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The History of Handwriting

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Today I’m talking about the history of handwriting, specifically the lineage that brings us into modern American Calligraphy. There’s a much larger story about Calligraphy, but today, we’re going to cover the broad history of handwriting itself, so that we can get into the specific characters and handwriting itself next week.


The history of handwriting is incredibly complex. It’s as complicated as the history of civilization—and the threads of both are deeply intertwined. However, when you look at human history, we actually haven’t been writing that long, only for the past 5,000 years. To put that in perspective, if you were to spread the entire history of humanity over a period of a year, we only started writing on Dec. 31st, at 4 PM. It’s a very small window of human history that has included writing.


How History Shapes Our Handwriting

But why are we going through all of this? Do we really need to understand the history of handwriting, from carving stone to clay tablet to wax tablet to papyrus to parchment? You don’t necessarily need to understand the deep history of each of these areas to understand the history of handwriting, but the materials they used affected how they wrote—and how they wrote shapes our script today.


For example, when they worked with harder surfaces, the letters were very angular and blocky. The more they moved to softer materials, the styluses they used become more flexible, so you start to see more rounded and curved shapes in the writing. So the study of writing history helps us see why.


Thousands of Pictures Speak Before a Word

Anthropologists believe humans could speak long before they could write. Writing was also preceded by drawing, for though we’ve only been writing for about 5,000 years, research suggests that humans started drawing around 50,000 BC.


The first drawings were as simple as could be—just a simple line. With time, they grew in increased complexity, combining multiple lines to represent objects. These are called pictographs, and are the first point where we began to move towards drawings as representations of animals. These are the first types of drawings that become a type of early language, as a series of lines representing a concept.


When we look at the history of drawing, we see how it eventually leads to writing. They start with the simplest forms, which become more complex to represent an idea. This helps prepare us for modern written language.


Writing Evolves

If you were to bring up the topic of handwriting at a dinner party, which I encourage you to do, you would inevitably hear from someone about how it is a dying art. Someone might chime in with an old adage about “kids these days” and society in decline. These arguments have persisted since the beginning of time, and I don’t think they’re going away any time soon.


But in Mark’s book, Paper, he makes the argument that technology doesn’t change civilization—rather it’s the other way around. As societies evolve, their needs evolve. With new needs come new technology.


In all societies that have evolved writing, they made the transition from hunter-gatherer, to less transitory farmers. This made a new need.


Though spoken communication is incredibly effective for most types of communication, it doesn’t do well with record keeping. As society transitioned to stationary farming, all of a sudden they had more things they needed to remember. Quantities of things they were growing, trading, or the amount they were selling things for—they needed to remember these exact amounts for many years. At this point, society evolved to have a need for written word.


As far as we know, writing began around 3,300 BC, with the Sumerians in Uruk, modern-day Iraq. Sumerians initially began carving in stone, but they then began writing in clay tablets, with a stylus made from reed. Their writing consisted of a series of symbols, called cuneiform, which in Latin means “made from wedges.”


The Sumerians had about 1,500 pictographs, but they began to refine their language down to 800 characters. One of the most important innovation from the Sumerians were some single characters that represented phonetic sounds, instead of one singular word. This made it easier to read and write, since there were fewer letters.


The Sumerian language survived for 3,000 years, until the arrival of Alexander the Great. While they only inscribed on clay or stone, they left their mark as the first ones to have some phonetic characters.


Write Like an Egyptian

It’s impossible to talk about the history of handwriting without mentioning the Egyptians.

To simplify, the Egyptians changed the materials that were used for writing, because of the papyrus plant. This plant could be turned into basket, or sails, or rope, but it was also used for making paper. It’s worth noting that other cultures have also used plants to make paper, some sooner than the Egyptians. There was paper in Southeast Asia, in Peru there was some in 2100 BC, and there’s mention of it in China around 600 BC. But for our conversation, we’ll talk about the Egyptians, because there’s a common lineage to where our language is now from there.


This paper was primarily used by scribes. People who were studying to be scribes used a wax board—one that had been hollowed out and filled with beeswax. Like the Sumerians who pressed into clay, the Egyptians would press into wax with a tool to make their characters.

This wax board had the effect of making the writing more casual, because it allowed people other than scribes to write. Once you were finished writing, you could remelt the wax and start over. It was like a modern-day iPad, that you could erase what you’ve drawn and start again. These tables became popular around Greece and Rome, and in Assyria they found tables dating around 800 BC. It was very easy to write on wax tablets, they could be easily erased, and you could put two wax tablets together to make it into a document called a diptick, which was very popular among Hebrew people.


There’s a wonderful story about emperor Ptolemy, a Macedonian Greek who ruled Egypt from the city of Alexandria, which was known for its papyrus. He had all the supplies he needed to build a great library, and his life’s aim was to build the greatest library in the world. Whenever a boat would come into port in Alexandria, it would be searched for all their books. Any book found would be taken to be copied, and then returned. Over time, Ptolemy was able to build the most amazing library in the world.


Of course, when one person does something, there will always be copycats. The emperor who ruled in Pergamon wanted to also create a library. Ptolemy didn’t want any competition, so he refused to export papyrus to the city of Pergamon. Thus, over the next century or so the people of Pergamon experimented with different writing materials, and eventually created parchment. In fact, the term parchment comes from the word Pergamum, and many languages still use the word pergamon for parchment.


Parchment is made out of animal skins. They soaked animal hide in lye for about 10 days, after that they would stretch the hide out, scrape it to make it smooth and remove any hairs, and then burnish it with a stone so that it was very smooth and made a wonderful writing surface.


Inventing Their A, B, C’s

We’re only in the third century BCE, so let’s speed up. Another important thing to talk about is how the characters evolved from this period. We talked of the Sumerian innovation of phoneticism, where some of their characters represented specific sounds. This was much more economical in writing, because it allowed them to rearrange the different characters to represent different ideas. The Egyptians had this mixture as well, of logograms that represented object or ideas, and phonograms that represented sounds.


The next important group to talk about are the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were the first to have a fully phonetic alphabet. All of their characters represented a specific sound. They also pared their characters down—they only had 22 characters, all of which were consonants. Since they were an incredibly commercial people, trading all around the Mediterranean, their language became the root for many of the most influential languages in that region, including Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.


As the Greeks adopted the Phonecian alphabet, they found those characters didn’t represent all the sounds the Greeks needed. They needed vowels. Some of the sounds in the Phoenicians alphabet weren’t necessary for Greek, so they took those and translated them into sounds that they would use.


We see the full adoption of the Greek characters from Phoenician around the year 800 BCE. 400 years later, the Athenians decided that their version of the Ionian alphabet would be the one used for official documents. Their alphabet was the one that was carried forward in history. Funnily enough, the word Alphabet comes from the first two Greek letters, alpha and beta.


How Great Battles Built Our Handwriting

What next? The Greek empire rose and fell, but the Romans borrowed the alphabet from the Greeks, creating a new one that had 23 characters. It wasn’t complete until the 15th century, when the final character j was added.


About a hundred years later, we see another conquest change the course of history and handwriting forever. In 1588, the English defeated the Spanish Armada and took control of the seas. This led to a huge upsurge in trade for the English, with a booming economy. With this trade came a need for scribes, who could write and do good record keeping. Here’s an excerpt from a Master Scribe advertising his services:

All of the famous masters of our country are all at once outdone in the vain glorious conceit of a young and wonderful author lately dropped from the clouds. For he hath fixed unerring judgement and also outdoes all morals in writings that ever were before. (Introduction to a Tutor to Penmanship from 1698)


These advertisements have over the top flourishing language, but they also demonstrate the penmanship of master tutors who were creating these booklets. This led to the transition into modern calligraphy.


Changing Calligraphy

As public education had risen, not just scribes needed to be able to write—everyone needed to be competent.


Along came Plat Rogers Spencer, a very enigmatic character who dedicated his life to handwriting. He created his own kind of handwriting called Spenserian. It was taught in American schools around the 1850’s, and was the predominate style of handwritings in the US. But by the late 1800’s, a new method, the Palmer method, had come along, and was seen to be much more efficient and less fatiguing to the hands. Of course, about 50 years later, the style changed again, and there’s been a few different styles that have been taught, most notably the Zaner-Bloser style.


The Fate of Handwriting

Where is this all going? What is the history of handwriting leading into? And as technology shifts, are we going to lose this rich history? I feel mixed about this.

On one hand, handwriting is always going to have a place. Technology doesn’t drive societal change, it’s the other way around. As long as society has a need for handwriting, handwriting will exist. Candles didn’t disappear when lightbulbs were invented.


I do think that handwriting will continue to change to match the needs of society. There’s really no point in human history where handwriting is fixed. Granted, we have the same alphabet that we’ve had for about the past 500 years or so, but our style of handwriting has changed significantly. In the past 200 years, it’s changed every fifty years.


So don’t feel disheartened that calligraphy might be going away. There will always be some form of calligraphy, it might just look different from what we know today.


I look forward to joining with you next week, as we talk more about the handwriting of today, and how to improve our own. Until then, I’ll sign off as Oscar Wilde did in a letter to Burnouf Clay:


Yours truly

Kay Collier

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