VanHaren: Finding documents written in longhand becoming very rare

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By: 

Roger VanHaren

I got a note from an old friend recently. It was written in longhand and sent through the mail. How unique is that? In this day when so much of our communication is by way of the printed word or by the magic of email, it’s becoming more and more unusual to read such personal notes.

I can remember when people told us that it was “impolite” or “socially unacceptable” to send typewritten or electronic notes, especially for very personal things like thank you notes.

Typewritten? Wow! There’s a word which is gradually going out of use. Who uses a typewriter anymore? I saw a story recently about Tom Hanks and his collection of typewriters. He has many of them, all in good repair. Mostly, typewriters are relics of a different age.

The computer keyboard helped kill shorthand, and now it’s threatening to finish off longhand.

As usual, that handwritten note I got set me to thinking. How did it happen that cursive writing got developed? How did we learn to read it? Most people’s cursive writing doesn’t resemble printed words. And there are probably as many styles and peculiarities of handwriting as there are practitioners of the art.

For the first 25 (or more) years of my teaching career, all student papers were written in longhand, and no two papers in the hundred or so I’d get each week were alike. Yet I was able to read most of them. Some were illegible.

I wrote a column about 15 years ago about penmanship and all the hours we spent practicing the cursive scrawl, copying the letters in our workbooks, holding the pen just right, etc., and how my own penmanship has deteriorated into something that doesn’t resemble the stuff I learned back there in third grade.

So that brings me back to the point I was starting to make earlier. Longhand is weird. With so many different styles of writing, how do we ever learn to read this stuff? If you put something I wrote next to something Marilyn wrote, there’d be very few similarities, but you’d still be able to read them both. I think that’s amazing.

All the curves and curlicues, loops, backward and forward slants, combinations of cursive and block printing: longhand could almost look like a foreign language to a new reader. Each of us has a different set of muscles that controls our handwriting. Some of us are like artists, creating fancy calligraphy. (How about John Hancock’s famous signature on the Declaration of Independence?) Some of us are copycats, almost forgers, copying the style of someone else.

Some of us have handwriting that has grown shaky because of age, infirmity, or nervousness. Some of us have powerful, bold strokes that reflect our outgoing personalities; Some have tiny, meticulous scripts that reflect timidity or insecurity.

I wonder if, as technology develops even further, maybe handwriting will completely disappear. And then only specialists who have studied the handwriting of old will be able to read some of the important old documents written before the age of keyboards. Kids are learning keyboarding as early as kindergarten or elementary school these days. About the only place cursive is still needed is to sign your name.

Will the demise of handwriting diminish the power and accuracy of future historical research? If handwriting becomes a lost form of communication, does it matter? Maybe one of the greatest losses will be the beauty, individualism, and intimacy of the handwritten note. Back in 1995, I had the privilege of spending some time in the Mark Twain library at Elmira College and got to read some of Twain’s famous work in his original longhand. I hope we don’t ever lose documents like that.

I’m going to hang on tenaciously to a few pieces of my parents’ handwriting; I don’t want to lose the “connections” they represent.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.