January 23 today -- is National Handwriting Day. WIMA, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, which has sponsored the event for thirty years, wants you to take a break from the rigorous world of electronic communication and write a good, old-fashioned letter, complete with your penned signature, just like John Hancock. In fact WIMA picked Jan. 23 for National Handwriting Day so that it would coincide with Hancocks birthday.
It turns out that John Hancock, author of the largest and most famous American signature, was born not on Jan. 23 but on Jan. 12. WIMA chose a different date on purpose, so its handwriting holiday would connect with Hancock in our minds but wouldn't interfere with all the Hancock birthday events. And despite the fact that John Hancock probably didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence with a pen made by one of WIMA’s clients, we’re supposed to celebrate National Handwriting Day because WIMA is afraid that the computer, the newest writing technology, could signal the death of handwriting, the oldest writing technology. After all, after pens and pencils came along, no one wrote on clay tablets anymore, and since the PC hit it big, you don’t see a lot of typewriters around, either. The pen and pencil could be next.
On Thanksgiving, we give thanks. On National Punctuation Day (Sept. 24, in case you forgot), we give thanks for punctuation. And on National Handwriting Day, we gather to celebrate “the sincerity and individualism expressed through the handwritten word.” As WIMA puts it so poetically, on its web site: “There’s something poetic about grasping a writing instrument and feeling it hit the paper as your thoughts flow through your fingers and pour into words.”
Of course keyboarders like to think that their thoughts flow poetically from brain to fingers to screen even faster and more naturally. So WIMA also reminds us that handwriting is important because it reflects our personalities. But individualized handwriting, like mine, which my teachers called sloppy and my parents insisted was full of personality, is a sign that the art of handwriting is already dead.
In the days before typing, when all office documents were handwritten, penmanship (as it was then called) had to be neat and uniform and so consistent from writer to writer that anyone could read it. Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B., First Lord of the Admiralty, was a successful clerk who became ruler of the Queen’s navy because he could “copy all the letters in a big roundhand.” (Gilbert and Sullivan's Sir Joseph practiced “English round hand,” also known as copperplate.) In its heyday, handwriting was imitative, not personal and creative, and schools emphasized penmanship because they saw themselves as training the next generation of letter copiers, not the next generation of poets.
Handwriting only became a badge of individuality once it was no longer an essential writing technology. That had happened in the U. S. by the 1930s, when the typewriter’s success began inspiring complaints that the art of handwriting was dead. In 1932 researchers even demonstrated that children learned better and faster if they had typewriters on their schooldesks, but schools stuck with pencils. It was the Depression, after all, and besides, although the pupils took to the machine squite readily, it was too hard to teach the teachers how to type.
In fact, our schools are always so behind the curve they’ve only realized that children who come to class already knowing how to keyboard (remember, the typewriter is dead too) don’t have much call for cursive.
National Handwriting Day was a lost cause from the start. You can only read about it on the Web. It's not even important enough to the pen and pencil industry for them to send you a good old-fashioned letter, complete with a penned signature. That's because writers choose the best available technologies for their messages. Shakespeare used a goose quill to write "Romeo and Juliet" (at least he did in the movie, "Shakespeare in Love"), and Henry David Thoreau actually helped design the pencils that he wrote with on his sojourns at Walden and in the Maine woods (Thoreau was an engineer who worked for the family pencil business to support his countercultural activities). But were they writing today, Shakespeare would be blogging his pentameters, and Thoreau, listening to a different drummer, would be keyboarding his complaints about modern life on a computer that he put together from spare parts in his garage. And if we were to get ten commandments today, they'd probably be digital, not written in stone.
Even so, WIMA needn’t worry. Yes, typewriters exist only in museums. Yes, we write more and more on screen, and less and less on paper. And yes, our handwriting muscles have turned to flab. But old technologies sometimes do survive alongside the new ones, and it seems that we can never have enough pens and pencils. Computer sales are flat, but annual pencil sales worldwide recently topped 14 billion, and the makers of writing implements could easily put up signs at Staples announcing, "googols served." Pens and pencils are no high-tech bubble. They represent a $3 billion growth industry whose sales have shotup dramatically every year since people began writing on clay tablets and the dried skins of animals.
[a shorter version of this post appeared in the LA Times]