Thursday, June 17, 2010


Those of us who have taken a few trips around the Sun have seen plenty of progress over the years. But it’s a two-edged sword, this business of progress. While some changes improve our lives in ways small and great, as we watch new technologies overtake old, some things are, inevitably, lost.

I have a device in my pocket that’s roughly the size of a candy bar. With it, I can talk to almost anyone I care to, anywhere in the world. I can send written messages. I can look at a map and get directions to almost anyplace. I can reserve a table at a restaurant, book a hotel room, buy an airline ticket. I can program my DVR (another new piece of technology undreamed of a couple of decades ago) to record my favorite television programs. I can maintain a calendar, send birthday greetings, take a photograph and send it anywhere on Earth. I can even pay my bills.

Paying bills. Now, there’s a task that technology has made somewhat less of a burden. Used to be, I’d sit down at my desk with a stack of bills twice a month, writing checks, sealing envelopes, affixing stamps and return address labels, keeping the check register. It was a huge pain in the ass.

Now, I log on to my bank’s website, open up my online banking screen, grab the mouse, clickety-click, and I’m done. Hours worth of toil, reduced to mere minutes. Of course, I still have to make sure there’s actually money in the account with which to pay those bills, but that’s a problem we all must grapple with, technology or no.

Over a century ago, people were writing checks. Witness:

Postcard 1892
A bank draft written in 1892. [Click to embiggen.]

It’s a postcard - a postcard! - from one W. B. Baker to D. Y. & R. R. Dancy of Savannah, Georgia. Notice the sparse address: just the name and city.  Good luck trying that today.

It reads: Feb 2nd 1892.; Gents - Have this day drawn on you favor Solomon & Co. for $32.18.  Please honor and oblige.

Nothing less than a polite written request for Messrs. Dancy to pay Solomon & Co.  A bank draft.  A check.  No account number... but in those days, people knew their bankers personally, and vice versa.

I fear the days are long gone when one could write such instructions on a postcard - anyone could read it! - and reasonably expect that it would end up in the hands of the correct recipient, who would then follow those instructions promptly.  And yet, I do not mourn.  I push a button; I pay my bills.  I am happy; my creditors are happy.

But what I do miss is the penmanship.  Look at the beautiful copperplate handwriting, the flowing letters, the whorls and curves of the signature.  The Palmer method and its brethren are arts that have been lost to the ages.  Do they even teach cursive writing in school any more?  Or has it gone the way of the Buggy-Whip?

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