Handwritten Correspondance

An Introduction to Handwritten Notes & Correspondence

During the history of writing, correspondence has included postcards, suicide notes, familial letters, Paul’s epistles and Darwin’s more than several  thousand letters to Joseph Dalton Hooker. With the advent of email, handwritten correspondence has declined. Yes, there are electronic postcards, suicide notes, and familial letters. But electronic condolences? Tacky, it’s true.

Besides participating in an act humans have done for about 5,000 years and besides being cool and hip and highly personalized (who can personalize their email with their own letterhead?), handwritten correspondence is more or less permanent.

While email companies make it easy – somewhat – to port email from one provider to another, most of us suspect it could all fail one day. We can then imagine, over a series of frustrating days we will have come to realize our email from the last ten, twenty, or thirty years has vanished in the cloud, while we are served as customers through online forms and social media updates telling us “We’re working on this problem. Your business is important to us!”

Each letter in a letterpress block is handset in reverse, which it makes a more expensive printing option

Each letter in a letterpress block is handset in reverse, which it makes a more expensive printing option

Right. Send a letter instead. If this person fills a place in your life of import and concern, do you want them to archive your message along with the innumerable emails concerning Nigerian scams, performance evaluations, and newsletters? Your recipient will treasure the time you’ve taken to write out by hand your condolences, best wishes, or congratulations. They may keep this correspondence.

We handwrite our important messages. The weight of the paper or card, the text written with a fountain pen possessing a good nib, written in your handwriting, all say, “Yes, you are important to me.” You’ve taken the time to reflect on this person as you correspond, found a few extra minutes in your day to extract your note cards from a desk, and pull out that treasured fountain pen. This person is important to you. You want them to know it. So you write them by hand in a format humans have used for thousands of years sent by a method that is practical and simple and, these days, with electronic spying in the U.S. and the U.K. (can France and Germany be far behind?), safe. Unlike in the GDR, chances are, the NSA has no time to read correspondence sent by post.

Thus, your privacy, as well as your treasured recipient’s, remains safe and stays classy.

Correspondence was sealed using cylinder seals

Correspondence was sealed using cylinder seals

History of Handwritten Correspondence

The Dawn of Human Civilization

Written language arose from economic necessity. Mesopotamian high priests needed a method for documenting the growing wealth of the emerging city states. A reed taken from the banks of the Tigres or Euphrates River and cut cleanly, pushed into soft clay, left a distinctive wedge mark, a wedge mark that became the basis for cuneiform language. Cuneiform writing on clay tablets fulfilled these necessary administrative requirements of wealth and commerce. Records such as receipts for cattle or vouchers for rations at a way station still exist today. By 2000 B.C., family letters written by merchants established at trading posts became common and were sealed in clay envelopes and addressed. Cylinder, and later stamp, seals were used as a form of signature.

The history of civilization intertwined with correspondence is not an embellishment. For example, in the fifth century B.C., Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great and mother of Xerxes, is believed to have invented written correspondence to use with her subjects. According to Deborah Levine Gera, Atossa was the first royal to use letters – as opposed to oral instruction – as a means of communication with her subjects. (Gera, 148). Gera writes, “(T)he writing distances her, and sets her apart and lends her words extra weight and majesty.” (Gera, 148) Atossa created a court protocol of letter writing paralleling the growth of administrative and familial letters.

Correspondence, much of written by hand until the advent of the typewriter, has created societies we know today. From China to Iran to Australia, our cultures are outgrowths of written correspondence of all kinds.

A basic introduction to the tools of handwritten correspondence should, for the beginner, set you on your way.

Vintage Pelikan Fountain Pens

Vintage Pelikan Fountain Pens

The Triumvirate: Paper, Pen, and Ink.

The journey to finding the paper you like, using a pen you love with ink that suits your personality, and writing style never seems to end. The greater the willingness to invest in all three aspects of the handwritten note optimizes your potential for lifelong enjoyment.


The paper you want should be heavy. Metric grammage is written as grams per square meter. In line with the elegance of the metric system, the higher the number, the heavier the paper. In the United States, and a few other countries, a less elegant system is used called basis weight expressed as the mass (in pounds) of a ream of paper’s dimensions divided by sheet count.

Here you find an excellent comparison table between grammage and basis weight. Refer to this table so you don’t make same mistake of one of their customers: assuming 90lb (165gsm)  index paper is heavier than 80lb (215 gsm) card stock.

Clearly, the metric system of grammage is much easier to understand. The higher the number, the heavier the paper.

Having said that, what grammage works best for handwritten correspondence using a fountain pen? As a reference point, standard copy machine paper grammage is 75 – 105 gsm. For stationery paper, a minimum of 120 gsm will take a fountain pen without bleeding through to the background. Card stock used for correspondence cards usually has a grammage of 260 gsm.

However, paper is not just about the weight. It comes in different textures, shades and more importantly materials. While less expensive paper is often made of cellulose derived from trees, high quality paper is made of 100% cotton.

Engraved Stationary

Engraved Stationery

Personalizing Your Paper or Cards

A quick review of the fantastic letterheads, while retro, is definitely hipper and more elegant than email (and you won’t annoy your recipient with advertisements). Correspondence cards and paper are no different. Consider purchasing the heaviest paper you can afford. Thermographic printing provides an affordable alternative to die-cast printing, with as many personalized options, yet it is a fake and hence not as refined a real letterpess, embossed, or engraved print.

True Engraved Printing is the most expensive option

True Engraved Printing is the most expensive option


Definitely the most luxurious way to print your logo, frame, etc., is engraved on a steel or copper plate and then printed. The result is a raised logo on the one hand and a pressure mark on the other, yet it is more delicate than embossing.

The difference between embossing (top) and debossing (bottom) from Dolce Press.

The difference between embossing (top) and debossing (bottom) from Dolce Press.


The process of creating a raised or recessed image on paper or other materials uses a  male or female metal die. Embossing creates a raised image while debossing creates a relief image. Ink is then added to the embossed image. Embossed and debossed papers create a mirror effect on the back. An embossed image will have a slight debossed image on the back while a debossed image will have an embossed image.

Embossing paper without ink is called blind embossing.


Letterpress printing creates an image (or words) in relief using a printing press. The end result is either an image or text or both that is debossed. Letterpress images may be created with or without ink. If created without ink, then essentially the printer creates what is called a “blind deboss.” Letterpress is a manual process. If wedding invitations are created using a letterpress, the printer must loaded the press with metal letters attached to wooden blocks in reverse. The manual labor involved increases the price considerably.

Thermographic printing offers an affordable alternative to die-cast or letterpress printing.

Thermographic printing offers an affordable alternative to die-cast or letterpress printing.


Thermographic printing relies of heat to lay ink onto paper and other materials. This process can create a raised image, but unlike an embossed image, there is no debossing on the back. It is an affordable alternative to die-cast, blind embossing and letterpress stationery.


Digital printing is the most affordable option and prints digitally based images directly onto paper.

The color of the paper and paper ink

While a full range of colored paper exists, black paper with white ink ought to be saved for unique occasions among confidants and soul mates. Creams, light browns, and blues are excellent colors. Consider personalizing the paper further with a contrasting border, if such boldness suits you. You might also buy correspondence cards and papers in several different colors or have just one color with a complementary ink color.

Where to look

The foremost maker of paper products in the United States, Crane and Co, even manufacture the paper upon which dollars are printed. Less prosaic paper can be engraved or embossed as well as printed thermographically. Prantl offers personalized correspondence cards and stationery using offset and engraving processes. An affordable introduction to embossed correspondence cards can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Vintage Pelikan Fountain Pens

Vintage Pelikan Fountain Pens

The Fountain Pen – The World’s Greatest Word Processor

Stephen King used a Waterman Fountain Pen to write his novel Dreamcatcher. In his author’s note, he wrote: “One final note.  This book was written with the world’s finest word processor, a Waterman cartridge fountain pen.  To write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven’t been in years.  I even wrote one night (during a power outage) by candlelight.  One rarely finds such opportunities in the twenty-first century, and they are to be savored.”

A handwritten note using a pen is noteworthy. A note handwritten with a fountain pen such as Pelikan, Montblanc or any other quality brand is extraordinary and may result in a return to handwriting most things.

Flexible nibs allow you to control the pressure of the ink flow and allow you to create thin and thick strokes at your discretion. Prices can range from a few dollars for a school starter pen to over a million dollars for diamond decorated works of art. Yet, what counts is the quality of the nib as well as the ink flow. Gold nibs are usually better because they glide better, but you have to choose a width you like.

One great thing to look for in a fountain pen is a flexible nib, because it allows you to create a truly unique look.

In following video you will learn about fountain nibs and grinds, because no matter how expensive a pen is, if the nib does not work for your hand, it is worthless. Understanding how nibs interact with paper will help to determine which nib width to purchase to use for your handwritten correspondence.

Be forewarned: once you find a fountain pen you like you may be so smitten you will happily spend large sums of money in pursuit of your next best holy grail pen.

With a fountain pen in hand, it is important to buy the most expensive paper you can afford. A thinner paper of lower grammage creates bleed-through, where the ink of one side of the paper shows through on the other side. At minimum, your paper should be 120 gsm. Here you can see how the grammage of paper impacts bleed-through.

Fountain Pens for the Left-Handed Writer

I am left-handed and have had to teach myself how to write properly such that my hand does not drag across the paper, smearing ink on my hand and fingers. This video, while directed to children, provides excellent advice on how to hold a pen and paper for the leftie.

Pelikan Inks

Pelikan Inks

Fountain Pen Ink -or- Writing With the Rainbow

Whether using a dip pen or replaceable cartridges, one of the greatest joys of fountain pens for me is the number of ink options. J. Herbin of France (maker of ink for Louis XIV), Diamene of the UK and Namiki of Japa, or Pelikan and Montblanc of Germany created scores of ink colors. Control over your ink color allows you to personalize your correspondence even further.

Here is an interactive comparison of inks and here you learn how to test inks.

What to say

Personalized correspondence is just that, personalized. Personalized correspondence, even if it is late, is better than no correspondence at all. Your thoughtfulness will be appreciated. There are scores of books and websites available offering myriad suggestions on appropriate language for all of life’s events: births, engagements, divorce, death. Two are listed below.

Acknowledgements focuses on sympathy notes.

The Art of the Handwritten Notes, Margaret Shepard

Consider sending notes with a simple note of appreciation or gratitude. Any reason is a good reason to send a handwritten note. All cultures have rituals regarding correspondence. If you are unsure what to send, ask. People will appreciate your efforts, and you may find putting a fountain pen to heavy, embossed paper a ritual that brings its own rewards, rewards far older than our electronic age.

Books Quoted

Warrior Women: The Anonymous Tractatus De Mulieribus, Deborah Levine Gera, Brill Academic Pub, 1997.

Further Reading

Pelikan Pen Fountain Guide – Gentleman’s Gazette

Montblanc Meisterstuck Pen – Gentleman’s Gazette

An Introduction to Handwritten Notes & Correspondence
Article Name
An Introduction to Handwritten Notes & Correspondence
Handwritten notes are permanent & while they used to be the only way to communicate, the art of handwritten correspondence is disappearing.
37 replies
  1. Lucian Lafayette says:

    I was delighted to see your article on hand written correspondence. One of my passions in life is fountain pens, I started using them several decades ago at a very young age and have found, like many things in life, that after a point your return on investment diminishes in proportion to the outlay. Aside from making a status statement, I believe that it is not wise to spend more than about one hundred and fifty dollars or roughly ninety two pounds on a fountain pen. In this range you will have a writing utensil which is little more trouble to deal with than a ballpoint and possesses a good, smooth, durable nib.

    Additionally, as you inferred, sending a hand written letter these days is almost a subversive act.


      • Lucien Lafayette says:

        There are modern pens which perform well and, with some modest maintenance, are leak free. I have had very good luck with the TWSBI pens. My current signature pen is a series 700 with a 1.5 nib.

        They are great conversation starters as well.

  2. Ray Frensham says:

    I do so totally agree with you – I (and other people) do so appreciate even a little hand-written note… especially either a Thank You card or a Condolences card…. and let’s not forget the Birthday Card (fie on the digfital cards!). The odd thing is, I still get some odd looks when I pull out my fountain pen (a beloved renovated 1930s pen I found in a Berlin Christmas market a few years ago), and then those odd looks turn into looks of admiration. Says it all.

  3. Dr. Olaf S. van Hees says:

    Great article!
    Nothing is better than a hand written letter on good quality paper.
    In daily practice I Always use a good Waterman fountain pen, already decades old, but still writing divine.
    But for the real letters I am very old fashioned. I use a beautiful end 18th Cent. silver inkstand and always a quill. A quill enables you to real write and sculpture your words. Sharpening a quill is quite a skill, but easy to learn. Once you used a quill, you are hooked!

    • Jay Sennett says:

      You may have persuaded me to try a quill pen, even being left-handed. Is the sound of the quill on paper markedly different from a fountain pen? I assume it is.

      • Dr. Olaf S. van Hees says:

        Oh yes, indeed the sound of a quill is different from a fountain pen. The sound is more marked, but when it gets “scratchy”, you are pushing too hard. It is important to write with one fluent and light movement, like you are painting with a fine and good saturated painters brush. Smooth and silky. Don’t push too hard! When you get stuck, it will result in an ink splash and all work is ruined. Once you have the skill, you sculpture your words.
        For a left handed writer it might be a problem, because you have to draw the ink on the paper, from the quill, instead of pushing the quill forward (and mostly into the paper, quod non!). The disappreciating word “penpusher” is indeed a very wrong way of writing.
        But anyway, try it. Your letters will get a very classical look. And experiment with all kind of quills, hard quills, soft quills. You’ll find your ideal bird soon.

  4. David Bell says:

    An important factor in good handwriting is practice. You should aim for clarity, without losing the personal element. As for your signature, it may be regarded as a symbol.

    A fountain pen is routinely held at a different angle to the modern alternatives. All handwriting is personal, and has that basic virtue, whatever the pen, has that significance. It would be ungentlemanly to mock those who use an alternative. One should recall the effort that even a cheap ballpoint can record, and treasure that personal contact.

    An inexpensive calligraphy set is an opening of the door. With modern manufacturing techniques the set of nibs will help you find the right personal path. You should get some guidance as to the letter forms each nib can produce. Find something that is easy for your hand, and practice.

    My schooldays were too long ago, and the teaching of penmanship was far from the best. I feel that I have benefited from the discipline of calligraphy, and the experience of the variety of nibs beyond the default crudities of those ancient days. Make the effort to learn how to use a fountain pen, without having to think about the process. In that, it should be no different from the skill of typing, or the unconscious habits of gentlemanly behaviour. Without the basic skill, the money spent on the pen is just gaudiness.

    And good handwriting is a skill we may acquire in private. No one need see our early stumbling. As for the claim that your character might be read from your handwriting, it needs but a moment of thought to dismiss. How can a skill we can learn be so revealing? What did they teach us to do in school? How much which might be read is from ourselves, and how much came from our teachers?

    What a clear hand tells the reader is that we have taken the trouble to acquire that skill. That is worth something, whatever else the reader might mistakenly think.

    • Jay Sennett says:

      Thank you for the reminder about the practice (and discipline) of good penmanship. I developed poor penmanship as a child when I refused to position my left hand properly. The lure of fountain pens forced me, as an adult, to relearn proper left-handed writing technique. My hand hurt for awhile. My penmanship suffered. The reward has been worth it, though.

    • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      A beautiful handwriting is certainly something. Personally, I don’t have the most beautiful handwriting but I don’t mind that. I never practiced to write in a calligraphic way and in law school we had to write as fast as we could, so aesthetics were not really important.
      For notes and short letters, I like pens. On the other hand, for longer pieces, I prefer to write them digitally because I can rearrange or add things after the fact without making it look like a complete mess.

  5. Kurt says:

    Commend you once again for an excellent article. It just so happens that this last week I had, for the first time in years, a need to write a hand written letter. I very quickly came to the realisation that email,SMS, etc etc whilst emensly convenient was seriously deminishing our ability to write a well constructed, hand written letter. These technologies have made us sloppy, appear uneducated and generally inconsiderate. Anyway, a pad of very expensive paper later! I believe, as Gentlemen in a modern world, maybe we should take a monent and consider a time past and try once a week to bring some of it back into our lives. Because after all, it was just better.

  6. Park Jacob Weatherby says:

    Greetings Mr. Sennett,
    bravo on such a excellent article which is dear to my heart since I am a novice calligrapher and have for very long time appreciated “the art of personal penmanship” in addition I like the fact of after reading your information I have gain helpful insight on both the quality of paper and ink.

    I concur with the other comments and hope to see a resurgence personal note writing volumes is really spoken when we take just a few moments to express our thanks, concerns, appreciations, through the hand written letter!

    Look forward to further enlightenments on other well documented articles.

    Best Regards,

    P J Weatherby

  7. Alexander Cave says:

    La belle ecriture demande un esprit gai pour son execution. Never more true…

    As one would wish to speak not only clearly, but with some civilized and musical quality of grace, so one may write. It is not just our written word but the way in which it is written that conveys the words’ full meaning, and the choice of pen and paper may be taken as an indication of the writer’s esteem for the recipient.

    It says much, then, about what value is placed on this fundamental skill in a civilized society, that handwriting has been dropped from the school curriculum in the United States. I am of a generation expected to be able to write (even if only basically) before starting school at the age of five, and fountain pens were the order of the day – pencil was the only permitted alternative. As one who writes an italique script and derives great pleasure from using a fountain pen, I am saddened by the idea that the easily acquired skill of fine writing will be denied future generations.

    It is curious that the fountain pen is a universally desired luxury item and status symbol, as sales of the premium (and most expensive) brands show. But studies reveal that the vast majority only ever write a signature. Is that better than nothing..?

    • Jay Sennett says:

      “But studies reveal that the vast majority only ever write a signature. Is that better than nothing..?”

      I suppose it is a good place to start, and we can only hope.

  8. David Kindred says:

    Jay, thank you for your well-written and informative article. I join the chorus of agreement.

    I work for one of the largest technology firms in the world, but use a fountain pen every single day for my meeting notes. It did get some odd looks at first, but I didn’t mind. The process of writing in fountain pen is quite enjoyable.

    For those of you concerned with their poor handwriting, I completely transformed mine in a month using “Fix It Write” (https://www.bfhhandwriting.com/fixitwrite.php). Like most Americans, I was taught Palmer cursive. This was in the mid-70s. We only had a couple of weeks of instruction, and then were left on our own to develop our own hand. Mine was so bad, friends joked that I’d have to go into medicine. Using the book I mentioned, I learned a style of cursive known as Italic that has apparently been taught in Europe for centuries. It’s really beautiful.

    As for fountain pens, as much as I love them, I am unable to spend great sums of money on them. I found a very inexpensive supplier of quality writing instruments in http://www.xfountainpens.com. They also have a full spectrum of ink colors available. Take a look!

    With warm regards,


    • Jay Sennett says:


      Thank you for your kind words. Like you I was taught Palmer cursive, and, as a left-hander, my teachers did not enforce proper technique. My handwriting suffered as a result.

      Thank you for the Fix it Write suggestion. I may carve out some time in my life to practice this.

      Take care,

  9. T. says:

    I recently ventured into the occupation of handwritten letter correspondence with a close family friend these past couple months. It began out of necessity as she is based in an area of the world where digital correspondence is not as dependable nor available. Since we both are rather fond of our emails and phones calls between us we decided to continue in this new/old format, which seemed so archaic at first but perfectly natural once we got started. Handwritten letter correspondence has forced me not only to consider how I write (aesthetic and manner) but, more acutely, what I write about. Suddenly I find myself more conscious in my choice of words as opposed to the run of the mill email. It’s incredibly refreshing and has taught me a great deal about how I express myself and how I wish to be understood. Thank you immensely for this article. I am new to this website but upon reading a few of your articles you have been bookmarked under my daily feed. This here is truly excellent content and articulate discussion!

    • Jay Sennett says:

      Indeed, writing by hand slows me down, too, and word choice and topic become very important. Thank you for bookmarking this site in your daily feed. Raphael has done a phenomenal job creating a unique and intelligent web site.

  10. David Kindred says:

    T, I couldn’t agree with you more. I, too, find that I am far more thoughtful when corresponding by hand, and my word choices are different. It’s curious, isn’t it?

    Another curious thing I’ve noticed is that, when taking notes by hand, I’m able to retain far more information than when I used to type them on my laptop. I think part of it has to do with being a visual and kinesthetic learner, so the process of moving my hand ties into my memory. The other aspect that plays into it is that my typing is quite rapid, so typing notes in meetings becomes something that is automatic, but my handwriting cannot keep up with the pace of information being conveyed, so I have to paraphrase what I hear as I write it. This engages different parts of my brain, and seems to lock the information in better.

    My colleagues think I’m really serious with my note-taking and don’t believe me when I tell them I do it so I won’t daydream during meetings.

    Handwriting for work of pleasure is a good thing. Doing it with a fountain pen makes it a GREAT thing! Let’s hope that fine handwriting doesn’t become a lost art in this country.

    • Jay Sennett says:

      I hadn’t realized it until reading your comment, but people do take me more seriously when I write things by hand at work. Like you, I find it helps with memory and focus.

  11. Nan Jay Barchowsky says:

    So happy to have found this interesting article, as well as comments supporting the skill and pleasure of writing by hand! My principal interest in handwriting is with children. Now I find so many adults who are concerned with their handwriting. And there are authors who say that even with the ease of a keyboard, they write by hand first, to be digitized later. It must be that different way of self expression. For myself, the right words, come to mind (then to pen and paper) so much easier than here where I am typing this coment.

    I hope that education does not lose out to technology completely in our haste to get with the latest. Research has recently proved the cognitive benefits of learning to write by hand, but educators are so painfully slow to accept and implement the best for children.

  12. Thomas says:

    When I hit the ripe old ago of 40 the other year I bought a fountain pen and some fine stationery and made a promise to use it. So at least once a week I look for someone to commend, advise, encourage, etc. I often made that last call on a Friday afternoon because I knew I hadn’t found someone all week to write a note. I also use a breast cancer stamp to further set me apart from the stack of junk mail that arrives. I know other worthy causes are now able to be supported through a stamp that costs a few cents more so consider this option.
    This also makes me approach life from a quite different perspective than many, but it has been fantastic to my personal psyche. So the art of handwriting has helped me in more ways than you might think.
    You’ll also need to practice not just learning how to handle your pen but your penmanship probably needs some touching up as typing or texting has probably detracted from your overall script.
    I doubt that this will ever be ‘en vogue’ again but as Tom Peters touts- Be unique or be extinct.

  13. Cepasaccus says:

    Although I use only pens with gold nibs (because that is how it is supposed to be) I have to say that gold nibs are not necessarily smoother than steel nibs. There are many steels nibs which have an “Iridium” point just like the gold nibs. So it really depends on the workmanship and quality control.

    The feathering and bleedthrough depends a lot on how the paper was produced. There are cheap 80g/sm office papers who cope well. 90g/sm Clairefontaine copes very well. And there are 120g/sm papers which bleedthrough easily. So better test a paper before you buy a lot.

    Regarding Montblanc pens I would like to remind you on your dress tip no.3: “Avoid wearing visible logos”. The (white) star is very visible on all of their products.

    Beautiful vintage pens matching your fashion are IMHO the Eversharp Skyline (which looks also steampunkish to me) and the Parker Vacumatic (looking like a skyscraper with lighted windows at night). There are also greate streamlined Parker Duofolds which are a bliss to write with.

    At http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum you get a lot information and help.

    Have a nice evening

    • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      I don’t know about you, but I never wear a pen – it’s an accessory that rarely sees the light of day and is stored inside my jacket otherwise. My vintage MBs have fantastic nibs, and when I have the pen on the inside of my jacket, nobody sees it. When I write with it, I have the cap in my hand and nobody sees it. If you wear your pen on the outside, that’s in poor taste in most cases.
      Paper quality is of course not just about the weight, for most people it’s a good indicator but there are exceptions… What paper do you recommend?
      Gold nibs are generally softer than steel nibs, and that adds to more comfort imo, but there are always exceptions of good steel nibs and bad gold nibs. At the same time, the best nib I ever wrote with was gold…

  14. tom says:

    I suppose in Europe it should be easier to get buy good paper. What are the traditional suppliers in Italy, Germany and France? As gazette readers are not necessarily from the us

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