Who Writes Like That?

Refelection on the Earth, Penmanship Exercise, Joseph Franks, 1793Recently a colleague was looking through handwritten catalog cards and remarked, Who writes like that today?  His comment reminded me of the penmanship handbooks and scrapbooks we hold in the Phillips Library collection.  So, I went into the vault and pulled three volumes of penmanship samples from our Essex County manuscript collection, which had been completed by students in the Salem schools in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  Jennifer Hornsby, the Assistant Archivist, and I enjoyed a pleasant morning looking through the volumes, marveling at the many beautiful examples of this lost art.

Please note:  Some of the quotations found in this post will use the letter f known as the long s or the medial s, which should be interpreted as the letter s when reading the word.  Interestingly, this notation is used within a word and the terminal s is used to finish a word.

Before perusing the scrapbooks, I looked through Henry Dean’s Analytical Guide to the Art of Penmanship Containing A Variety of Plates in which are exhibited A Complete System of Practical Penmanship…printed in Salem Massachusetts by Joshua Cushing in 1804.  A set of 36-copper-engraved plates, engraved by Thomas Whitman, are included with the book, one of five sets published.  Mathematical Projection for the Round Text Alphabet, 1804Dean’s book includes five chapters on the origin and progress of writing and a Penmanship section, which provides information about the various methods of writing, instructions how to hold the pen and move the hand, with examples of different forms of writing, such as running Secretary Hand – The Square Text – The Court Hand…Directions to write a Current Mercantile Hand with Quicknefs and Facility.  He begins his chapter on Penmanfhip stating Every art is more or lefs valuable in proportion to the extent of its usefulnefs.  It is not without juft ground that the art of Penmanfhip is held in high repute.  Its beauties are and always will be entertaining to perfons of tafte…Every attempt therefore to bring it to perfection is an exertion for the public good.  Dean’s book also includes an example of line paper demonstrating the placement of letters, dividing the space in half to balance the presentation of the letter.

Looking for examples of his approach to instruction, we found a copy book entitled,  Old Writing Book, circa 1800, which includes line repetition exercises, similar to those  students had to write repeatedly as punishment on the blackboard.  What is interesting about this text, is that the copy exercises, with 12-14 repetitions of each line, also provide instructions as to how to write, hold the pen, place the item to be copied, etc., as one reads through the pages of the book. Once completed, the instructions read as shown below.


Be sure to place you pen and self aright.
Charged first with ink, your docile pen afsume a
Direct between two fingers and your thumb
Each end of these should (counteracting wise)
Full half an inch above each other rise.
Give to your moving fingers free command
Hold in the third; the fourth support your hand.
Inclining o’er your shoulder point your pen
Keeping your head upright and elbows in.
Lay strait your book before your writing side
Mark well your copy as your surest guide.
No letter must with ragged roughnefs grin
Or with deformed crooks or gouts be seen.
Past strokes revise with strict examination.
Question their smoothnesfs, place, or inclination.
Review the form, and size; the turns observe
Shape each of these a parabolic curve.

John Dodge Weed’s example, Farewell to Summer, seems to have followed all the directions identified above.

Most of the examples found were created by young men between the ages of 12 and 14 in the late 18th century.   This was not surprising based on Dean’s description of the role of penmanship in a young woman’s life.  Dean addressed the pupils of his Writing School at their first annual exhibition on October 26, 1804, at which he stated, It has been observed, the elegant fpecimens of female penmanfhip are rare.  If the remark be juft, while that delicate inftrument, the Needle, guided by a fkilful hand, imparts life to the coarfe canvafs, to what forse fhall we trace this imperfection, but to parental apathy, or filial negligence?

Our curiosity was piqued by Dean’s statement, so we looked for examples of writing by young woman of the same age.  These appeared in the early 19th century when the attitudes towards the education for girls changed.  Interestingly, one item found was a receipt to pay for penmanship instruction for a young woman, Abigail Osgood in 1809.  Apparently, her parents were not apathetic to the importance of penmanship.Account Receipt, Abigail Osgood, Writing Instruction,1809

Referring back to our colleague’s statement, it is very interesting to note that very little time, if any, is spent teaching penmanship in the public schools today.  This topic has been the subject of much debate and summits have been held to discuss the issue, one of which was held in Washington, DC in January 2012.  The Handwriting in the 21st Century? An Educational Summit discussed research and opinions pertaining to the role of teaching handwriting (the current word for penmanship) in the classroom.  In September 2012, the National Association of State Boards of Education released a policy pertaining to this issue.  In March of 2013, Dr. Virginia Berninger, professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Washington, wrote a response to the policy indicating the need to include cursive and manuscript handwriting instruction in the curriculum.  Where do you stand on the issue?  Should student instruction include lessons in handwriting?  Let us know.

NOTE:  Interestingly, there is an exhibition at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, through October 23, 2013 on The Art of Handwriting.

2 thoughts on “Who Writes Like That?

  1. Cursive is not dead. Recently, on a visit to Barnes & Noble, I noted that the rack of student activity booklets included several on penmanship. Although the public schools may be replacing handwriting with keyboarding, apparently the home schoolers teach both.
    In the last month I have received thank you notes in clear penmanship from young professionals. This social grace is taking them up the career ladder very swiftly. Any effort beyond another email is noted, as is the quality of that effort.
    It has been said that George Herbert Walker Bush bought his presidency on thank you notes, all penned in a clear hand. His mother insisted that he develop the habit early.
    All arts can be considered disposable, but they are what distinguish and define cultures and civilizations. Penmanship is one of those arts that defines our culture by its quality or perhaps lack thereof.

  2. Glad to hear that penmanship is still being taught. I remember how excited my daughter was when she learned her cursive letters. It was a rite of passage for her. And, I agree, the handwritten note does make a great impression – another skill that should be fostered more than it is.

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