Handwriting: Obsolete or of Utmost Importance? An Introduction to the Arden Club 1916-1929

When researching the Arden Club, specifically during their 1923-1924 season, the club’s minutes provided the most insight into the inner workings of the organization. The Arden Club secretary, Hattie Mae Russell (see Fig. 1), meticulously recorded the happenings of the club’s weekly meetings and documented information such as budget reports, scheduling changes, and motions to improve the club’s everyday operations. Each minutes of Arden Club meetings mirrored the format of the previous minutes in an almost identical manner. Despite these scrupulous and well-organized records, Russell’s handwriting was practically illegible. This brings up the comical but relevant question of how important to secretarial duties is handwriting, and do the aesthetic qualities of cursive outweigh its functionality? It is clear when closely analyzing the Arden Club minutes from 1923-1924 that legible handwriting is necessary for the accurate transmission of material, and that the handwriting of the secretary at the time was not conducive to this.

            When analyzing handwriting and frankly, the downfall of proper penmanship, one must first understand the numerous benefits of handwritten materials. One of the most clear benefits is that without such handwritten materials, there would be no real documentation of the Arden Club and its events. Additionally, handwritten material provides valuable insight about the individual who created it. As Edward Rothstein states in his article “Cursive, Foiled Again: Mourning the Demise of Penmanship,” “the history of script is partly the history of society, and the nature of character-making is related to the making of character” (Rothstein). Handwriting allows the reader to get to know the writer in a very intimate manner – by giving them entry into the thought process and method involved when the writer creates their piece. As Lisa Jardine and Anthony Grafton point out, “not simply reading as active, but reading as trigger for action” can aide one in actively engaging with a work (Jardine and Grafton 40). This observant and analytical reading subsequently serves as a window into the creator’s life. Handwriting can reveal many characteristics about an individual, including whether they are organized or scatter-brained, if they envy someone else and mimic that person’s handwriting, and can even act as a form of self-presentation and self-expression. Handwriting serves as an “intermediary between people – something by which individuals communicate with each other, putting a little bit of their personality into the form of their messages as they press the ink-bearing point onto the paper” (Hensher 6). For example, poor penmanship can function as an act of rebellion or an assertion of independence (Rothstein). By straying away from the confines of proper penmanship, one is in a way breaking away from the structure of society. Hattie Mae Russell’s handwriting flows smoothly, but has a nonchalant and almost too relaxed quality to it (see Fig. 3). Her casual penmanship suggests she is at ease in her environment, but to an extent where her writing becomes almost lethargic and exceedingly curvy. Her penmanship seems almost lazy and indifferent because of its unstructured qualities. Particularly hard to read are Russell’s “t”s and “l”s. This gives insight not only into Russell’s character but also the environment in which her materials were created.

When analyzing the handwriting of Hattie Mae Russell, one immediately notices its loose and unstructured qualities of her writing throughout the Arden Club minutes. This suggests the club’s meetings were fairly relaxed and informal. Russell felt comfortable in the club and the softness of her letters hints at this. Additionally, her letters seamlessly blend together as she moves from one to the next. The fluidity of her pen strokes spreads out individual letters, giving her cursive a very open and stretched out appearance. This makes the script seem effortless and smooth, but also makes it hard to discern what each letter actually is. For example, Russell’s “t”s and “l”s look very similar (see Fig. 3). The phrase in the referenced picture reads “tickles time,” but could easily be mistaken for “lickless lime”. Additionally, Russell’s “u”s, “m”s, “n”s and “r”s look almost identical, making it extremely hard to make out phrases such as “under the auspices of” as seen in figure 2 in the third line. To figure out what each phrase really said, it was useful to compare legible words to the phrase in question and see if there were any similarities between letters. Common or repeated words greatly helped with this and gave a good reference point to identity unreadable words. If a similar letter appeared in a common phrase, it was easier to piece together the letters in question and make out the full word as opposed to simply guessing what it said. The Daily Campus newspaper was also an excellent resource for figuring out the names of plays since the newspaper often covered the shows.

Legible handwriting is particularly important to the duties of a secretary. How is one supposed to interpret and learn from records that are unreadable? Interestingly, as Rothstein points out, handwriting overtime seems like “an attempt to create coded messages without lifting pen off paper”(Rothstein). This is the case when looking at Hattie Mae Russell’s handwriting. Her handwriting provides valuable insight into the inner workings of the Arden Club by meticulously documenting every meeting, but the key information within the minutes is only accessible if one can manage to decipher her practically illegible script. As mentioned previously, many of her letters can be mistaken for others, causing phrases to be misinterpreted or unintelligible altogether. Although her letters are aesthetically pleasing for their fluidity and scrolling characteristics, they prove cursive is not a viable method to record material when it is written incorrectly. It is not that Russell’s handwriting is sloppy or messy. Her letters are simply stretched too far, making each one slide into the next. As a result, some of her words look as if she were attempting to draw ocean waves or squiggly lines (see Fig. 2). Clearly, Russell’s ability to record information thoroughly and effectively is above par. She would have not have been elected secretary if this were not the case. Her minutes are very thorough and highlight all of the key points of Arden Club meetings. Despite this, her mangled attempt at cursive makes most of the material untransmittable. This displays that although cursive has its benefits, especially in terms of aesthetics and beauty, it does not always make the best method for recording important information. There are a few solutions that could have helped with the problem of Russell’s handwriting. The most obvious is if Russell had spent more time forming each individual letter, the minutes would be easier to read. With that being said, Russell was under a time constraint to record the minutes as the meeting progressed, but that should not be a reason to sacrifice legibility for thoroughness.

Although Hattie Mae Russell acted as Secretary for the Arden Club almost a century ago, the issues her poor penmanship created when attempting to read the minutes parallel a very current and pressing problem. Legible handwriting has become outdated and obsolete, largely due to the growing popularity of word processors. In the age of keyboards, the personal connection that comes with handwriting has been lost completely.Additionally, the lack of popularity of handwritten materials including notes, greeting cards, and general documents has created a generation gap between young people and the generations preceding them. Many individuals, elementary school students and millennials alike, struggle to read cursive writing. This is highly troubling considering cursive was once the standard form of writing across the nation and was consistently taught and used in schools (Tabor A1). As Juliet Fleming notes, reading and writing skills have defined literacy in certain moments, and due to modernization and changes in writing practices, we have become ignorant of such skills (Fleming 10). This, as noted before, caused many problems when trying to decipher Russell’s scribble. Additionally, with the growing accessibility of computers, children have less of a need to learn this once highly valuable skill. In fact, as Mary Tabor bluntly states in her piece on the decline of cursive, “in an age where the keyboard is king, penmanship gets squeezed out” (Tabor B1). Many children solely produce works on the computer and rarely turn in handwritten assignments. As Phillip Hensher states, “it seems, handwriting is about to vanish from our lives altogether… will some part of our humanity, as we have always understood it, disappear as well?” (Hensher 5). It is the duty of young adults and students to preserve the tradition of cursive – and handwriting in general – to ensure it will not be phased out completely.

The Arden Club minutes and Hattie Mae Russell’s writing emphasize the need to preserve such materials to ensure they can be passed down to later generations. Although the popularity of cursive writing has diminished greatly over time, its importance is unwavering and is essential to understanding documents and materials of the past. Materials like the Arden Club minutes maintain and strengthen connections between the past and present and bolster their importance to guarantee we do not lose touch with the past altogether.

Reynolds Sands

Works Cited

Fleming, Juliet. Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Hensher, Philip. The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting. Faber and Faber, 2013.

Jardine, Lisa, and Anthony Grafton. “‘Studied for Action’: How Gabriel Harvey Read His Livy.” Past & Present, no. 129, 1990, pp. 30–78. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/650933.

Rothstein, Edward. “Cursive, Foiled Again: Mourning the Demise of Penmanship.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Apr. 1997, www.nytimes.com/1997/04/07/arts/cursive-foiled-again-mourning-the-demise-of-penmanship.html.

Tabor, Mary B.W. “Penmanship: Fine Art to Lost Art.” New York Times (1923-Current File). New York, N.Y.: New York Times Company, May 8, 1996. http://search.proquest.com/docview/109585788/.