Saturday, September 23, 2006


Big Doodle Bang

This week Cabinet magazine and Basic Books released Presidential Doodles, to plenty of gratifying press coverage. (Ahh, the writer's oxygen!) I wrote the book's foreword, Doodlers-In-Chief, and you can read the full text here. It was a fun project, and not least because I quickly discovered that... well, nobody had really written a history of doodling before. I had no precedent to draw upon.

So: I made my own history of doodling.

Not the least of my challenges was explaining the strange lopsidedness of the book. Namely, Cabinet's researchers were finding way more doodles from after 1850 than from before. After much head-scratching, I laid out my Grand Unified Theory of the Big Doodle Bang:

The labor of quill writing meant that an eighteenth-century meeting required a secretary to take notes: others were not expected to trouble themselves with writing, and the secretary was certainly not allowed to doodle... In fact, three things needed to happen before doodling could become, if not the Sport of Kings, at least the Fidget of Presidents. The first was the invention of the steel-nibbed pen. Like any terribly useful invention, nobody can quite agree on its origins. One of the earliest accounts places a steel pen in the hand of a certain Peregrine Williamson, a Baltimore jeweler in the first few years of the 1800s. Peregrine was terrible at cutting quills; in desperation, he contrived a sort of steel quill that would never need sharpening. He didn’t keep his jerry-rigged contraption to himself for long, though: soon, he was making $600 a month from his invention. By 1823, the Englishman James Perry was mass-producing them, and a new generation of children learned to write with the newfangled metal quill. “The Metallic pen is in the ascendant, and the glory of goosedom has departed forever,” one textbook stated flatly.

But then there’s the matter of paper. Paper was manufactured from old rags, and by the age of the steel pen, demand was outstripping the national supply of used underwear and grubby bonnets: paper was expensive, and not the sort of thing you’d waste on aimless scribbles. Everything from hay to hemp was tried out as a substitute material, with mixed results at best. It took the German inventor Friedrich Keller, in 1843, to develop the first recognizably modern process for mass-producing paper out of ground wood pulp. The resulting product was easily shipped via burgeoning rail systems. Soon, paper was abundant; it was sold by the pad, the memo book, and the sheaf.

Writing itself became looser and more doodle-like. Itinerant penmanship instructors, often juggling other fashionable sidelines in daguerreotyping and cutting silhouettes, distinguished themselves in the mid-1800s with manuals featuring ever-more baroque swirls and flourishes, not to mention fanciful drawings of angels, birds, and grinning fish; indeed, the title page of at least one textbook is so covered with this calligraphic frippery that the words themselves are obliterated. But by the time of Abraham Lincoln, a generation of children had grown up with increasingly affordable pencils and steel pens. These youngsters practiced flourishes, repeated words over and over, and sketched out fanciful beasts in cheap notebooks and on the endpapers of Latin grammars—and, just as their schoolmasters had claimed, a few would grow up to be president.

One of these was Harry Truman, and yet when Cabinet contacted his Presidential Library, they claimed Harry didn't doodle. That's funny, I told my editor Sina, because right now I'm looking at a Truman doodle in an old New York Times article.

Sleep contentedly, America: the historical record now stands corrected.

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