Handwriting

Was it the quill which gave rise to that style of writing we so admire today; those scripts which employed the instrument’s capability of producing line variation? There can be no doubt that the extremely bendy steel dip nib perpetuated it and maybe even exaggerated it. It served no practical purpose: it did not make the script more legible than it would have been without line variation. It was, however, undoubtedly beautiful and admirable. It was also generally aspired to. I have seen it in the writings of registrars, of ministers of religion, in military clerks’ writings and in everyday correspondence. It was not something separate from usual writing. For a time it was usual writing.

In quite a short period it appears to have diminished. It took quite a while to disappear altogether from formal writing. In the UK more than the US it left a trail behind it. British fountain pens continued to offer flexibility until they were supplanted by the ballpoint. It was, however, the fountain pen that was the instrument of its demise. First World War soldiers’ records, written in fountain pen, more often than not show no line variation and where it is present it is as a flourish in the later business style of writing.

My husband remembers being taught that version of cursive – or longhand as it was then expressed – in the mid fifties. It was insisted that, using pencil, down strokes should be heavier than up strokes. This was probably in preparation for utilising line variation when the move came from pencils to dip pens. It was wholly an anachronism by then; nobody wrote that way any more.

Copperplate and its cousins have gone from being communication to a branch of art today. Calligraphy, whether commercial or hobbyist, is not used any more where the primary purpose is to inform. I think it’s fair to raise the question why was it ever the general cursive? Writing with the dip pen was naturally slower than using a fountain pen because of the need to refresh the ink on the nib but it was not that slow. Painting letters, which copperplate is, must have been very slow even when practised by the proficient. One may say that it was used in a slower age but that’s a modern myth. The Victorian period was anything but slow. Clerks, transcribing legal documents, were paid by the word.

It remains a puzzle to me, but I’m grateful for its existence. I can but admire it.

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