nothing but a handwritten note or letter will do?

Yes. It’s tacky to type a sympathy note, or God-forbid, send a sympathy email. It really has to be done on a piece of paper, on a white card in black ink. 

It’s also nice to send handwritten thank-you notes. Nowadays, there are plenty of people who have never received a handwritten letter, which is amazing to me, because I grew up sending and receiving letters. But people who have never experienced that really enjoy it when they get a little envelope with their name on it and there’s a handwritten note inside. 

Are you doing book signings? 

Yes, and to make a long story short, my writing sometimes gets atrocious. I did a signing the other night and everybody was quite amused when they saw it wasn't the kind of handwriting I claimed to have acquired in the course of writing the book. 

I was wondering if you felt any pressure. 

I do. And I'm not handling it well [laughs]. 

Do you have any memorable stories from your book signings?

The other night I signed a book for a guy in his twenties and he blew on my signature to dry it before he closed the cover. I said, “Too bad you don't have a blotter.” And he said, “A what?” Blotters were certainly a part of my childhood; we used them to blot ink. So I gave him a little talk about blotters and he was fascinated. 

The other thing people are amazed by is the writer’s bump that everyone used to have on the first knuckle of their third finger where the pen would rest. It was just something you had and didn't think about. But no one even knows what that is anymore.

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