09/14/2012 06:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dedicated to Handwriting

On August 24, in the 12th year of this 21st century, an unusual monument was unveiled in front of the Ashtabula County Courthouse in Geneva, Ohio. That the monument was dedicated to a citizen who passed away 148 years ago was unusual enough, but what is hard to believe, in this age of digital texting and tapping, was that this man's claim to fame was handwriting.

Steve Leveen and Michael Sull at the Platt Rogers Spencer dedication
The monument is in the shape of an obelisk and is crowned by a bronze quill. Adorning one side is an image of Platt Rogers Spencer, America's founding father of handwriting.

Spencer is credited with inventing and disseminating Americans' own form of handwriting. (Before Spencer, Americans made do with daunting manuals from England and a British script.) Spencerian Script, as it is known among the aficionados who carry on his work today, was the basis for all subsequent forms of handwriting and handwriting instruction taught in the United States, including the Palmer and Zaner-Bloser methods. The latter is still taught in some schools today. Yet Spencer, and his legacy, was all but forgotten a generation ago.

Some thirty years ago, a singular man named Michael Sull became interested in researching the history of handwriting during his quest to become a certified Master Penman, a trade and certification nearly as extinct as the passenger pigeon. Michael wrote the definitive history of Spencer and began, twenty-five years ago, a project called The Spencerian Saga, which, every summer on the shores of Lake Erie, convenes teachers and students intent on passing on the techniques of their master. Through Michael's untiring efforts and the enthusiastic cooperation of the citizens of Geneva--many of them graduates of the Platt R. Spencer High School--this monument was dedicated on a windy, punishingly hot summer afternoon amidst the roar of passing traffic and periodic blasts of passing train horns.

Michael Sull before Spencer gravesite

Along with Michael, representatives of the Zaner-Bloser Company and the official calligrapher of the White House (no, I didn't know we had one either), a few people were asked to speak. I was one. In the spirit of authenticity, I wrote my speech by hand--first as ideas on notebook paper, then winnowed down to speaking points on index cards.

First draft of Spencer speech

Below is that speech, or what I meant to say. In the interest of time and temperature, I omitted the story of my grandfather. A few of the other sentences were obliterated by the roars of tractor-trailers and motorcycles.

Second draft of Spencer speech




Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for inviting me from hot Florida to come enjoy your summer in Geneva, Ohio. I feel right at home.

As I traveled to attend this event, I couldn't help wonder what Spencer would think were he among us today. Surely he would be pleased by the accolades, the monument, especially that it is placed in front of the old library that he helped found, and that is now your courthouse. He would, I'm sure, be pleased by the outpouring of enthusiasm for handwriting.

But...what would he think of the iPad?

After the handshakes and embraces, one of us would have to sit down with the great man and an iPad, and show him what's up.

Anyone want to volunteer for that job?

Spencer Program, Name Tag, and Sample
I suggest you move inside so as not to be distracted by the automobiles and occasional jets flying overhead. Remember, he did pass away in 1864.

On the iPad, you might show him the voice-recognition feature and how he can watch his speech become words on the screen, and then, with a few touches of the glass, how those words can change font and size and color, and, finally, be sent, without a wire, to a printer.

Yet the great man was no stranger to disruptive technological change. Living as he did from 1800 to 1864, Spencer saw the advent and explosive growth of the railroad, and how it utterly transformed the country. Alongside the railroad, literally, he saw the telegraph, which miraculously transformed the letters of the alphabet to dots and dashes sent over unimaginable distances at unimaginable speeds.

In his own field of handwriting, Spencer witnessed the advent of metal dip pens. After two thousand years of writing with bird feathers, his generation saw the arrival of machine-made metal facsimiles of quills that were made with such precision that their delicate tips flexed and spread in a most uniform fashion. These steel nibs were made possible by the same advances in machine technology that made the precise, interchangeable parts needed for the mass production of guns, which were having such devastating effect in the final years of Spencer's life, coinciding, as they did, with the Civil War.

My guess, being the visionary he was, is that Spencer would adapt fairly quickly to the iPad.

What I think Spencer would have trouble with, however, handwriting.

Yes, I've a confession to make--a confession all the more awkward in front of this audience and on this, of all days:

I only print.

Yet I know I am not alone. I frequently hear this admission from our customers, even customers who love pens and paper. They admit it in hushed, apologetic tones.

And that's not all. Despite their regression to printing, they often pronounce their handwriting unreadable, even to themselves. Usually they compare their handwriting unfavorably with that of their parents, and even more unfavorably with their grandparents'.

This is true in my case in the extreme, for my grandfather was a penmanship instructor.

George W. Knock was born in Frederick, Maryland, in 1898. Tragically, he contracted rheumatic fever as a child, which weakened his heart. This prevented him from serving in the military in World War I, and led eventually to a shortened life. But he was an energetic and enterprising young man.

George W. Knock, Class of 1918 Frederick High School
I have in my home office the framed photograph of his high school graduating class from Frederick High School in 1918. It was an all-male school and as they posed in their uniforms, his face stands out with a watch-out-world-here-I-come expression.

George was interested in new technology and so learned photography and set himself up with a photo studio in New York City. Unfortunately, it failed. He then tried a more established field and enrolled in the Zaner-Bloser school of handwriting in Columbus, Ohio, and set out to become an instructor.

George W. Knock's signature inside his Zanerian Manual
Judging from his work that survives, and from the gold Zaner-Bloser lapel pin I've inherited, George excelled at his new field. But I've also inherited his gold lapel pins from The Underwood and Remington Typewriter companies, so George learned that technology, too, and went on to a career of teaching both penmanship and office machines in high school in Syracuse, New York.

Like Spencer, my grandfather also saw disruptive technological change in general, and in handwriting in particular. Not only did the typewriter inexorably tap away at the foundation of handwriting's preeminence, but another technology was responsible for even more undermining. That technology, which went from zero penetration at George's birth in 1898 to over 75 percent of American homes and virtually all American businesses by the year George died in 1958, was the telephone.

My only memory of my grandfather was straddling his knee, and his only writing addressed to me was his inscription in my copy of Now We Are Six, which he gave to me early, probably knowing he would be unlikely to see my sixth birthday. He died the year I turned four.
Steve's copy of Now We are Six

I think Spencer would have smiled at my grandfather's hand, but the great old man would be dismayed at the degraded state of handwriting in America, especially among the young who today are hardly taught at all with pens and paper, while their parents hand iPads over the railings of cribs.

Spencer knew how handwriting naturally promoted reading and learning and provided necessary mind-body awareness and control to children that would pay all dividends for the rest of their lives.

Yet since we're imagining Spencer being here with us today, let's go ahead and imagine him hanging out for a few years. For if he did, I'm seeing a smile gradually form and then broaden. I'm seeing all of our smiles broadening, too. For in some years not too distant, we will witness--almost inevitably--a Renaissance in Handwriting.

The truth is: obsolescence is overrated.  And, borrowing from Mark Twain, the death of handwriting is exaggerated.

For analogies, all we need to do is look at bicycles and candles.

The fastest form of human transportation in the early 1900s
Bicycles, after a brief period around 1900 of being the fastest form of human transportation, were made obsolete by the automobile. But nobody told the bicycle designers, engineers and marketers who have created a renaissance in two-wheeled transportation. A veritable explosion in specialization, design and technology is delighting billions of people around the planet today.

And candles, which were made obsolete by electric lights more than a century ago, are today everywhere. None of us depend on candles to light our homes, but all of us have candles in our home. Why? Because we understand that we see not only with our eyes but with our hearts, and candles are one of the things that make a house a home.

Older technologies must spend their time in the attic before they are rediscovered. This is happening now with wholesome, heritage foods, and, through the Slow Foods movement, helping us understand that in so much of life, real living isn't about speed but about savoring.

Mark my words: handwriting will come looping back.

It will be young people who bring it back. Digital Natives is what we call them--these young people who grew up with smartphones and iPads. Sooner or later they will discover that their hands can do things beyond thumb a text message and tap on glass.

Michael Sull's Spencerian script
Thanks to your efforts--the living trustees of our precious human inheritance of handwriting, an inheritance symbolized in this monument to Spencer--young people will be able to rediscover what is theirs. And they will conclude that it is good.

They will assure that beautiful handwriting--and all its many blessings--shall long endure.