When John Hancock picked up a quill pen in the summer of 1776 and became the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, he reportedly boasted that he would "sign it in letters bold enough so the king of England can see it without his spectacles."
Who could have known then that his flamboyant penmanship would eventually give him the distinction of a dictionary entry making John Hancock synonymous with "signature"?
And who in that era could have imagined that more than two centuries later, penmanship would fall on hard times as computers made handwriting increasingly unnecessary? Such hard times, in fact, that Hancock's birthday serves as an occasion to emphasize the importance of good handwriting.
"Handwriting has lost its luster over the years, especially as the digital revolution has surged," says Amy Chezem of the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association. "We feel the printed word still has classic strength - permanence, tangibility, and friendliness."
Some historians designate Jan. 12 as Hancock's birthday, a date when various penmanship devotees like to call attention to handwriting. Other historians say he was born on Jan. 23. That's the date Ms. Chezem's group uses to observe National Handwriting Day. She calls it a time to "urge the public to support the value of good penmanship and stress the benefits of handwritten communication."
Once upon a more formal time, the beautiful cursive handwriting style known as the Palmer method was part of serious classroom instruction. Using lined paper, students would practice circles and loops, connecting letters in a graceful script.
Now round, unconnected letters form the writing style of choice for many students - when they write. Penmanship has become a dated word. Even phrases relating to it seem quaint: "Mind your p's and q's." "Dot your i's and cross your t's."
Many schools no longer teach handwriting in a systematic way, according to Sandy Purvis, cofounder of Hand-RIGHTing Ink in Ardmore, Pa. She holds after-school classes and even a summer camp for students who need remedial help in writing.
"Handwriting has steadily dropped off," she says. "When I was a kid, we got a grade in penmanship. My brother even flunked it in fourth grade."
Why is legible handwriting important? "You cannot walk around with a computer on you all the time," Ms. Purvis says. "If I need to write a memo or a message, [the reader has] to be able to read it."
She tells of one client, a physician in New York, whose scrawl is so illegible that he fears he will lose his job. "He gets people to write his prescriptions for him," Purvis says, adding that he is "desperate" to improve his writing. So much for the joke, "My handwriting is so bad I should have been a doctor."
What does the future hold for penmanship? A letter writer to The New York Times suggests that if students had laptops in school, "taking notes on a computer ... would make note-taking easier." Bye-bye, handwriting.
Even the Palm Pilot, a tiny hand-held "digital assistant" with more than 20 million users, redefines "writing" by using a stylus and a sort of shorthand to record entries.
No wonder anything legibly written carries increasing appeal. As Margaret Shepherd writes in "The Art of the Handwritten Note: A Guide to Reclaiming Civilized Communication," a handwritten note "is like dining by candlelight instead of flicking on the lights."
In the same way that "made by hand" is the crowning tribute to any product, "written by hand" remains the ultimate compliment to a recipient.
Pens and pencils still constitute the enduring tools of the trade in writing. They may run out of ink or lead, but they never crash - a claim no computer can make. Americans may not write much anymore, but our sentimental attachment to fountain pens made them a $40 million market in 2000.
This month, as we hastily scribble our names on credit-card receipts and checks, and as we dash off hurried notes, perhaps a good way to pay tribute to John Hancock would be to slow down and write legibly.
As the master penman himself would agree, beautiful handwriting never goes out of style.