Typewriters and the decline and fall of handwriting (1922)

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The decline and fall of handwriting

Who remembers the old days when men of commerce and industry wrote a “good business hand” — when handwriting was one of the accomplishments and letters written in ink could be read with small effort? asks The Nation’s Business.

Handwriting has gone out of style because it gave way to something infinitely better. It was the old story. Hand work could not compete with machine work — the pen could not compete with the typewriter.

Popular Mechanics May 1922

But we view with sorrow the fact that the decline and fall of handwriting has also meant the decline and fall of the business signature. You pick up the ordinary business letter these days, and while the body of the communication stands forth in clean-cut, perfect typography, you are lucky if you can make out the signature.

Unless you know who wrote it, the name may be anything from “Blatz” to “Jones.” Some of them appear to be perfect; they are made up of regular, sharp saw teeth, but when you try to decode them you can’t tell the “u’s” from the “m’s” or the “i’s” from the “t’s.” Other confuse and dazzle you with the scrolls and flourishes. And still another type is just plain awful.

How penmanship vanished

A prominent publication in a recent article spoke of the decadence of handwriting since the coming of the typewriter, and referred to the time when a “good business hand” was something to be proud of, and when letters and most written documents could be read without undue eye or nerve strain.

All are familiar with the facts here spoken of. For a generation or more, the great preponderance of writing has been done with typewriters, and in the meantime, the art of writing by hand had gone practically to the wall. It is still necessary for bookkeepers and perhaps a few others to be able to write legibly, by the age and the glory of “a good hand” are gone forever.

People somewhat along in years can well remember the time when good penmanship was considered one of the finest and most valuable accomplishments. Many schoolboys of the old days who were more or less dull in many of their studies would take the utmost pains with their writing. it was a study in which they took pride, and many of their writing books were carefully preserved as mementos of their school days and testimonials of their success in what they considered the most important of all studies, next to “figgers.”

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But the typewriter came, and with its coming, the days of penmanship were numbered. It is still taught, and many boys and girls learn to write well; but for lack of practice, their capacity in that line wanes rapidly after leaving school, and the average handwriting of today is a miserable scrawl.

As a rule, the best specimens come from elderly people who learned how to handle a pen in the days when penmanship meant something, and who have never switched over to the modern way of putting thoughts on paper.

vintage postcards with handwriting

And the same is true with regard to many other things. Labor that used to be done by hand is now done by machinery. There was a time when the handling of the scythe and grain cradle ranked almost as skilled labor, but today there is not one man in a hundred that could handle either properly, where there are few boys, who, if asked, could tell what a grain cradle is. To be a shoemaker once meant the ability to make a shoe or a boot from start to finish, but the trade is no more. All the making is now done in factories. There is nothing left for the bench man but cobbling, and even in pretentious cobbling chops, machinery has been introduced.

But these changes are not to be deplored. They have been of benefit to all. They have made life easier and have provided leisure which, properly improved, means much for the individual and the country.

So far as writing is concerned, those who have much of it to do or read are devoutly thankful for the machine that has supplanted the pen, which was a hard thing to drive for any length of time, and which in many cases produced results that meant equally hard work for the reader.

This is the machine age, and the typewriter is one of its highly meritorious and valuable achievements. It is a tremendous labor saver, its only lack being, as a wag once observed, the capacity to spell correctly.

Handbook for Business Letter Writers 1922

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