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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The "Lancaster's Historic Calligrapher" Story

It was an ordinary day. Looking at a copy of our Nations's Declaration of Indepen- dence and admiring the beautiful calligraphy of the document.  Since I taught Graphic Arts in high school and included a unit on calligraphy, I may appreciate the beautiful work more than most.  The person who was the calligrapher of the Declaration of Independence that was written on parchment and signed by important members of our government was indeed a talented scribe.  But, the document that we are used to viewing was not the first copy that was made.  
Timothy Matlack, calligrapher of the Declaration of Independence
The first draft was written on June 28, 1776 on Dutch hemp paper while the second draft on July 2, 1776 was also written on Dutch hemp paper.  The final copy, agreed to by Congress, was copied and engrossed on parchment or a prepared animal skin.  This was the famous document that was signed by the delegates on August 2, 1776.  The animal skin document was eventually treated with lime.  The treated parchment stretches out and has a long-lasting quality.  The Declaration of Independence is still in remarkable condition being it is almost 250 years old.  The ink used in the document is known as iron gall ink and was fairly common when the Declaration of Independence was penned.  It was made by combining ferrous sulfate with tannin extracted from oak galls.  
Mr. Matlack's home at 220 E. Orange Street in Lancaster.
A oak gall is described as a blister or bud of the tree. It was a purple or brown black and has some acidity.  A binder, such as gum arabic, might have been added which can make the ink unstable and create problems with conservation.  The calligrapher more than likely used a goose quill and wrote in English roundhand script known as "copperplate."  But, my story today is more than just the document; it is about the calligrapher who penned the document.  Timothy Matlack lived at 220 East Orange Street in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania for about a dozen years.  I naturally had to make a visit to see for myself where he lived.  He was born in Haddonfield, NJ in 1736 and moved as a child to Philadelphia where he attended a Quaker Friends' School.  He got in with the wrong crowd and fell into gambling, horse racing and cockfighting.  While in debtors prison he learned to write in the fine, clear hand needed for official doucments and became a merchant's apprentice.  
The house on the right is 220 E. Orange St.
He eventually became a clerk to Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Second Continental Congress and then served as a delegate to the Pennsyl- vania provincial convention that wrote the 1776 state constitution.  During this time he was also a Philadelphia brewer which is how he ended up with the Declaration job after he sold a bottle of wine to his neighbor, Benjamin Franklin, who hired Matlack as a scrivener. 
Street marker telling about Timothy Matlack
Then Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Indepen- dence and shared it with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin and after revisions, on July 4, 1776, the church bells rang in Philadel- phia announcing the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.  
Photo showing the front of 220 E. Orange St.
The document was taken to the printing shop of John Dunlap, where copies were distributed by members of Congress.  Then on July 19 Congress ordered the Declaration be "fairly engrossed on parchment.  Matlack created the official document over the next few weeks, correcting a few errors from the first two documents.  And the rest is history!  As far as Matlack's time in Lancaster, living on Orange Street; he spent most of his time in Lancaster when the city was the capital of Pennsylvania from 1799 to 1812.  Mr. Matlack died in 1829 and was buried in Philadelphia.  Matlack's penmanship inspired a number of modern typefaces, or fonts, such as American Scribe, Declaration Script, Declaration Blackletter and National Archive. If only I had practiced my calligraphy more, maybe I could have been a famous American calligrapher!  It was another extraordinary day in the life of an ordinary guy. 

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