Because I am a writer, and because I am a hoarder, my apartment is littered with notebooks that contain a mixture of journal entries and school assignments. Many pages don’t have dates, but I can tell which era of my life they correspond to just by looking at the handwriting. In the earliest examples, from elementary school, my print is angular, jagged; even the s’s and j’s turn sharp corners. In middle school, when I wanted to be more feminine (and was otherwise failing), I made my letters rounder, every curve a bubble ready to pop. In my junior year of high school, when it was time to get serious about applying to college, I switched to cursive, slender and tightly controlled.
Each of my metamorphoses was made in keeping with a centuries-old American belief that people—types of people, even—can be defined by how they write their letters. Now, though, this form of signaling may be obsolete. In the age of text on screens, many of us hardly write by hand at all, so we rarely get the chance to assess one another’s character through penmanship. Handwriting, as a language of its own, is dying out.
Over the centuries, the way people read that language has shifted. Until the 1800s, at least in the U.S., writing styles were less an act of self-expression than a marker of your social category, including your profession. “There were certain font types for merchants, for example, that were supposed to reflect the efficiency and the speed with which merchants work,” Tamara Plakins Thornton, a historian at SUNY Buffalo and the author of Handwriting in America, told me. Lawyers used a different script, aristocrats another, and so on. The distinctions were enforced—by social norms, by teachers, by clients and colleagues and employers.
Men and women, too, were assigned their own fonts. Men were taught “muscular handwriting,” Carla Peterson, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Maryland, told me. They used roundhand, a larger script that was meant to be produced with more pressure on the quill or pen; women, by contrast, learned the narrower Italian script, akin to today’s italics. The latter style was compressed, says Ewan Clayton, a handwriting expert at the University of Sunderland, in the United Kingdom, in the same way that women’s waists might be limited by contemporary fashion. Eventually, women switched to using roundhand too.
The idea that handwriting styles might differ meaningfully from one person to another—and that those differences could be a means of showing your true nature—really took off in the 19th century, around the time that business correspondence and records started being outsourced to the typewriter. As penmanship was freed from professional constraints, it became more personal. “It was really believed that handwriting could be the articulation of self, that indeed the character of script said something about the character of a person,” says Mark Alan Mattes, an assistant English professor at the University of Louisville and the editor of the upcoming collection Handwriting in Early America.
Nowhere was that belief better exemplified than in the field of graphology—basically, phrenology for handwriting. In the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe (who was taken with all manner of scientific measurements) published his analyses of the signatures of more than 100 writers, and how their lines and squiggles corresponded to each writer’s prose style. Of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s autograph, he wrote, “We see here plain indications of the force, vigour, and glowing richness of his literary style; the deliberate and steady finish of his compositions.” Poe was not as kind to the poet Lydia Sigourney: “From [the signature] of Mrs. S. we might easily form a true estimate of her compositions. Freedom, dignity, precision, and grace, without originality, may be properly attributed to her. She has fine taste, without genius.” An 1892 guide to graphology is more systematic, informing readers that people who connect all their letters at the base are “purely deductive” in their reasoning, while those whose letters have some elbow room are “purely intuitive.”
Samples of “purely intuitive” (top) and “purely deductive” (bottom) handwriting styles from Talks on Graphology by Helen Lamson Robinson and M. L. Robinson
Graphological tendencies continued into the early 20th century, when researchers published studies proclaiming that readers could guess a person’s gender from their script with better-than-chance accuracy—as if students hadn’t still been taught that boys and girls should write in different ways as of just a few decades prior. Through the 1970s, scientists were plumbing handwriting for character traits; one study found that “missing i dots are related to the nonsubmissive, non-egocentric, socially interested person,” whereas the “number of circled i dots relates positively to the intelligent and sophisticated personality.”
Handwriting analysis moved further toward the fringe in the age of computer connectivity, when typing took over. “We are witnessing the death of handwriting,” Time proclaimed in 2009. Things have only gotten more digital since then. I now spend half of my waking life talking with my co-workers, and I have no idea what any of their writing looks like. Same for the subset of my friends who don’t happen to send birthday cards. One of my best friends is getting married next year, and I have never seen her fiancé’s handwriting. How am I supposed to know whether he tends toward deduction or intuition, whether he’s intelligent or socially interested, whether he’s an artist or a serial killer?
Let me be clear: Graphology is, as Thornton told me, “complete B.S.” Very few innate factors influence a person’s penmanship. Neither legibility nor messiness indicates intelligence. (Both claims have been made.) Handwriting can be used to diagnose conditions that affect a person’s movements, such as Parkinson’s, but you can’t learn anything about a person’s moral fiber by how they cross their t’s. What you can learn is how that person has been socialized to present themselves to the world, says Seth Perlow, an associate English professor at Georgetown. Doctors have a culture of sloppy writing; teen girls have a culture of dotting their i’s with tiny hearts. Girls don’t write that way because they’re feminine; they write that way because they’ve learned that tiny hearts are associated with femininity.
I remember practicing my letters as a kid when I got bored in class, adjusting the parts I didn’t like, adding and removing the belts from my 7s, the caps from my a’s. Testing out a new style was like trying on a new outfit in front of a mirror—assessing how it looked, knowing other people would see it too. Now, as handwriting becomes less and less enmeshed in our daily lives, Thornton told me, “there’s good reason to think this is not an arena for self-expression. It’s just something you have to learn and get away with as best you can.” If you want to assert your identity, and you want people to see it, you’re more likely to do so by sculpting your appearance, adding your pronouns to your Instagram bio, or updating LinkedIn so everyone knows you’re a merchant without having to decipher your chicken scratch.
In fact, many of the qualities that were once conveyed with a certain type of handwriting—literary bent or emotional openness, for example—may now be conveyed by the act of putting pen to paper at all. Perlow has studied the practice of posting photos of handwritten poems on Instagram, and he told me that it “conjures a feeling of personal authenticity or expressiveness or direct contact with the personality of the poet.”
Tech companies have even tried to sell that feeling, in the form of computer-generated “handwriting.” Services such as Handwrytten, Simply Noted, and Pen Letters allow customers to type out a message that a robot will then transcribe, using an actual pen, in any number of “handwriting” styles. (The robot-written letter is then mailed on your behalf.) But these tools run the risk of conjuring less a sense of personal authenticity than one of inconsiderate laziness. If a friend or family member sent me one of these cards, I’d be annoyed that they didn’t put in the time, or the work, to write out a message with their own, human hand.
Perhaps that’s really what handwriting comes down to in the digital age: time and work. My husband and I write letters to each other a few times every year, and it’s a grueling act of love. Figuring out what I want to say is an emotional and intellectual project. But after a few paragraphs, the challenge becomes mostly physical. The muscles of my right palm start to cramp up; my ring finger aches from where I rest the pen against it. I’d like to think my determination to write through the discomfort says more about me than the script I settled on a decade ago.