Is handwriting a lost art?

Writing may arguably be one of the most important inventions of humankind. For centuries writing was a means for humans to record history, ideas and discoveries, and to communicate with each other.

Thought to have originated in Mesopotamia around 3,200 BC, writing has undergone a mass of technological development to get where it is today. Handwriting has been evident in many forms: inscribing with tools on stone, leaf, wood, wax, papyrus and parchment and in more recent times, on paper.

These days, people handwrite less and less. The arrival of the printing press in the mid-15th century meant multiples of transcriptions and books became easier to produce. Then the typewriter eliminated the need for composing everything by hand. In recent years the rapid development of computers and smartphones all but do away with the need to write by hand; instead we use texting, emailing and instant messaging. And that’s a pity.

1. Contract 1577

 Commercial contract dated 22 August 1577, written in fine black ink on high quality heavy parchment with three red wax seals attached on hanging strips. Written in English, the signatories are Laurence Robynson, Thomas Bell and Matthew Walker.
Ref: 1959.197.2

The Whanganui Regional Museum archives hold numerous examples of handwritten text, some as early as the 16th century, in the form of legal documents, mortgage papers, manuscripts, indentures, patents, diaries, letters, business records, cash books, autographs and personal papers. In delving into the pages of these beautifully kept records we can appreciate the art, skill and importance of hand-written text. Future generations are unlikely to stock museums with our dull digital printouts.

Why is the art of handwriting so important? Firstly, learning to write by hand is a vital component of literacy. There is evidence to suggest that more information is retained and expressed when putting pen to paper. Handwriting engages more sections of the brain than typing. Learning how to shape and link letters improves reading comprehension. Researchers have ascertained that students who hand-write their notes indeed learn more. Writing a word out, letter by letter, is a self-conscious process that requires a certain processing of information, which provides a deeper connection to thoughts than is acquired by using a keyboard. Handwriting can also increase creativity and improve memory.

2. Stewart journal 1843

 Excerpt from the field journal of Whanganui surveyor and engineer, J T Stewart, 1843.
Ref: 1805.388

Secondly, someone’s handwriting gives clues to their personality that cannot be assessed in digital text. The unique style and slope of individual letters, a flowing cursive and the expressive quality of an individually written word is something that we stand to lose. There is warmth and personality attached to a handwritten letter or note, a postcard sent home or daily diary entries.

Other than the ubiquitous handwritten shopping list, scrawled reminder note or obligatory form filling, how many of us use handwriting on a daily basis? When did any of us last write a handwritten letter to someone? Texts, emails and other forms of technical communication have taken over and caused us to neglect our penmanship. Technology has diluted our collective handwriting ability and there is a real possibility that the skill of hand-writing is dying out.

3. Oldknow letter 1789

This letter was written by H Oldknow from her school in Nottingham to her mother, in 1789. It starts with “Hon.d Madam” and ends, touchingly, with “I am / Madam / your most dutiful / and obedient Daughter”. Ref: 1966.22.1

Handwriting is unique. It has a tremendous expressive power, and more than that, handwritten text can be incredibly gorgeous. The physical act of writing takes time and can communicate that the writer cares about the content of the communication, and in turn the person intended to receive it. There is something special about sending or receiving a precious hand-written note or letter.

Pick up a pen. And write something.

Rachael Garland is the Events Coordinator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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