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?

Inside a glass case in one room is the manuscript (from the Latin manu, “hand,” and scriptus, “write”) of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It may be my favorite book in the world; I spent a year studying it in college. I approach gingerly, expecting to be swamped with emotion upon seeing the great man’s handwriting. And so I am.

“Whoa!” I bend down to look more closely at the tiny, crabbed letters, the words all crowded down in a corner. “That is so hard to read!”

Fuller nods. “It’s one reason he’s famous for typographical errors.”

She wants to show me an example of cross-writing—a paper-saving technique from the Civil War era in which correspondents wrote out a page, then turned the paper 90 degrees and wrote over it again. “I think I know right where it is,” she says, and vanishes into her stacks, returning with a cardboard file box from the museum’s Rush-Williams-Biddle Family Papers collection—all names that loom large in Philadelphia history. She extracts an accordion file. Inside, protected by plastic, is a sheaf of letters. She pulls them out and turns them over, one by one.

“These are from Alexander Biddle to his wife, Julia Rush Biddle,” she explains. They were written in August 1863, a month after Gettysburg. They have that musty smell. They’re full of endless minutiae: what Biddle ate for breakfast, where his troop of soldiers is camped, how he made a whiskey barrel into a chair. “He prints when he writes to the children,” Fuller says.

She rules over a repository of dead things written by dead people, preserved in perpetuity—for what? For whom? The museum is empty on this bright May day. The cross-writing is beautiful but illegible. Who has time to unravel that, or Joyce’s stunted hand? When the Rosenbach posts historical documents on its website, it already feels compelled to offer printed “transcriptions” for those who can’t read the olden-days scripts.

Fuller tells me that researchers trying to decipher difficult handwriting have a last resort: Take your own pencil and try to copy it. “Often that motion will trigger in your brain the association with the word.” Every letter we form by hand is a palimpsest of every letter formed before it, whether in Zaner-Bloser, Palmerian, Spencerian, Italic, Gothic, the Uncial of Irish monks in their scriptoria, the Roman inscribed on the Pantheon. I hold my pen the same way Shakespeare held his. That alone seems worth 20 minutes a day in third grade.