The Death of Handwriting

As the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Philadelphia is America's unofficial capital of penmanship. So what happens in an age when cursive gets conquered by the keyboard?

THERE’S ONE MORE WAY in which handwriting enriches us. A scrap of yellow construction paper stuck inside the dictionary in my desk drawer at home says, in my mother’s neat Catholic-school hand: “Yurbakas town where Poppy”—her father, my grandfather, a Lithuanian immigrant—“was born.” Underneath it is the word SAVE in my dad’s bold, slanting letters, followed by his initials: WRH. I come across the scrap every now and then as I’m searching through the W’s, and experience a shock of welcome recognition. Mom’s been dead 30 years; Dad’s been dead four. But there they are, on the page.

Local educator Jack McGovern—he is an adjunct professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education and has been a public- school teacher and principal—says that cursive may not merit the long hours we once spent on it, but dropping it completely would be a loss: “In a world that’s increasingly homogenous, handwriting is something you can bring your own style to. It’s another tool children have to make a unique impact on their world.”

Which brings us to the mystical mind-body connection we associate with handwriting. Why else would each of the six extant samples of William Shakespeare’s deplorably illegible autograph be worth an estimated $5 million? Why would otherwise sane folk beg Britney Spears to sign barbecue-stained napkins, or wait in line to have Michael Jack Schmidt put his name on a baseball? It’s as though ink were blood; we think we’re getting a piece of them. Handwriting, British typeface creator Rosemary Sassoon once said, is “an imprint of the self on the page.”

That would make Elizabeth Fuller a curator of selves. As the librarian at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, on a leafy stretch of Delancey Street, she tends to a massive collection of literary and historical documents: letters penned by Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, Thomas Jefferson’s inventory of his slaves, handwritten manuscripts by Charles Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Dylan Thomas, Marianne Moore.… Scholars from all over the world come to sit in Fuller’s stuffy library and study the artifacts she watches over. There’s no food or drink allowed inside, and she replaces my pen with a pencil at the door.

In her 24 years working with the writings of the famous, Fuller, a tall woman with gleaming black hair, has pondered the difference between typeset words and ones that are handwritten. One advantage of the computer, she acknowledges, is that type is always legible. But she believes you can see something of a writer’s personality in his script: “Not like a science that quantifies it—this way of making a character indicates that trait. But if you see a letter from George Washington and one from Isadora Duncan, you’ll never mistake one for the other.”

She shows me both. It’s hard to imagine two more different hands than the first president’s straight-up, ornate script and the flaring, over-the-top strokes of the flamboyant dancer. In the galleries, I see letters from Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, John Brown, Jefferson Davis. They all have this in common: The black ink has faded to dried-blood brown.