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In earlier days, if someone complimented you as having a nice hand, you could be sure they weren't commenting on the appearance of the hand attached to your arm, nor were they commenting on the hand of playing cards that you may have turned up. The compliment would be to the neatness and attractiveness of your penmanship; i.e., "What nice handwriting you have!"

We seem to have arrived at a time when technologies have become so all-encompassing that handwriting is slowly disappearing. Computer-based word processing and computer data processing have not only taken over the tasks of writing letters but have come up with some entirely new means of communication -- email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and others.

In earlier days, not all that long ago, handwriting skills were prominent values for an educated person and for a person trained in communications or record keeping, or writing for legal work, or keeping records in a bank or in a business or factory. In the late 19th and early 20th century, penmanship was a major course and a major emphasis in high school curriculum and in college-level instruction. Achieving high quality handwriting was a key to success as a business person, or lawyer, or clergy, or teacher.

I was born in 1940, which I think of as well into the 20th century, and even though we had typewriters instead of relying entirely on handwritten documents and records, we still had a considerable stress on penmanship during our days in school. What we simply called handwriting is today often referred to as cursive writing. Of course with cursive writing, letters in a word are connected in a continuous way throughout the word, and the form of the letters is adapted to that connected, flowing expression. Sometimes young people are taught a style of hand printing of their letters, or even possibly a form of draftsman's lettering, but I understand that today in some schools cursive handwriting is not part of the curriculum, nor is the reading of cursive-style handwriting.

I remember that when I was in the fourth grade I received my grade card and discovered that I had a C in penmanship. That was embarrassing. I had never received a grade that low in anything in school, so I had to get with it and improve my handwriting. I remember the lined sheets of paper that were especially for practicing the swirls, the two-level lines, the lower level to indicate the height of letters such as c and a and n and m, and the upper level to indicate the heights for letters such as d and l and the upper case letters. You practiced your way of holding the pencil or pen, you moved your hand and arm, not your fingers, keeping your letters sitting on the line and running straight, not running too close to the margin before moving to the next line, and keeping your lines evenly spaced. Of course we had some help from the lined paper that we normally used, whether the Big Chief ruled tablets with their crude rough paper, or the high quality paper for important correspondence, or the lined notebooks, useful for taking notes.

When I started in school in the last half of the 1940s, some new inventions were coming into the handwriting work we did. Some companies were beginning to market the new-fangled ball-point pens. Many early ball-point pens were very unreliable, often skipping or failing to write. Before ball-point pens we mostly used lead pencils and maybe fountain pens. The old-fashioned writing quills of the 1800s had already faded away in my day. Some very nice fountain pens were on the market in the mid-1940s. These had ink bladders which would draw in a sizable amount of black or blue ink, and the pen would continuously meter the ink to the writing point as you wrote out your composition. Many older school desks can be seen as having a hole in the desktop where the ink bottle or ink well was kept.

Those inkwells were also useful for dipping the girl's hair if she was sitting in front of you.

I still like the habit of making handwritten notes to myself, and I still occasionally write handwritten letters. When we send Christmas cards I still like to include handwritten messages within the cards. I like to scribble notes by hand when I am trying to think seriously about an idea. The writing, by hand, seems to help me think things through. Of course I also do quite a bit of writing, and thinking, using email applications and word processors. I'm often thinking what if our electronic marvels are "down," or discharged, or temporarily missing. I've gone into stores and business places where they couldn't do business because "the computer system is down today." Or someone is trying to make change and they can't find their calculator.

I'm thinking, this just would not have happened back in the day. Just take a piece of paper and a pencil, and jot down what you need to jot, and go on with your day!


Editor's note: Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge, is a retired Methodist minister and on the board of the Pea Ridge Historical Society. The views expressed are the author's. He can be contacted by email at, or call 621-1621.

Editorial on 06/13/2018

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