Explore Washington D.C.

Belles Lettres: Odes to Handwriting in D.C.

An editor’s guide to cursive at Busboys and Poets, the National Archives, the National Mall and beyond

Ping! With a distinctive alert, text messages appear on our smart phones, and we respond accordingly. Whoosh! With the tap of a screen, we send our comments at lightning speed. Digital communication might be the status quo, but in Washington, efforts to preserve our handwritten past abound. At the National Archives, documents establishing a new nation bear the loops and slants of forefathers. In GWU’s Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection, a letter from the first president to Congress describes in his measured hand the area that would become the District of Columbia. At the Library of Congress, a slightly different kind of script illuminates important issues of the day in the Pulitzer Prize-winning line drawings of former Washington Post cartoonist Herblock. With historical inspiration in mind, visitors find more love letters to cursive handwriting at spots below.

Inside Busboys and Poets bookshop and cafe
Inside Busboys and Poets bookshop and cafe (©Mike/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Busboys and Poets

Contemporary scribes make their way to cafe/bookstore Busboys and Poets, where quotes by authors and activists scrawled onto walls serve as decoration and inspiration. 2021 14th St. NW, 202.387.7638 and 1025 Fifth St. NW, 202.789.2227

A classic fountain pen
A classic fountain pen (©Toshiyuki Imai/Flickr, Creative Commons)

Fahrney’s Pens

For 85 years, Fahrney’s Pens has been drawing diplomats, politicians and other fans of fine writing instruments, including columnist George Will. The store’s classic fountain pens and rollerballs have even been used to sign legislation into law. 1317 F St. NW, 202.628.9525

Exterior of The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Exterior of The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Courtesy Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian)

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

At Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a part of Darren Waterston’s Peacock Room Remix exhibit (through 2017) captures the poisoned-pen correspondence between artist James McNeill Whistler and patron Frederick Leyland. 1050 Independence Ave. SW, 202.633.1000

Stationery samples from Georgetown's Dandelion Patch
Stationery samples from Georgetown's Dandelion Patch (Lisa Ziesing, courtesy The Dandelion Patch)

The Dandelion Patch

In Georgetown, stationer Heidi Kallett’s The Dandelion Patch provides fine papers from elegant invitations to casual notes and even cheeky cards for any letter-writing campaign. 1663 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 202.333.8803

Obelisk

As the sun sets, diners head to elegant Obelisk where the pastas in chefs Peter Pastan and Esther Lee’s kitchen aren’t the only items to be made a mano; the prix-fixe menu is scribbled hours before the doors of this townhouse trattoria open. 2029 P St. NW, 202.872.1180

The Lincoln Memorial at night
The Lincoln Memorial at night (©bvi4092/Flickr, Creative Commons)

National Mall

After dinner, a moonlit tour of the monuments along the National Mall reveals ideals—handwritten once upon a time—forever etched into stone. Constitution Ave. NW between 21st and 22nd streets, 202.426.6841