Should Cursive Handwriting Die?
By Diane Sagers
With the proliferation of e-communications into the daily fabric of life, some people may argue that societies are uniformly rejecting handwritten correspondence, ensuring its inevitable extinction. Is there any value in nurturing this decaying form of “old-school” communication, or is its proper place now resigned to future displays of extinct methods of communicating found only in museums of “life as it used to be”?
A friend of mine recently recounted the following story. He sat at his home desk, pen in hand, writing a letter to a family friend in a rehabilitation facility on the West Coast. The friend could not use the internet or telephone to communicate for the first weeks he was there, so he had sent a handwritten letter, and my friend corresponded with an old-fashioned, handwritten reply.
As he wrote his reply with pen and paper, his 9-year-old daughter cozied up next to him, curiously observed, and asked what he was doing. After his explanation, the inquisitive child asked why he didn’t just email, text, call, or use a social platform to communicate. My friend replied that this young man had no access to phones or computers in rehab, so they had to send letters.
“My daughter sat quietly for some time,” said my friend, and then she asked, ‘How will you get the letter to him then?’ ”
He was taken aback in surprise by his daughter’s question.
He said, “I realized that she personally had received only one handwritten letter in the mail in all her nine years—and that was from a cousin and pen pal in Italy. She didn’t have all the fond feelings and memories that come from receiving personal, tangible, handwritten correspondence from a grandparent or living ancestor. She was of a generation that could be on the end of the handwritten correspondence era.”
My friend explained to his daughter that he would put a stamp on the letter and place it in their mailbox. The mailman would pick it up, and it would be delivered to their friend in California. She was wide-eyed with questions about how the mailman took the letter personally from their home in the Rocky Mountains all the way to California. He explained the system of post offices, trucks, deliverers, and so forth.
“It was fun to teach her about this archaic form of communication and distribution in this era of e-communications, but at the same time it was a poignant witness to the demise of handwritten correspondence,” said my friend.
“Weird,” his daughter concluded.
The Evolution of Communication Channels
People have always needed to communicate, and during the past two centuries, the process has become ever more efficient. Each new advance has antiquated its predecessor. Letters in flowing cursive written with quill pens took weeks or months to reach their intended recipients by way of random travelers, courier, ship, and horseback with replies requiring a similar length of time. Mail service, born in the U.S. in 1775, provided a systematic way to carry messages, but speed was still limited by distance. Then came the miracle of the Pony Express—which carried letters halfway across the American continent, from St. Louis, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, in a mere 10 days. Just 19 months later, telegraph wires spanned the continent, and the Pony Express Company folded.1
Advances in transportation made mail service ever more efficient in using trains, then trucks, then airplanes to transport messages rapidly around the world.
The printing press invented in the 1400s created multiples of clearly printed documents, while the typewriter’s popularity after 1867 offered a personal way to make individual, consistently legible documents possible. Alexander Graham Bell’s famous words, “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you,” heralded a new age of instant interaction by telephone. Combining telephone and typewriter technology, teletype machines carried news stories instantly over the wires around the world. Wires were the key to all these modern advances.
The miraculous invention of massive, room-sized computers gave way to home desktop computers, laptops, mobile telephones, and tablets—each more powerful and efficient than its predecessor. The advents of the microchip, satellites, transmission towers, and more have engendered ever smaller, more efficient devices with handy keyboards, cameras, and recording features for instant communication without wires.
Add the internet to that evolution and the prolific innovation and adoption of social media platforms worldwide that allow instantaneous communications across cultures and languages. Mobile phones, texting, and tweeting, all transmitted via satellite and cell towers, have virtually replaced the telephone and telegraph. Traditional mail, fast as it is, is now dubbed “snail mail,” as email and internet-based transmissions have matured. Without question, these innovations are progress.
Should We Be Concerned about the Demise of Handwritten Correspondence?
Although snail mail seems foreign today and it sometimes bewilders the younger generation, there is still an important place for handwritten letters. Unlike electronic communication, handwritten correspondence is not transitory. Going to the mailbox to discover in the mound of commercial clutter a single handwritten letter or card, especially from a loved one, opening it, reading it, and rereading it—possibly years later—makes an emotional connection at a different and deeper level. It says the recipient was important enough for someone to take time to gather a pen, paper, envelope, and stamps, consider their thoughts as they penned them, and take time to write and physically mail the letter or card. (The romance of this process, of course, depends what was written in the letter.)
Perhaps personal thoughts are still best communicated in a personal, handwritten letter. A letter symbolically sets the recipient apart as important. E-communications are generally terse and less personal. Even short missives like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 127-word “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways” couldn’t be conveyed in Twitter’s 140 characters or less or even SMS messages of 160 characters. Indeed, that kind of beautiful message requires pen, paper, and contemplation.
E-communications tend to evaporate, lost in the daily deluge of spam and group distributions—unlike letters our ancestors kept, often bundled up with ribbon and saved somewhere special to be savored over and over. Reading these time-honored, handwritten messages makes the writer more tangible, personal, and real. Emily Dickinson wrote, “A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”2
Messages needn’t be as well composed and flowery as Browning’s sonnets. Personal handwriting, without spellcheck, autocorrect, and easy delete, conveys much about the writer beyond the message. We needn’t wax poetic to pen letters with lasting meanings. Consider the brevity of a postcard, still requiring pen, card, stamp, and time. It still bespeaks thought, time, and permanence. A letter the writer may consider mundane can create lasting memories and acquaint future generations with the writer.
Although Joseph Hans Christensen, a farmer, died when his grandchildren were very young, his letter written in 1952 in shaky script to his daughter 160 miles away, still tells his descendants much about a lonely, 84-year-old widower with clear memories of two world wars and a slower time before automobiles reached Utah.
- "Dear Daughter Zola,
How the years come and go so fast, when I think back on my years I yousta [used to] address my leters [sic] in 1868 and up to 1900 I thought it was quite a span of life. From there on the years seem so short. Summer comes and winter goes before I realize that the time has passed…. In this fast and war stricken world they are talking peace but preparing for war.… I think I can take care of myself at home. I guess the family is all right and well. Your loving father. I long to hear from you." (Read the original letter to Zola)
Much of our grasp of history in many cultures comes from handwritten letters and more formal handwritten historical documents.
Martha Washington, wife of President George Washington, burned her private correspondence after her husband’s death, knowing that his historical stature would open their private lives to public scrutiny. But three letters survived—two found beneath a desk drawer after she died. One is a brief missive penned by President Washington from Philadelphia to his devoted wife in Mount Vernon in June 1775. The Father of Our Country, despite his earnest desire to stay at Mount Vernon with Martha and his family, set out as general of the Continental Army. He was, as always, very reserved and proper.
- My dearest,
- As I am within a few Minutes of leaving this City, I could not think of departing from it without dropping you a line; especially as I do not know whether it may be in my power to write again till I get to the Camp at Boston—I go fully trusting in the Providence, which has been more bountiful to me than I deserve & in full confidence of a happy meeting with you sometime in the Fall—I have not time to add more, as I am surrounded with Company to take leave of me—I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time or distance can change, my best love to Jack & Nelly & regard for the rest of the Family concludes me with the utmost truth & sincerity. Your entire, George Washington.3
(See if you can decode some Early American handwriting.)
Like the writing of the Utah farmer to his daughter, Washington’s personal letter carries tenderness and a sense of personal connection. George Washington meticulously preserved hundreds of thousands of personal documents, journals, and correspondence from the Revolution and his presidency to provide details of America’s beginnings. About 140,000 of Washington’s documents are currently headquartered in the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia campus as editors create a series of presidential books.4 The archives will soon be safely preserved at Mount Vernon’s Washington Library.
Everyday missives between ordinary people also clarify historical periods. For example, a letter penned in the late 1930s from a woman in Richfield, Utah, to her sister-in-law in Tooele, Utah, 166 miles away illuminates their improving living conditions as they built their family homes during the Great Depression.
- How lucky you guys are to have a furnace! At least you can keep warm while in the house. We surely enjoy our tub and toilet—although the bathroom is like Alaska. Perhaps when we get a furnace, we’ll enjoy our bathroom more during the winter. It is so nice not to have to go outside for coal too! We want to have the flooring down in the part we built on by next year.* (Read the original letter from Aunt Berle)
Importance of Knowledge of Ancestors and Families
Old handwritten letters provide gems of information that endear parents and ancestors or correct a piece of family history for later generations. There are surprises; ancestral letters do not always match the stories their posterity later tell.
Personalities lurk just behind the ink in written letters. Compare the upbeat, chin-up letters of one writer with the downbeat things-could-be-worse letters of others. Handwriting often reflects personality. Rounded, well-spaced lettering or tightly scrunched thin spidery writing or longhand with flourishes all show something about a person, and friends remember a writer’s distinctive script.
For the family historian, old correspondence is a treasure trove of information to fill in the gaps of family stories. A letter dated March 1854, from Andrew Jackson Hickerson in Illinois to his brother George Washington Hickerson in Utah, shares the everyday news: the price of crops and livestock, the health of the family, and changes in the local community. In a couple of sentences, however, Hickerson opens a window to family connections and genealogical clues about their sister’s family, including a son from a previous marriage.5
- Samson Miles died Last May. I suposed you had heard of it as there was A letter writtin to you shortly afterwards Katy is getting along vary well. Wesly McEnturff is married and has one of the children with him the youngest the rest are at work from home, the old place has been sold and the proceeds will be loaned and kept for the children as they arrive at age.*
Reading these letters is not about spying on predecessors. They link generations. Knowing one’s family’s past creates unity and a sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself and fosters strength and mental health.6
Bruce Feiler, a columnist for the New York Times, authority on social history, and author of the New York Times bestselling book The Secrets of Happy Families, appeared on TED Talks in February 2013.7 He explained the importance of intergenerational family stories.
“A quick way to tell your story is to tell your children where they came from. Researchers at Emory gave children a simple ‘What do you know?’ test. Do you know where your grandparents were born? Do you know where your parents went to high school? Do you know of anybody in your family who had a difficult situation or an illness, and they overcame it? The children who scored highest on this ‘Do You Know’ scale had the highest sense of self-esteem and a greater sense that they could control their lives. The ‘Do You Know’ test was the single biggest predictor of emotional health and happiness.
“As the author of the study told me, children who have a sense that they are part of a greater narrative have greater self-confidence. So tell your story. Spend time retelling the story of your family’s positive moments and how they overcame the negative moments. If you give them the narrative, you give them the tools to make themselves happy,” he said
“Recent scholarship has allowed us, for the first time, to identify the building blocks that successful families have. Three of them are: adapt all the time, empower your children, tell your story.”
Will Future Generations Be Disconnected to the Past?
There is much debate about the relevance of cursive handwriting today because keyboards are at our fingertips so much of the time and much of what we write is electronic. The United States Postal Service reports that Americans sent over 61 billion pieces of first-class mail last year, but just 16 years ago, we sent about 103 billion a year. That decline would certainly include handwritten correspondence as evidenced by a study conducted by online letter-printing company Docmail in 2014, which found that one in three respondents had not written anything substantial by hand in the previous six months.
Stephen Dubner, hosting a podcast on freakanomics.com in February 2016, noted, “The number [of emails] went from zero just a few decades ago to 205 billion a day, globally. . . . Our schools, meanwhile, have been reassessing how kids are taught to write. The Common Core is a set of standards and curriculum guidelines for U.S. schools [that have] been adopted by more than 40 states. It still advocates learning to print, but it doesn’t even mention cursive. To some people, this is an abomination.” 8 In her book, The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, Anne Trubek, using various studies, concluded that learning cursive and penmanship were antiquated. However, on that same freakanomics podcast, she noted that further study has changed her mind. “We as Americans . . . connect penmanship with individuality, with our sense of self,” she said.
While keyboards create neat, quickly composed documents, Trubek notes, “Some studies show that the act of handwriting is better for the brain than keyboarding, and we express more ideas when writing by hand.”
Daniel Oppenheimer and Pam Mueller have conducted studies on the effectiveness of notetaking with computers and by hand at Princeton and UCLA.
Students watching a TED talk took notes—half on computers and half by hand. With or without study, both groups did equally well on factual questions asked later, but longhand note takers did significantly better on conceptual questions, it was reported on the podcast.
The brain apparently processes information more effectively and transfers it into handwritten notes. Many professionals find it advantageous to start a creative project in longhand without the distractions of pop-up windows, formatting, and so on.
But perhaps the most important aspect of learning cursive is the ability to convey personal messages to others and to read messages from the past. Even skilled readers of old handwriting attest that the process can be challenging. Without skills in writing and reading cursive, how can future generations read such important and carefully preserved original documents as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution?
Family heritage is preserved in handwritten records. Nonprofit FamilySearch International’s free online databases of historical documents relies more than a million online volunteers who read digital images of handwritten documents from all over the world, identifying formal names and critical facts to make the digital images easily searchable online.
“We are heavily dependent on individuals who can read not only handwriting, but variations of older cursive writing used over time in over 100 languages,” said Collin Smith, FamilySearch indexing manager. While fewer people are currently learning cursive, Smith noted, many tools and handwriting tutorials can help volunteers of all ages learn to read old styles of handwriting.
Smith says there is no end in sight to FamilySearch’s ongoing need for volunteers who can read cursive because the vast majority of the world’s genealogically significant records are not yet digitized. The images produced by FamilySearch’s digitization teams outpace the indexing capacity of volunteers’ easily by 10 to 1.
Without the indexes, most of the millions of users of FamilySearch resources would be unable to locate the billions of historical records written in over 200 languages. Technological advancements are moving toward computers reading cursive, Smith noted, but human efforts are far more accurate.
There is potentially good news, however. Some school districts across the country have recently begun to rethink their curricula to include handwriting skills again, says Associated Press writer Karen Matthews in the Seattle Times. Some school districts are mandating the inclusion of cursive proficiency, and many students are eager to learn it.
(Explore: Fun cursive writing worksheets for children)
The skill was never consciously banished—the introduction of computers and technology gradually changed the focus of educators. Proponents of cursive instruction cite research suggesting that fluent cursive helps students master writing tasks such as spelling and sentence construction because they don’t have to think as much about forming letters, Matthews said.9 In a blog post on October 4, 2016, on betterafter50.com, Marcia Byalick, wrote “The Demise of Handwriting? Fight for Your Write.” She commented, “Bolstered by statistics that show one in three respondents hadn’t written anything substantial by hand in the previous six months, activists are determined to make ‘writing something down’ as outdated as dialing the telephone.”
Handwriting is not antiquated, she said. Perhaps more importantly, she added, “I want my grandchildren to be able to decipher my recipes, enjoy their mother’s letters home when she was in Europe, and sigh over their great grandparents’ correspondence during World War Two. Because [despite progress], a love letter should always be handwritten.”
In our haste to adopt innovation in all its facets, perhaps there is wisdom in being a little more vigilant before throwing out all that is old and ushering in all that is new.
*Note: All letters reproduced in this article have kept the original spelling and grammatical elements of the original copy.
BYU Department of History. “Script Tutorial: making sense of old handwriting.”
Vanderbilt University Library Research Guides: Reading Old Handwriting
Archives Outside: Useful Tips for Reading Handwritten Documents
WikiHow.com: How to Write in Cursive
Deciphering Early American Handwriting Game
The National Archives, UK. Palaeography: Practical tutorial for reading old handwriting, 1500-1800.
Huffington Post. “Why Does Writing Make Us Smarter,” published on September 15, 2011.
Huffington Post. “9 Reasons Not to Abandon the Art of the Handwritten Letter,” by Alena Hall, published on January 11, 2015.
1. National Park Service, Pony Express, accessed on March 9, 2017.
2. “A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend,”Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1999 edition), Harvard University Press.
3. Mount Vernon.org, "A Love Letter from General Washington," accessed on March 9, 2017.
4. University of Virginia, Alderman Library, “Washington Papers,” accessed on March 9, 2017.
5. Family Record of George Washington Hickerson, Chapter 17, “Journal of George W. Hickerson,” accessed on March 9, 2017.
6. Deseret News, “In Our Lovely Deseret: The value of a handwritten letters, with excerpts from those by Louisa May Alcott, Winston Churchill and Beatrix Potter,” by Susan Evans McCloud, published February 27, 2017.
7. Ted.com. Bruce Feiler, “Agile Programming for Your Family,” accessed on March 9, 2017.
8. Freakanomics Radio Program, “Who Needs Handwriting?” February 10, 2016.
9. Seattle Times, “Cursive Writing Makes a Comeback,” published on March 5, 2017.
About the Author
Diane Sagers, firstname.lastname@example.org
Diane Sagers lives in a small town in Utah. She has worked as a freelance writer for 30 years writing two to four newspaper columns weekly, regular feature work for the Tooele Transcript for 27 years, magazine articles and contributions to a variety of books. She loves to cook, sew, garden, write stories and spend time with her six children and 25 terrific grandchildren.
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FamilySearch International is the largest genealogy organization in the world. FamilySearch is a nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Millions of people use FamilySearch records, resources, and services to learn more about their family history. To help in this great pursuit, FamilySearch and its predecessors have been actively gathering, preserving, and sharing genealogical records worldwide for over 100 years. Patrons may access FamilySearch services and resources free online at FamilySearch.org or through over 4,983 family history centers in 129 countries, including the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.