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Calligraphy, Computers and the Ten Dollar Bill

I have the privilege of living in the capital city of Oregon. Its a pleasant city and as with most state capitals it is often overlooked in favor of larger more metropolitan cities. Salem doesn’t have an opera, a ballet company or a symphony orchestra. It’s just not big enough. What Salem does have is fairs. Two of the premiere events in the summer are the Oregon State Fair and the Salem Art Fair. Both of these always feature calligraphy demonstrations. These demonstrations are often overlooked unless you have children. Kids love to have their name written in big, pretty and colorful letters. And they will quickly queue up to wait their turn. But for the majority of us we have just passed on by the calligraphy booth and paid them little attention. This is, of course, as it should be for calligraphers have long worked for society in quiet anonymity.

For instance, who among us remembers the names of Jacob Shallus and Timothy Matlack? Very few. Most of us have never even heard those names before. Yet, all of us have seen and studied their handiwork. For the vast majority who don't remember, Timothy Matlack wrote the Declaration of Independence and Jacob Shallus wrote the Constitution of the United States. Bet thats not what they taught you in civics class. True enough, the order of the words in the Declaration of Independence were arranged by Thomas Jefferson. He gets credit for its We the Peoplecomposition. However, the document itself, so famous and familiar in the mind’s eye of the public, is the work of a Pennsylvania calligrapher named Timothy Matlack. The same is true of the even more recognizable words that begin the preamble to the Constitution, “We The People”. Those beautifully calligraphed words, which are now printed on every new ten dollar bill were crafted by another Pennsylvanian named Jacob Shallus. Shallus calligraphed the entire United States Constitution over a weekend and was paid the princely sum of $30.00 for his efforts.

Even though their names are often forgotten our lives and history have been enriched by the master works of great calligraphers like Shallus and Matlack. Calligraphers add beauty and majesty to the written word. In fact the word calligraphy itself derives its meaning from the Greek words for beautiful and writing. The Asian and Arab worlds have long treasured calligraphers for their skill in turning something as simple as a letter into a work of art. Recognizing the high level of artistic creativity involved, Pablo Picasso once admitted that if he had been born Chinese, he would have been a calligrapher, not a painter. What would life had been like with a cubist Chinese alphabet?

In the western world respect for calligraphers was once high as well. Calligraphy began its decline in importance with the invention of the printing press. The decline turned into a death spiral with the advent of the modern typewriter. Calligraphy might have disappeared entirely from our part of the world had it not been for two Englishmen named William Morris and Edward Johnston. In the late nineteenth century Morris and Johnston almost single-handedly spurred a revival of calligraphy as an art form. The resurgence continued into the early 20th century but for the most part was limited to western Europe.

Oregon became the cradle of modern American calligraphy through the hard work and dedication of a teacher, and self taught calligrapher, at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. For years Lloyd Reynolds studied calligraphy as a hobby. He became a disciple of William Morris and Edward Johnston. For more than twenty years Lloyd Reynolds taught eager young minds how to make their pens dance. For a short period he even had a televised series of calligraphy classes on Oregon Education Television, the forerunner of Oregon Public Broadcasting. In time Lloyd Reynolds influence would extend far beyond the campus of Reed College. As students from across the country came and went from his classes many of them carried home with them his enthusiasm and love for beautiful writing. Through his leadership Oregon became a national breeding ground for calligraphic interest and talent. When Lloyd Reynolds retired from Reed College in 1969 he was succeeded by Father Robert Palladino. Palladino taught calligraphy classes at Reed College until 1984.

One Reed College student who took a class from Father Palladino† was Steve Jobs. Jobs would later go on to become the cofounder of the Apple computer company. When the engineers at Apple were designing the first Macintosh computer Jobs insisted that this revolutionary machine have the ability to use multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts. Jobs has recently credited the time he spent at Reed College with that decision. Apple would also introduce the first affordable laser printer. The laser printer coupled with the Macintosh computers ability to use typefaces and fonts almost overnight created the desktop publishing industry. Computer print outs no longer had to be plain and functional. They could now be made attractive. In order to compete with Apple, Microsoft began to include multiple typefaces and proportionally spaced fonts in it's software. Now almost every computer in the world has these as standard features.

Calligraphers soon morphed into font designers. Through the computer revolution of the last three decades the influence of Lloyd Reynolds has extended itself anonymously into almost every home in America. Like Matlack and Shallus, Reynolds is almost a forgotten name. Yet his legacy is everywhere.

Ironically the success of desktop publishing did more to harm the calligraphic arst than the printing press. What, in the past, had taken a skilled professional hours or even days to create by hand could now be done in minutes by a child with a computer and a decent laser printer. As a result public interest in the art of handwriting, penmanship or other forms of calligraphic expression has hit an all time low. This is sad but true.

Today, Oregon remains home to some of the most talented calligraphers in the nation. You might see them on television teaching doctors how to write legible prescriptions, you might notice their work on a wedding invitation or a college diploma, you probably even use a font they’ve designed on your computer. But mostly you won't see them at all. They will remain the anonymous decorators of our world. Unless you happen to sight them at a Fair, cheerfully writing a child’s name on an oversize piece of paper.

† Thanks to Gay Walker for the information on Steve Jobs and Father Palladino. For more information on the LLoyd J. Reynolds Collection at Reed College click this link.