“Put Your John Hancock Here”
posted by Elaine Marie Cooper
So the saying goes when anyone wants your signature. John Hancock’s ornately written name agreeing with the Declaration of Independence is still looked at with fascination by young and old alike more than 200 years later. No one writes like that anymore, we all say. Hovering with bent shoulders as we click away on our keyboards, the most artistic we get in our writing is creating passages that draw pictures for our readers to envision. But the actual fonts? They are produced, magically it seems, by the software in our machines.
So how did they write like that back in Colonial America? The students learned the art with painstaking practice. With a feather quill and often, homemade ink, these boys and girls refined their strokes in great flowing style that marked an era of intricate penmanship. It has become an art nearly forgotten.
The script demonstrated by John Hancock was known as the “Boston Style of Writing,” taught by Abiah Holbrook who was esteemed as a great master of the pen. Writing masters were universally honored in every community, according to Home and Child Life in Colonial Days by Shirley Glubock. In 1745, Mr. Holbrook had 220 scholars in one school, learning this art of penmanship. John Hancock was one of Holbrook’s most notable students.
In this day of running to Target to buy a Bic, it’s difficult to imagine all the intricacies of this type of written communication. It required a sharp quill with the feather still attached, usually from a goose. Some managed to perfect the art of sharpening the point of the quill with a knife—the origin of the word, “pen-knife.” Those not wanting to sharpen their own could have them done by professionals who stationed themselves on streets. These gentlemen were called “stationers.” Ah-hah, I thought—the origin of stationery!
And then there was the ink. There were various recipes that produced the blue liquid that dried black and eventually faded to a brown tone. But usually the base of the formula was made from galls—odd swellings on oak trees that were a natural reaction to parasites—combined with copperas, which is an iron compound. This produced an ink that has lasted through hundreds of years, making letters from long ago still visible to the naked eye. And beautifully visible at that. The script makes any document look more art than narrative.
In doing my family research a few years back, I received in the mail three rolled up, ornately inscribed muster roll documents in cardboard tubes shipped from England. These were photocopies of documents actually written in the late 1700’s. A British researcher had worked long and hard to find my ancestor, discovering his name in the National Archives. The date on them was 1775, the year my 4th great-grandfather signed on as a 20-year-old with the 21st British regiment. Intent upon helping his homeland conquer those rabble-rousing Rebels, his heart was instead conquered by a young colonial farmwoman. Instead of staying in the British Army, he became an American.
The next hand-written document I have from his life here in America is the ornate script found in the doctor’s ledger treating my ancestor, his wife, and his children for various illnesses with medicines, a tooth removal, or a bleeding. The record was artistically drawn documentation of the lives of my family written so long ago with the touch of a quill and a dollop of ink. A record as old as time and dear to my heart today.
The written word has always been the most widespread form of communication. And today, while our writing may not be as beautifully wrought when we type on keyboards and press “send,” it is certainly more effective in its reach to millions of souls. Souls that need the ultimate Word that was wrought by God who sent us the most meaningful message of all time: We can have eternal life through His Son, Jesus Christ.
“Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105 (NIV)