Like a strange migratory bird, this question comes around every year, usually during election season. “I need to write something, and I want it to look like the WE THE PEOPLE part. Do you carry that font?” “I don’t”, I say. “It’s not a font. It’s not made by mechanical means. Someone wrote that out by hand.” “By hand??” They are bewildered and disappointed. It’s not always the Constitution or some other venerated document. Sometimes it’s a product logo, or the Red Sox’s “B”. But if I had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked this question…
I don’t think it’s a matter of individual ignorance – This isn’t the same as grown adults finding out that the Titanic was a real ship, or that tuna is a fish. This is more of a cultural phenomenon: we take written words for granted. And why shouldn’t we? They’re all around us: on phones, computers, books, papers, signs, junk mail – written words simply exist, like pigeons in the park. Their creation left no obvious trace, no tool marks. And just like we don’t ask ourselves where all the baby pigeons are (for who has ever seen one?), we don’t reflect much on the creation of the ubiquitous written word. Instead, we extrapolate how we create texts – on a computer, with a digital font. So perhaps it is an understandable reflex to wonder what fonts were used in any given document, even if it’s over two hundred years old.
Until the late 19th century, when typewriters became a thing, the bulk of business correspondence was hand-written by armies of clerks. Stock certificates, mortgages and indentures were carefully engrossed by trained calligraphers. Shop signs, advertisements, billboards, and barn door ads were designed, laid out, and lettered by skilled, often itinerant, sign painters. Writing – the forming of letters with an instrument held in one’s hand – was a huge part of economic life.
For centuries the ability to write a “clear, round, hand” was a prerequisite for any clerical job. It opened doors and provided incomes for those who lacked any other marketable skills. As a result, people took immense pride in the quality of their handwriting, and sought to improve it by any means available. The art of writing was studied, cultivated, refined, taught in various courses and methods, and beaten into school children. A shadow of this veneration walks among us even today: we notice when someone has nice handwriting, and we respect them for it; as parents, we rebel when our schools demote penmanship from life skill to art instruction. “Neat handwriting is important for everything!” we clamor. Well, not anymore it ain’t. (Seriously, our kids are much better off learning how to touch-type.)
So yes, much of the old-timey materials that still surround us started out handwritten. No fonts were used in their creation. Of course you can now find fonts designed to mimic the writing on these documents. Or, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you can learn to write this way yourself. And for the right money, you can even have it done for you – professional calligraphers will be happy to oblige.
Oh – in case you were curious: it was Jacob Shallus, a clerk for the Pennsylvania General Assembly, who penned the original copy of the Constitution. It took him several days to write it out, and he charged $30 at the time, about $880 in today’s money.