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On Penmanship

During a recent conservation treatment on a 19th century manuscript, I was drawn to one aspect of its handwriting: the writer’s intentional control of the width of each line.

19th Century Penmanship Sample

This repeated downward arc ranges from 0.25 to 2 mm in width.

Looking at this repeated, fluid curve, I was suddenly struck by the writer’s deft articulation. Here is evidence of the vanished craft of penmanship, with its accompanying tools and practice. Here, too, is a precise method of expression no longer available to modern people using modern writing utensils. It’s hard to imagine what it might be like to regain this means of written expression. It might be as if, in your daily speech, you were suddenly granted an entirely new class of adjectives. Or as if a controlled stroke at the computer keyboard produced varied shades of meaning, much like playing a piano.

Modern Penmanship Sample

This admittedly bland photo documents my own attempt to replicate the previous 19th century stroke with a ball-point pen.

I am advised by parent and teacher friends that children in the digital age don’t formally practice handwriting anymore. This begs an Andy Rooney-style, kids-these-days argument that would sentimentally bludgeon complexities of the modern world. Yes, penmanship enabled genteel expression; it likely also signified class and education in ways that excluded those it didn’t empower. But it’s worth noting anytime a craft passes from practice and especially from appreciation. Penmanship is so long-gone that few of us today can look through its words to read what the craft said. I’m curious to hear any readers’ insights on practice or connoisseurship in this area.

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