BY MARGARIA FICHTNER
"On the table before them lay a large sheet of parchment, the ''unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.'' Yet on that August day in 1776 the delegates, black flies nibbling at their legs, squandered little time on ceremony in the stifling room. Congress president John Hancock picked up a quill and, with a quick flourish, signed his name. The simple gesture produced the most familiar bit of penmanship in U.S. history, a signature as synonym, corporate logo and, now during National Handwriting Week, gentle reminder to mind our P's and Q's
The week honors what would have been Hancock's 268th birthday, but it also calls attention to a skill that many of us -- keyboard-dependent, e-mail and instant-message graphophobes who barely can scrawl their names on a credit-card receipt -- no longer practice with much pleasure or verve. ''We're raising generations of children who won't write anything,'' etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige says from her home in Washington, the words brittle with exasperation. 'If they wrote a thank-you note on a lawnmower it would be great rather than nothing at all. What it is is going on record, . . . and that's something we haven't taught our children. We think, `Oh, a telephone call will do,' . . . but it doesn't. . . .''
Still, Baldrige, who served as Jacqueline Kennedy's White House chief of staff and has written several books on how to navigate the sometimes treacherous social currents of diplomatic, corporate and personal life, is no sanctimonious scold. She eagerly bends some rules and breaks others. Given the pressures of today's world, she says, well-mannered people may now type thank-you letters, even condolence notes on their computers, provided they print them out on good paper and take a few seconds to sprinkle some handwritten words along with a signature at the bottom.
''Especially if you have handwriting like I do,'' Baldrige says. 'My handwriting was never very good to begin with, and I had eight years of Sacred Heart nuns on my back. They insisted that no young lady was a real young lady unless she wrote beautifully. And so my handwriting was bad then, and now that I have arthritis, it's terrible. So I put everything on a computer, but I also write something personal at the bottom, and I always say, `I'm sorry. Because of arthritis I couldn't hand write this. I apologize.' ''
Baldrige, who was born in Miami Beach, might be comforted to know that South Florida public-school third-graders, like many of their parents and grandparents, still study the traditional Palmer Method of cursive handwriting. ''Everyone has to know how to sign their names,'' says Shezette Blue-Small, curriculum specialist with Broward County Schools. ``And in order to do that they have to know how to write in cursive. It's also a quicker way to write. We know that everybody's using computers, but if you have to take notes and don't have shorthand in your background, then cursive is much quicker.''
With any luck, at least some of these children, learning to trace their AaBbCc's at a time when more people than ever are scribbling poems and keeping journals, will, like Hancock, polish their loops and downstrokes all their lives.
''I'm picturing his signature as controlled and very even, and it's artistic, isn't it? And doesn't it have all kinds of visual flair?'' asks Lena Rivkin, a graphologist from Studio City, Calif., who advises Fortune 500 companies on the attributes and quirks that lie embedded in the handwriting of employees and job applicants. And while it is unlikely that a modern-day boss would hire even an ex-Founding Father solely on the basis of his elongated J, elaborately looped K and fancy underscoring -- ''Your signature doesn't say that much,'' Rivkin insists -- Hancock's John Hancock, archaically flamboyant and large enough for England's King George to read without his spectacles, still seems self-aware, decisive and grand.
The Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association reports that U.S. consumers bought $4.5 billion worth of pens, pencils and markers in 2002, the last year for which figures are available, up 3.7 percent from 2001. ''About half the pens we sell are fountain pens,'' says Steve Leveen, founder of Levenger, the Delray Beach-based supplier of instruments and accessories for writers and readers. The grandson of an itinerant penmanship instructor, Leveen is steeped, rather charmingly, in the history of the writing arts, from ''The first replacement for the natural feather came about 1825 when, in the Industrial Revolution in the United States, they started producing, God forbid, steel-nib pens. . . . '' to ``the disposable ballpoint pen that we can now find at the Holiday Inn is the answer to our prayers, but. . . . ''
No surprise, then, that even in his business dealings, Leveen often writes by hand. ''I write correspondence cards, because I find that I can write a few sentences to a customer or an associate as fast as I can do an e-mail,'' he says `` . . . I use a broad fountain pen, because people who love fountain pens recognize when you write with one, and they appreciate it. And also it's just fun.''