Like most of my posts, this one’s based off one of my papers. The most interesting stuff has been removed.
Email me if you want a copy of my original work, or if you have any questions about my references.
What makes for good handwriting? Legibility, neatness… But handwriting is more than just about legibility; it’s about personality, as exemplified by the practice of handwriting analysis, which is formally known as graphology – it’s an entire field, people! The whole field of graphology assumes that one’s handwriting can reflect physical characteristics, identification with professional activities, personal character traits, and personal or emotional issues. People are thought to embed symbols within their writing that are hidden until uncovered by analysis, which supposedly can determine how individuals internalize and make use of symbols. Note my use of qualifying words. Note my skepticism.
How did the field of handwriting analysis develop? How have the uses of handwriting shifted in an age of typing? Despite people spending more and more time on their computers, handwriting has yet to be abandoned. In this post, I want to take a look at the connections between eighteenth century and twenty-first century handwriting. Handwriting sames to be equally important in both time periods, but for different reasons. Do changes in handwriting reflect larger social changes?
Even in supposedly unbiased situations, handwriting can sway readers in favour of the writer. For example, one study revealed that university exam markers tended to mark handwritten exams higher than typewritten exams, even when the two contained the exact same answers. This shows the personal, humanizing aspect of handwriting – handwriting is a product of the individual, and those markers may have given higher marks to the handwritten exams because they felt connections with the writers. It sounds kind of corny, but it’s possible, right? In typing, there’s not as much room for individuality; if two people type the same text using the same font, both texts will look identical. Contrarily, if two people write the same text, even while trying to imitate the same font, there will undoubtedly be differences. This human factor is what makes handwriting personal. Nevertheless, handwriting is ultimately a tool for communication, used in those few instances when you just can’t find a computer.
While doing my research on handwriting, I spent quite a bit of time with a book by George Bickham called The Universal Penman. The Universal Penman was first printed in a series of separate issues that were sent to subscribers, and it wasn’t until 1743 that it was finally published as a complete copybook, with each issue constituting a chapter. Each chapter exemplifies various hands through short proverbs, poems, or pieces of advice relating to the particular chapter theme. Readers were free to choose whatever script from the book best suited his current social situation. But despite the scripts being quite different from one another, all of them were – and still are – considered examples of good, legible handwriting.
Bickham thought of handwriting as a technical skill that had to be taught and practiced, and attention to technical rules, he believed, was mandatory. The eighteenth-century writer wasn’t expected to develop a personal style but rather was to learn and apply preexisting styles. In The Universal Penman the practice of handwriting is based on standardization, and the elimination of personal characteristics; ultimately, writing served a communicative function. Writers were expected to focus more on content than aesthetics, and copybooks like Bickham’s helped lessen the concern for development of a personal writing style so that writers could focus on the quality of their messages.
As he mentions in his book’s introduction, Bikham’s intended audience was educated men businessmen. This is reinforced by the book’s contents, which include chapters like: “Knowledge, Industry, Idleness”; “How to Get Riches”; “Various Forms of Business”; and “The Honest Merchant, Bills, Credit.” Many of these chapters, however, aren’t limited to a focus on business; there’s also an underlying theme of morality. Even when a section doesn’t directly address morality in its title, moral advice seeps in. For example, in “Pleasures & Recreation, Gaming, &c,” the text reads:
All Cheats at Cards, Still gaping for their prey
Quarrels create; and Mischiefs follow Play:
It loses Time, disturbs y Mind and Sense,
Whilst Oaths and Lies are oft the consequence,
And Murders, sometimes, follow lots of Pence.
So handwriting wasn’t just seen as a practical technique, but also as an opportunity for ethical development. There was a social expectation of these businessmen – that they were to remain upright and honest, and altogether moral. Just like how we expect some sort of honesty from businessmen today (although they still may not be as honest as we’d like them to be), businessmen were expected to adhere to a certain moral standard. This standard included attention to developing a good hand, likely out of respect for the reader. After all, no one likes to sit there and try to decipher someone else’s chicken scratch. Good handwriting showed that one was a member of a distinguished and morally upstanding group.
Then the typewriter came along. The typewriter made texts look uniform by removing individual idiosyncrasies, which is why the shift towards typing is often seen as a disembodiment of what has “traditionally been seen as a highly personalized act.” It’s worth mentioning, though, that the association of handwriting with the self arose out of the impersonality of typing, which was seen by some as hazardous to human communication. Handwriting in Bickham’s time, then, wasn’t necessarily seen as the means of self-expression that it is today. Graphology hadn’t yet caught on, and it wasn’t widely accepted that the individual’s personality could be revealed by his/her hand. To say that handwriting has “traditionally been seen as a highly personalized act” isn’t quite right, then; in the eighteenth century, handwriting was generally not seen as a personal act, but as a shared act of a community.
As we all know, the increased use of type didn’t displace – and still hasn’t displaced – handwriting. As with any new technology, old technologies aren’t immediately chucked, and there’s a period of coexistence. Handwriting is still important today, albeit for different reasons than in Bickham’s time. Its meaning and use have been adapted to accommodate new demands and, at least for the time being, handwriting is used alongside type.
But educators have shown increasingly inconsistent attention to formal handwriting instruction. Different school districts have different handwriting curricula (if they have one at all), and there is no uniform time frame for a child’s handwriting development. So while children are constantly blamed for not having good handwriting, they’re not necessarily given many opportunities to learn and to practice. The time schools once dedicated to handwriting practice is instead being dedicated to typing instruction, and handwriting is treated as a supplementary skill. Move over, George Bikham. Our girl Mavis Beacon has stormed your castle.
Despite this, handwriting is still used in schools not out of a sentimental desire to maintain the traditional skill, but because it’s seen to have a purpose. Educators see that handwriting plays an important role in the learning process. Students gather, remember, and share knowledge, as well as explore, organize, and refine their ideas, through handwriting, and some studies suggest that students are more likely to remember what they write than what they type. There are pedagogical benefits to handwriting as opposed to typing in the classroom. Students also demonstrate their knowledge in school primarily through handwriting, as tests are still completed by hand. Students have no choice but to develop their hands in order to succeed academically. Due to an increasing lack of formal instruction, however, each student must practice individually. This inevitably leads to greater variation in handwriting styles, and thereby justifies the increasing personalization of hands and, I guess, supports the entire field of graphology. Darn it.