Loops and Swirls: Musings on Script

Flowing shapes. Loops and swirls. Unbroken lines of ink linking letters together to form words. Even if you don’t read cursive, you can still appreciate its swirling aesthetics, the art of the form.

Acquiring the skill to write in cursive was the bane of elementary school existence; trying to imitate the flowing letters without adding too many shaky strokes onto the crazy, oversize lined paper was harder than it looked.


The objective, of course, was to learn to read, write, and create in script. Before the computer type replaced the handwritten form, people wrote like this:


From our Phi Sigma Collection


Author George Bernard Shaw best describes it: “the beauty and nobility, the august mission and destiny, of human handwriting.”

Much material held in archives and special collections contain documents written in cursive. In a society where the typed form is the norm, handwritten script is seen as archaic, almost anachronistic, and certainly old-fashioned.

In fact writing in script has been so maligned that the teaching of it ceased in earnest in the early 21st century, dropped from the educational core in elementary schools across the country.

Media decried this practice, including the Columbia Chronicle; in 2011 its assistant metro editor, Vanessa Morton, wrote ““Cursive writing shouldn’t be replaced; instead, it should continue to be taught as a basic everyday skill.”

Now, a generation of American students hasn’t consistently been taught to read and write script; they don’t know the joys of forming words from a continuous line of ink nor the sorrows of trying to read another person’s perplexing, highly individual, and captivating handwritten style.

Where does this leave the material in archival collections, though, if future generations cannot interpret the loops and flows of handwriting? There are efforts being made to solve this problem. In our own archives, for instance, current Phi Sigma members transcribe their own materials. Nationally, the US National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) has addressed this issue through the Citizen Archivist Dashboard where anyone who can read cursive today can transcribe the millions of documents held in its archives to familiar computer type so that future generations can decipher the swirls, the hieroglyphics, and mysteries of script.

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1 Response to Loops and Swirls: Musings on Script

  1. Don Ostertag says:

    Back in the one-room schoolhouse I went to, a lot of time was devoted to the Palmer Penmanship book. I must admit though, it wasn’t my favorite class.

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