Once again it’s National Handwriting Day. The Romans had Carve on a Clay Tablet Day, Gutenberg had Paint on Papyrus Day, we have National Handwriting Day. That’s because, while writing remains important, handwriting is an obsolete technology worth remembering only once a year.
National Handwriting Day comes round every January 23 “in conjunction with” John Hancock’s near-birthday (Hancock was actually born on Jan. 12). Jan. 23 is also one month past the half-birthday of William Shakespeare, perhaps the most famous English-language writer before J. K. Rowling. No one is sure what day Shakespeare was really born, and fortunately, his reputation depended on his literary output, not his handwriting.
Above: John Hancock wrote the biggest and most famous signature ever, on the Declaration of Independence. Below: One of six surviving examples of William Shakespeare’s signature. We don’t know much about Shakespeare’s education, but the Bard probably should have paid more attention in handwriting class.
The purpose of National Handwriting Day, sponsored by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, is to celebrate “the lost art of handwriting . . . one of the few ways we can uniquely express ourselves.”
There’s no doubt that handwriting is a lost art. So is writing on papyrus, or carving words in clay. In fact the reason we can romanticize handwriting is because it is no longer important.
On National Handwriting Day we’re encouraged to “use a pen or a pencil to rekindle that creative feeling through a handwritten note, poem, letter or journal entry.” But placing handwriting alongside colored inks and scented notepapers is way off the mark. In its heyday, handwriting was a technology for reproducing writing, not a touchy-feely technique to kindle creativity. Before printing and the typewriter, uniform, legible handwriting was a valued technology. The goal was for everyone’s script to be interchangeable. The schools taught handwriting to future scribes, not future poets, and writers whose penmanship looked like chicken scratches were not the ones who got the good jobs.
Keyboarding has taken the place of handwriting, and that process seems irreversible. Pencil-maker Dixon Ticonderoga reports that the demand for pencils has been flat for several years, and while three-quarters of its business still involves selling pencils, the company remains profitable only because it downsized and diversified into arts and crafts.
PC sales are also down—2013 saw a 7% decline over 2012. This doesn’t reflect a return to the good old days of pencils, but rather market saturation together with a shift to tablets and smartphones. Given past performance, it’s safe to say that writing technology will surely change again, and one day we may be celebrating National Keyboarding Day, urging people to pick up an old keyboard, get their creative juices flowing, and write something authentic, like a text, an email, or a status update, the kinds of writing they may have seen once in a museum.
Celebrate National Keyboarding Day: pick up a keyboard and an IBM 8088 with 64k of RAM, load your WordStar floppy and a data disc, get those creative juices flowing, and write something authentic like a text, an email, or a status update.