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Handwritten History

My mother used to start writing notes to friends and addressing Christmas cards the first week in December.  She had the most beautiful handwriting, having been schooled in the Palmer Method.  Even her quick “scribbling” was an attractive conglomeration of swoops and flourishes.  I treasure her knitting instructions, recipe cards and letters as part of our family history.

The history of the Blackstone River Valley is captured in small details by letters written over the centuries and carefully preserved by families, historical societies and museums.  I wonder how the history of our new 21st century will be preserved.  The handwritten letter has become an object of art, as well a document.  It is a rarity in this day of texts, emails, blogs, electronic postings and printer-generated communications.  (Someone estimated that worldwide we send emails at the rate of two million per second!)  Pages of printed emails don’t hold the visual and tactile charm of handwritten letters on carefully chosen stationery.  Handwriting itself is fast becoming a thing of the past.

Almost no one writes in a cursive hand any more, never mind Mom’s coveted Palmer Method.  All the students I know print when compelled to use a pen or pencil.  Whether graceful or blocky, beautiful or illegible, each person’s handwriting is so distinctive.  We give up a part of our identity when we opt for the speed and immediacy of a machine.

It wasn’t always so.  People wrote long and descriptive letters – it was the only way to communicate.  The first documented handwritten letter dates to 500 B.C. and was penned by the Persian Queen Atossa.  Letters became historical documents, companions to books and manuscripts recording the past.

In the 18th century, rare and expensive paper was filled with rows of miniscule script so none of the space was wasted.  Then the page was given a quarter turn and the writing continued over the first page of text at a 90 degree angle.  The majority of the surface would be covered with crosswriting, as it was called, often to the exasperation of the reader trying to understand what was written.  Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) authored a small work in 1888 called “Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing.”  He cautioned the letter writer to use additional paper if necessary but not to cross write.  “Cross-writing makes cross reading,” he said.

Books were written on the etiquette of letter writing, also on penmanship complete with recommendations for flourishes.  Inks, pens and papers were big business.  The Universal Letter-Writer from 1808 included sample letters for various occasions like “From a young Gentleman to his Father claiming a promised Increase of Allowance” or “From a Gentleman, who had long neglected a Correspondence to his friend.”  My favorite was the form letter (you supplied the names) that issued a challenge to duel which began “The epithets which you were pleased to bestow upon my late conduct, being, in my opinion, illiberal and impertinent, I demand satisfaction due to injured honor.”  We just don’t write like that anymore.

The handwritten letter has become the dinosaur of communication.  Why?  It takes time and care to write a proper letter, and there is a cost for stationery and postage.  Most of all, handwritten notes lack the immediate effect of emails.  That’s really too bad because emails are notoriously poorly written and not deserving of the status of historic document.

Do you remember the last letter you wrote?  The time you took to choose just the right words to express yourself?  I’m sure it didn’t include OMG or LOL or other trendy abbreviations used texting on cell phones.

None of those emails or texts will be carefully bound with a ribbon and packed away for their memories.

As it happens, December is Write A Friend Month, highlighted by National Letter Writing Day on December 7th.  I think this provides a nice incentive to create our holiday communications manually…think of the future historians in the Blackstone River Valley who will thank you.