07 October 2013

The Lost Art of Penmanship

There is a fabulous textbook, The Business Guide; or, Safe Methods of Business, published in 1886, in the one room schoolhouse which I have perused through from time to time. In the beginning part of the book, the topic of penmanship is discussed. For someone entering the fields of business during the 19th century, or education for that matter, neat, legible handwriting was of the utmost importance. If you had terrible penmanship, you might not be hired for a job, unlike this century. The English style of script taught in schools from the 1840's until near the end of the century was Spencerian script. While I have seen a few variations on some of the capital letters, there are quite a few differences compared to the Palmer method script, which was introduced to pupils in the 1890's and remained the predominant style of handwriting taught in schools until the mid-20th century. Because of the uniform methodology of the Palmer script, many teachers during this time forced left-handed pupils to write with their right hands. While still a rather decorative script compared to modern styles of handwriting, there was significantly less flourish in the Palmer method than in the Spencerian script.

Spencerian script alphabet, capital letters. While many of the letters
are quite similar to modern styles, there are some unique differences.
The lower case letters also have a few anomalies from modern script.

Spencerian script, ornamental writing. Many surviving documents from the 19th century are written in a
style similar to what is seen here. The Victorians sure had a flair for the ornate!

Ornamental flourishes to penmanship were much more common in the 19th century. I think I could have
had some fun with this if my 20th century teacher would have taught it.

Another example of ornamental penmanship, or calligraphic writing by modern standards.

Exercises in ornamental penmanship. There are many options to
choose from when adding decoration to your penmanship. It is
recommended to hold restraint when adding flourishes.

A less flourished version of Spencerian style script for business use.
It would be important for a customer to be able to read any
correspondence, and if your writing had a lot of flourish, chances are
it would be difficult for a customer to decipher.

While business writing was tamed, a person's signature would
never lose its flourish. Even if your penmanship was atrocious,
your signature would not suffer the same fate. When writing your
own signature, think of our 18th century founding father,
John Hancock.

When shipping packages, many businesses used an alphabet similar
to this style. I do believe we have a few artifacts at the museum
which exemplify this style of script.

Contrary to popular belief, manuscript printing was a style of writing
taught in the 19th century. While was is not as prevalent, there were
occasions to print instead of write the alphabet.

German script in the 19th century was called Kurrentschrift or Alte
Deutsche Schrift. It was based on a medieval Gothic script, and it
was amended a bit in the early 20th century to the slightly simplified
script of Sütterlin. This style of writing went out of fashion in the
1940s. This is my favorite script to use in my German Lutheran
one room schoolhouse simply for the fact that few can read it,
even if many recognize it from old family letters.

Later 20th century handwriting consisted of teaching pupils to write manuscript style, block printing, and then transition into cursive style. In a complete about face from the Palmer method's tendency to assimilate left-handed writers, modern handwriting books gave instruction for both the left-handed and right-handed child. (Phew, thank goodness for me since I am a lefty! I have heard many stories from my mother about her teacher forcing her to write with her right hand.) For those who began attending elementary school in the 1980's like me, one might be familiar with a third style of writing called D'Nealian. The script was meant to show the beginning of a curve in letters so as to make the transition to cursive easier. Some schools still use this style of instruction today.

The Palmer method replaced Spencerian style in the very late 19th century and dominated
school classrooms until the mid-20th century. While still rather ornate, it is a much simpler
form of writing than Spencerian script. It is during this period many teachers forced left-handed
writers to switch hands.

Zaner-Bloser developed a block printing style to teach the youngest of students in the later 20th century.
This is a style still used in many classrooms today in which students first trace the letters then write the
letters independently. There are still proper strokes to be followed when writing.

The transition to cursive writing in the Zaner-Bloser method was meant for the third grade and utilizes the
same technique as printing. The student first traces the letters then writes the letters independently. If you
were in elementary school during the 1970's or later, chances are you learned this style of script.

The transitional method sometimes taught in the late 20th century was D'Nealian. Like Zaner-Bloser,
many schools still use this style of script when teaching children how to write. Some have altogether
replaced cursive writing with this technique.

Heading into the 21st century, I am astonished to hear how many schools have dropped handwriting from their curriculum. For some reason, many educators making these decisions consider penmanship to be obsolete in a world of technology and computers. I joke that one day the Declaration of Independence is going to look like hieroglyphics to future generations of Americans, but sadly, it could possibly become a reality. When I portray a 19th century schoolmistress, there are many visitors my age and younger who cannot read my handwriting on the blackboard. It should be noted, when writing in English, I use Spencerian script with as little flourish as possible while writing on the blackboards.

A little humor. Is penmanship really obsolete? Have computers really taken the place of handwriting?
Or do some just consider it to be no longer necessary because of the patience good handwriting requires
It is not something to be learned overnight but to be perfected with much practice over many years.

I do not mean to give teachers a bad reputation for decisions often made beyond their control. Many 21st century teachers continue to teach penmanship to their students. Handwriting Without Tears is a penmanship curriculum I frequently hear mentioned by today's teachers, and there is a variety of published curriculum available for use, thankfully. There are also parents of children who are taking the initiative to teach penmanship to their children after the schools their children attended remove it from the classroom. This exercise in fine motor skills is still relevant and important in 21st century education, and kudos should be given to those still trying to keep it alive. I have seen second grade boys rush through assignments and turn in papers with printed script written backwards yet cursive script written correctly. There is some logic in keeping penmanship in the classroom.

Printed manuscript for Handwriting Without Tears. It seems simple and
straightforward. Added bonus: its name suggests a promise of zero
crying children. ;)

Cursive script for Handwriting Without Tears. It uses a vertical letter
instead of incorporating any slant. Personally, it is an ugly script, but if
child is learning cursive one should not complain.

So, the next time you sit down to hand write something, keep in mind the Victorian advice to scholars of business for practicing and perfecting the eloquent art of penmanship:

How to write.
A complete set of rule for position and practice.

  1. Sit in an upright and easy position. It will add to the ease and beauty of your writing. Keep both feet on the floor.
  2. Hold the pen firmly, but not so tightly as to cramp the fingers.
  3. Place the hand on the paper so the top of the holder will always point over the right shoulder. This will cause the points of the [steel] pen to press equally on the paper.
  4. Keep the wrist from touching the paper or desk, and keep the thumb from bending while writing. Avoid the finger movement. It's not practical.
  5. Let every downward stroke of the pen be drawn towards the center of the body, and the writing will have the correct slant.
  6. Never practice carelessly. Always practice with a free and quick stroke. Let the movement be bold, free, offhand, resting the pen so lightly that the arm, hand and fingers can move freely together.
  7. In making the shades, press on the pen with a gentle, springing movement. It will avoid heavy and irregular strokes.
  8. Heavy shading, or shading every downward stroke, never adds beauty nor grace to the writing.
  9. The thoughtful student in penmanship, as in other studies, will win. Think and write. Practice with perseverance, and your success will be certain.
  10. To make the greatest improvement in the shortest time, practice upon the letters separately until you can make them all correctly.
  11. Flourishes, too heavy shading, too large or too small letters, should be carefully avoided.
  12. Practice writing by copying business letters, notes, drafts, receipts, etc., and you will improve your knowledge of business as well as your penmanship.


  1. This is lovely, thank you for your time in creating this page, a delight to read.

  2. What a lovely page! Thank you. I kept over a decade of journals with a succession of fountain pens until I switched to a word processor in 1989. Was shocked the other day when a co-worker at my school could not read a hand-written document given her! The author didn't have the neatest hand, but it was certainly legible. She simply had never learned to use cursive letters of any type nor to read them. A loss, but I'm of the regime ancien. GV