communication

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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The Tickner Envelopes

R A Tickner was a great correspondent. He was also handy with a pen and ink. In 1919 he was writing regularly from Hornchurch in Essex, England, to members of the Downes family living in Helmore Street, Whanganui. Tickner later married the sister of Sydney Herbert Downes and Thomas William Downes, the well-known Whanganui author, artist and historian. By the early 1920s, Tickner was writing to his family back in Hornchurch, so we can date his migration to New Zealand fairly accurately. This information can be gleaned from the date stamps and addresses on the envelopes.

3. Tickner Envelopes Montage

 Montage of the Tickner Envelope Collection. Ref: 1989.15.

Why is this at all interesting? It is because Tickner decorated, in great detail, the envelopes that contained his letters, sent between Hornchurch and Whanganui. His drawings depicted temporary events or fashionable styles, a lot of it tongue-in-cheek. His elaborately drawn and inked envelopes were gathered up by the extended family in both Hornchurch and Whanganui, and mounted in three frames. They were donated to the Museum by the daughters of Mr and Mrs Sydney Downes.

Letter writing was an important part of the social structure of the day. Families were on the move to find work and houses, in both Europe and America, and many other parts of the world. Long distance telephone calls were very costly, so trunk calls and telegrams were used only in dire emergencies. Letters kept families and friend in touch.

2. Tickner Envelope Xmas Pudding

Decorating envelopes had become something of a folk art tradition by the 1930s and 1940s, in the United States. Its roots, however, go back to the 1840s in England when postage stamps and envelopes were first used. A prepaid postal wrapper decorated with a coloured printed image was the forerunner of the modern envelope. And it became fashionable to hand-decorate plain envelopes with flowers or animals or woodland scenes.

In the 1860s, the American Civil War gave rise to another sort of printed decorated envelope. Both Confederates and Unionists employed fairly unsubtle propaganda to eulogise their causes or point out the duties of fighting men or merely wave the flag, all on the front of commercially produced envelopes.

1. Tickner Envelope Roman Guards

Current affairs and popular culture influenced many envelope decorations. During World War II, for example, many USA servicemen decorated their envelopes with comic training camp scenes, often targeting officers or NCOs, the food or the latrines. The mid-1970s saw a new outbreak of decorated envelopes in the USA. The envelopes themselves might be made of  silk or satin or patchwork cotton pieces, or denim or oilskin, and then were decorated with feathers, photographs, plastic cut-outs, embroidery, newspaper cuttings and occasionally, even sweets. Whatever the era, or the fashion, decorated envelopes became part of popular culture of their day and were collected by aficionados, just as stamps or postcards were collected, and just as the Tickner envelopes were.

 

Libby Sharpe is the senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.

The first Telegram in Whanganui

In the Museum collection is the first telegram to be received in Whanganui.  Received at 3.40 pm on 3 November 1869, the telegram was addressed to the settlers of Wanganui and the district and was sent by then Premier William Fox. The message reads, “I congratulate you on the completion of the telegraph. May it strengthen the Bonds of Union + promote the prosperity of the Colony.”

1-first-telegram

The telegram sent to Wanganui by Premier William Fox on 3 November 1869 (ref: 1802.5812)

The first government-owned telegraph line in New Zealand was established between Christchurch and Lyttelton in 1862, and the first lines in the North Island appeared two years later. Initially the North Island line was for military use only, to assist with the land wars of the time. By 1866 it had been purchased by the provincial government and incorporated with the wider public telegraph system.

The telegram, or electric telegraph, was revolutionary for its time. Previous attempts at communication were slow and cumbersome, limited to the speed a human could travel on foot, horse, or boat. The invention of the electric telegraph, however, hugely altered the face of global society and economy.

From the first days of electricity in the 18th century people have been finding ways to use it to improve our lives; communications benefited greatly. Various attempts had been made to use electrical currents to send messages but none were very successful until 1837 when William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone started experimenting. They devised a machine on which a series of needles was attached to a board, each of which could turn clockwise or anticlockwise, depending on the electromagnetic charge it received. The operator would choose the direction of the current and the needles would turn to point to corresponding letters on the diamond-shaped board.

This system was gradually refined and simplified until only one needle was required. Numerals were then added to the repertoire. This format was closely followed by Morse code with its familiar dots and dashes, and some telegraph machines were developed with printing capabilities so the message was automatically printed for later deciphering and delivery. Improved communication methods removed the message from the object carrying it and enabled it to move much faster, requiring only someone on the receiving end to transcribe it and ensure its delivery.

2-veitch-in-uniform

Steve Veitch dressed in his uniform for delivering telegrams (ref: P-CH-006)

Almost instant communication saw the rapid growth of business and organisations, which in turn encouraged society to embrace telegrams for a more personal use. To keep costs down, the message had to be short and to the point – the average telegram was less than 15 words – and required the language to be free of any local or regional colloquialisms which could be misinterpreted.

The speed with which information could travel the globe changed the face of news reporting. Many newspapers began bearing the title of “Telegraph” indicating they received their news timely and accurately. Misinformation still got through, however; the New York Sun and Honolulu Evening Bulletin published on 15 April 1912 both reported receiving telegrams stating all passengers aboard the Titanic had been saved.