1984 sympathy letters in longhand

Photo of excerpts from 1984 handwritten sympathy notes: even letters, straight lines, consistent scripts

Handwritten letters in ink are relics of a time of longhand.

Today I’ve been re-reading the sympathy notes received after the death of our mother Celia in 1984. At the time they were comforting, and stirred up many wonderful and varied memories. (Just one broke an unwritten rule with an abrupt reference to Celia’s smoking.)

But 39 years after her death, my sister and I were both struck by something else.

A sample of handwriting: a glimpse of history

We were both amazed at the handwriting. So neat! So consistent in style from start to end of the letter! Such straight lines!

And how smoothly flow the words, with only one or two corrections in dozens of letters! I spotted barely two or three spelling mistakes. Not a single splotch of ink, either. Moreover, not all these writers were highly educated. We agreed that when we write now on our computers, we delete and edit all the time. Yet in 1984 we also probably wrote very competently. So how did we do it?

We certainly took letter writing seriously. Paper and ink were not to be squandered. Aerograms cost money and every inch mattered. Did we plan whole sentences in advance? We must have written more mindfully, for sure.

1984 was an historic moment in my own writing life. It was around 1986 that I got my first desk computer, an adorable Apple Classic IIE. So by 1984, my own (always terrible) handwriting was more or less doomed.

An archaic concept: writing longhand

samples of 20th century handwriting with personal variations.

When did you last hear anyone use the word longhand — if ever? I assume it was only invented to differentiate handwriting from shorthand. Shorthand was an excellent skill for journalists and secretaries working before PCs and tape-recorders.

When graphology almost made sense

Our grandmother Mim used to perform dubious character analysis on the basis of people’s handwriting. It’s true that despite their internal consistency, these handwriting samples are all highly distinctive. We were all taught to write the same way, but it’s obvious that every letter is written by someone different, isn’t it? Compare the i’s or the t’s, for instance.

Can graphology provide clues for forensic investigators? Well, maybe, sometimes, in some ways, by some experts, to some extent, according to a huge recent study by the FBI.

FBI Laboratory Publishes Major Handwriting Analysis Study

Maybe, just maybe, a big bold thick handwriting style might suggest a bold sort of person. And sometimes, just sometimes, a small tight narrow handwriting does suggest a less confident sort of person. Then again, maybe not. The art of graphology is for me an intriguing nonsense. It’s an expression of the human urge to make sense of our differences. But the moment speculation strays into moral judgment, let alone a definitive verdict on authorship, sound the alarm!

The many virtues of handwriting

Three 1984 handwriting samples, round style but very different from each other.

Old handwriting as calligraphy? Now I’m with you. These 1984 samples of handwriting charm me with their beauty. Under a veneer of conformity they glow with personality. With eccentricity. They all show both mastery and personality.

They also make me wonder about the way our mind worked when we planned every sentence in advance. When “cut and paste” was a real-life thing with scissors and glue. When we (presumably) could hold a complete short document in our heads. When we lacked digital tools for formatting and organising and styling.

(Yes, we may all have written drafts. That shows how seriously we regarded letters and essays.)

They take me back to a time in my life, when my brain worked in a different sort of way.

I have no desire to turn back the clock from Information Communication Technology (ICT) to the days of paper, nibs, and ink. And I really don’t want to be one of those people who complain that people-nowadays-can’t-write-properly.

But I can see why the ability to edit on the fly might rob us of certain traditional communication skills.

And I look back with respect and even awe at the skills we used to have. I hope against hope that they have not vanished but evolved.

Does AI herald the return of handwriting?

I hear that some teachers now require students to write assignments by hand. It’s an attempt to counteract the use of AI. Of course it’s not foolproof, but it’s an interesting thought. These students have not spent years perfecting their handwriting, so they’ll struggle.

What a lot of ideas these old letters have stimulated in my little old brain. How about you?

32 thoughts on “1984 sympathy letters in longhand

  1. Suzanne says:

    Yes, to being in awe of all that wonderful freehand writing. It is to be admired and one day I will sort out letters that I have from past relatives writing to family back in the UK [late1800 to early 1900]. The language they used takes longer to digest and concentration. Another good topic, Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s a pretty big and exciting prospect! I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, including the rich language. Did they use Capital Letters for important Topics? (I love that, I don’t know why.)

      1. Suzanne says:

        It has been years since I opned those folders and I forgot that the letters were photocopied and some typed up by my Uncle. Though still interesting reading correspondence from the Bahamas to relatives in NZ during the late 1800. An Easter with a head cold is a good time to do some reading 😉

      2. Rachel McAlpine says:

        Very true: make the most of this opportunity 🙂

  2. Sadje says:

    My handwriting used to be quite good. Note when I scribble a shopping list, it’s barely legible.

  3. realruth says:

    By coincidence I received today a beautiful letter written in calligraphy, sealed in a parchment envelope with wax seals. Most unusual and most appreciated.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s an almost unbelievable coincidence — the universe does that sometimes. Wax seals! Somebody loves you, Ruth.

  4. I love this. The thing with writing a condolence/sympathy letter in ink (or even biro) on a Croxley pad, is that people thought carefully before committing to the act… and as you say, we can just type like the fury and delete. Love letters from the past from soldiers in the war, are often so eloquent and romantic. I can admit to burning love letters from an American sailor I met in the 60’s…. when I moved my Dad from his house to the Levin War Vet’s home in the 90’s… I nearly set fire to the house, stuffing letters into the old coal range, one after the other… but not before rereading them… do I regret this…. not really. But I’ve kept the handwritten letters my Dad wrote to me when I was living overseas in the 70’s after my mother died. Eek, smoking caused my mother’s demise, but thankfully, no-one mentioned this in the sympathy cards.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      What a story! I can just imagine you incinerating those 30-year-old letters. You made a good judgement call deciding to keep your father’s letters, though.

  5. Anonymous says:

    This ia a most thoughtful post. Cards are now the only time I write longhand. Before typing my main thought was to keep my words legible for the reader, so the letters were big, round, and formed in a straight line. Now I have to write a few lines to return to that steady hand.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Hi Derrick! Like you, I need to make a deliberate decision to write clearly. At least you make a very quick transition. At conferences I’m inclined to draw pictures and write very little. One friend writes in caps as the only way to write legibly, and it works for him.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Anonymous is Derrick

  7. Mick Canning says:

    My handwriting was never any good – a scrawl at the best of times – but I’m not sure that’s any reflection of my character. I suspect some timid people write big and bold because that’s how they would like to be.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Of course you’re right. If I were to try and read my character from my handwriting, I would diagnose scattiness, ADHD, lack of fine motor control and a very low IQ. And in my subjective opinion, that’s not me — it’s just my handwriting.

      1. Mick Canning says:

        Sounds a little like mine, then…

  8. Cathy Cade says:

    My handwriting was always awful. I had to practice before my final exams at University of the SouthBank (London) in my early forties (1990ish) because it had been so long since I wrote anything other than shopping lists and post-it notes. I welcomed the word processor into my life wholeheartedly (my typewriting was always more Tippex than ink).
    Also in 1984, my youngest daugher was born, although she wasn’t due until 1985.

  9. Rachel McAlpine says:

    That’s very interesting, Cathy. If I had a handwritten exam coming up, I would have to go in to training for 6 months in advance. And that was careless of your daughter to arrive in the wrong year. Was she weeks, days, or hours late?

  10. My handwriting was really quite scruffy, and yet I loved to do beautiful calligraphy work. Something that has been a consistent problem throughout my life is an inability to retain a consistent signature. As I had, at times, a requirement to sign lots of documents, it was quite troublesome. For general signing of non legal papers I very early on purchased a rubber stamp of my signature. I still have it somewhere!

  11. Rachel McAlpine says:

    That’s a fascinating problem, one I’ve never heard of before. And a smart solution, the rubber stamp. In Japan people used a rubber stamp with their signature in kanji, as more official than a handwritten signature. I still have mine somewhere. Must find it!

  12. Angela says:

    I love to send and receive handwritten notes. Typing is much easier, granted, but putting the thought into a handwritten correspondence, taking the time to shape the words, is a very special experience, with its very own mind-body element. I hope we will never stop using cursive.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I know what you mean by “the mind-body element.” I used to say, “I’ve got brains in my fingers,” because sometimes it seemed that my fingers were racing ahead of my thoughts. This can still happen if I do Julie-Cameron Morning Pages: writing fast without thinking — real stream-of-consciousness stuff.

  13. Rebecca Budd says:

    I just met with 5 of my friends for lunch today. I was reminded of your poem “Happiness at Lunch”. The topic of cursive writing came up and we all agreed that we needed to limber up our fingers. Most of us have worked with computers and have long forgotten the way in which to keep our hand and fingers flowing across the page. I just received a fountain pen and ink. I have promised myself that I will go back to writing in a journal and sending out cards using cursive writing. How I enjoy reading my father’s notes in his handwriting. We forget that our handwriting may be part of our legacy. Momento mori!!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes, don’t lose that skill: What a coincidence that you have just received the tools you need.

  14. judithhb says:

    I have a close friend who has been a school teacher all her life. She doesn’t use a computer very often and anything she sends is hand written. Notes on books she has read or on a meeting she attended are beautifully hand written and very clear. People used to comment on how clear my handwriting was but since I’ve succumbed to using the computer it has fallen into total disarray. Sometimes even I can’t understand it

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Perhaps we need to practise writing a few lines before mourning our lost skill with handwriting? That’s a hint I have picked up from Someone in this series of comments 🙂

  15. cedar51 says:

    A few months ago I wanted some “paper slightly burnt” for a project. I dutifully hand wrote out the instructions for the young man, who loves to burn things! I’m not allowed to do that now, burn paper…

    Anyway he had to get it translated by his mother as he said “she’s used cursvive…” I just couldn’t understand why…apparently young people do a kind of “print thing”. My printing isn’t as free flowing. But I’ve been practicing printing as if I concentrate my wobbly hands it works. I do though have a problem with hand lettering “numbers” – in the end it all looks a bit stilted…

    I’ve got a lot of letters from the past, including when I could write with the flow…but I’ve been using a lot of them in my art work…

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I like to think of you recycling old letters into art works. Printing: you’re right, some people prefer to do this. For many, it may be easier to decipher than their handwriting.

  16. Lois says:

    As I nurse, I had to print when charting. I never mastered a total print. To this day, I write with a mixture of printing and longhand. I wonder what handwriting analysts would say about this!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      I suppose hand-printing is usually more legible than hand-writing. But slower to write!

  17. My hand writing is horrible but I’ve been really interested in longhand. Thank you for reminding me of that word. I’ve been confusing shorthand for long hand for a while now. I didn’t know there was a difference.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Yes, check it out! Shorthand is another language, impenetrable squiggles. I pretend I know shorthand because I use the Japanese character for “person” or “people” when scribbling notes and it saves me so much time 🙂

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