9 Handy Facts About the History of Handwriting

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While today we can get machines to write for us, for most of human history, writing was a manual endeavor. And there are people who are super passionate about keeping it that way. Some schools are building handwriting requirements into their curriculums, although even the positive research results on the benefits of handwriting over typing aren’t big enough to be super conclusive, and some studies find that cursive, in particular, probably isn’t any better than other methods of putting words to paper. But handwriting has a long and storied tradition in human history, and if only for that reason, it’s not going away anytime soon. In honor of National Handwriting Day, here are some facts about handwriting through the ages, courtesy of Anne Trubek’s recently published book The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting.

1. The world's first writing system was tiny.

Cuneiform, the Sumerian writing system that emerged from Mesopotamia 5000 years ago, was usually etched into clay tablets that were often only a few inches wide. Trubek describes most of the Cuneiform tablets she handled at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York as being only half the size of her iPhone. "Find the second portrait of Lincoln on the penny," a Morgan Library curator told her. "You know, the one of his statue inside the Lincoln Memorial on the obverse? That’s how small the script can be."

2. Medieval writing was regional.


A 12th century Austrian manuscript

After the fall of the Roman Empire, different scripts developed regionally as writers embellished and tweaked existing systems to create their own styles. However, this made books a little hard to read for those not educated in that exact script. All books were written in Latin, but the letters were so different that many scribes couldn’t read writing from other regions.

3. There is an entire filed devoted to reading handwriting.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t decipher other people’s writing easily. "The truth is, most of us already cannot read 99 percent of the historic record," Trubek writes. Paleographers study for years to specialize in particular scripts used in a certain time and certain context, such as medieval book scripts or 18th century legal documents. "In other words," Trubek points out, "even someone whose life work is dedicated to reading cursive cannot read most cursive."

4. Charlemagne was a stickler for handwriting.

The emperor—who was largely illiterate himself—decreed in the 9th century that the same script be used across the Holy Roman Empire, an area that covered most of Western Europe. Called Carolingian minuscule, the uniform script dominated writing in France, Germany, Northern Italy, and England until the 11th century. The Gothic script we associate with medieval times today is a derivation of Carolingian minuscule that popped up during the 12th century. It was later revived in the 15th century, and became the basis for Western typography.

5. Monks were not fans of printing presses.


Reading a first proof-sheet from a printing press in Westminster Abbey, March 1474.
Getty Images

The 15th century monk Johannes Trithemius defended the need for handwriting in his essay "In Praise of Scribes." He claimed that while scripture could last 1000 years, the printed book was "thing of paper and in a short time will decay entirely." Printing would make books unsightly and introduce spelling errors, and he predicted that history would judge "the manuscript book superior to the printed book." It had nothing to do with him losing his once-steady job to a machine, no. Indeed, Martin Luther complained of books much like people today complain about the quality of writing online, saying "the multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this form of writing."

6. The first font was very script-like.

The first printed books were designed to look a whole lot like the manuscripts of that day, so as not to shock people with newfangled design. Johannes Gutenberg and his hired craftsmen hand-carved an elaborate Gothic script into 290 unique characters for the printing press, allowing the printer to recreate every letter in upper- and lowercase, as well as punctuation, so that the type looked just like what a scribe would make. The first letters of every section were even red, just like manuscript style dictated.

7. Historically, handwriting professionals were quite upwardly mobile.


Circa 1450, a medieval master writing with quill and parchment in his study.
Getty Images

When printing put scribes out of work, they instead became teachers, tutoring and writing books on penmanship. These writing masters became wealthy professionals in a way that they had never been as simple scribes. When businesses and governments began hiring secretaries for the first time, who would take dictation and have a working knowledge of several different scripts, it became an unusually effective way to rise up the class ranks in medieval Europe. The papal secretary was the highest position a commoner could occupy in society.

8. In the 17th century, handwriting was personally revealing.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, different scripts became more than just a sign of where you learned. Specific scripts were established for classes and professions, and even for gender. Wealthy Europeans would use one script for their personal correspondence and another for their legal and business correspondence. A whole host of scripts in England were developed just for court use, making many documents completely illegible to anyone not trained in that specific style of writing.

9. Punctuation was rare until the 18th century.

Before literacy became widespread, spelling varied widely from person to person, and nothing was standardized. It became uniform over time, and the first dictionaries weren’t published until the 17th century. Even then, standardized spelling didn’t become regular for another century. Punctuation was even worse, remaining "largely nonexistent or nonstandardized," according to Trubek, until the 18th century.

This story originally ran in 2016.

Why Do People Toss Beads During Mardi Gras?

Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images
Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images

Each year, more than 1 million people descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras, an organized parade of debauchery and alcohol-induced torpor that may be the closest thing modern civilization has to the excesses of ancient Rome. Saturating the scene on Bourbon Street are plastic beads, handed or tossed to partygoers as a kind of currency. Some bare their breasts or offer booze in exchange for the tokens; others catch them in the air and wear the layers around their necks. Roughly 25 million pounds of beads are in circulation annually, making them as much a part of the Fat Tuesday celebration as sugary cocktails and King Cake.

Traditions and rituals can be hard to pin down, but Mardi Gras historians believe the idea of distributing trinkets began in the 1870s or 1880s, several hundred years after French settlers introduced the celebration to Louisiana in the 1600s. Party organizers—known locally as krewes—handed out baubles and other shiny objects to revelers to help commemorate the occasion. Some of them threw chocolate-covered almonds. They were joined by more mischievous attendees, who threw dirt or flour on people in an effort to stir up a little bit of trouble.

Why beads? Tiny tokens that represent wealth, health, and other prosperity have been a part of human history for centuries. In Egypt, tokens were handed out in the hopes they would guarantee a happy afterlife; the abacus, or bead-based system of accounting, used trinkets to perform calculations; pagan pre-winter rituals had people throwing grains into fields hoping to appease gods that would nourish their crops.

Humans, argues archaeologist Laurie Wilkie, display "bead lust," or a penchant for shiny objects. It's one possible reason why Mardi Gras attracts so many people with their arms in the air, elated to receive a gift of cheap plastic.

Photo of a well-dressed bulldog celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The early beads were made of glass before more efficient production methods overseas led to an influx of plastic beads in the 1960s. Unlike some of the more organic predecessors, these beads have come under criticism for being a source of health problems and pollution. Made from petroleum, they often harbor lead that seeps into the soil and rubs off on hands. (One estimate puts the lead deposit after a Mardi Gras celebration at 4000 pounds.) In 2017, New Orleans paid $7 million in clean-up costs to remove discarded beads from drain basins. In 2018, they installed gutter guards to prevent the necklaces from getting into the system in the first place. Meanwhile, scientists have been working to create an even more eco-friendly version of the beads—like a biodegradable version made from microalgae.

Environmental hazards aside, the beads of Mardi Gras have become as much a holiday staple as Christmas stockings or Thanksgiving turkeys. But the passion and desperate need for them is only temporary; in 2018, 46 tons of the beads were removed from just five blocks of the main parade route on Charles Street. And no bacchanal should leave that much bad juju behind.

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The Reason Prince George Always Wears Shorts

Prince George with his mother, Kate Middleton, and sister, Princess Charlotte, during a 2016 trip to Canada.
Prince George with his mother, Kate Middleton, and sister, Princess Charlotte, during a 2016 trip to Canada.
Chris Jackson - Pool/Getty Images

When it comes to being the royal family’s leading fashion icon, 6-year-old Prince George is arguably second only to his mother, Kate Middleton. His posh combinations of shorts and knee socks always make a splash on social media and complement his cherub-cheeked grin in a way that long pants and short socks never could.

As it turns out, Prince George’s go-to ensemble is more about tradition than sartorial innovation: Historically, dressing your young sons in shorts helped indicate you were a high-class family in England.

“Trousers are for older boys and men, whereas shorts on young boys is one of those silent class markers that we have in England,” etiquette expert William Hanson told Harper’s Bazaar. “Although times are (slowly) changing, a pair of trousers on a young boy is considered quite middle class—quite suburban. And no self-respecting aristo or royal would want to be considered suburban. Even the Duchess of Cambridge.”

These days, it’s more about maintaining tradition than highlighting class division, and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are known for dressing their kids in affordable clothing. Today.com reports that a certain pair of red corduroy shorts that Prince George wore in 2016, for example, was the equivalent of only about $20.

The practice likely arose from “breeching,” a custom that began in the 16th century where boys wore gowns for a few years before switching to shorts (also known as breeches) and then pants when they were around 8 years old. So we’ll see George looking dapper in full-length trousers soon enough—he’ll turn 8 in July 2021, and he’s even worn pants in public a few times already, most notably to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

It’s far from the only fashion rule that the royal family follows—find out about 15 other ones here.

[h/t Harper’s Bazaar]

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