header 1 header 2 header 3 header 4 header 5 header 6

Handwriting in America: A Cultural History

penmanship book coverThe cover on this penmanship book from the late 1800s is as ornate as the instructions contained inside it. Note the upper right hand corner -- it specifies that this version is intended for boys, indicating that boys learned a different handwriting style from the one girls were taught.


Handwriting in America: A Cultural History isn't a new book by any means. Published in hardback in 1996, it's been around for a bit; you can get it in paperback or at used-book stores. But it's one of those books that has stayed in my mind as interesting, enlightening, informative, and just plain fun.

book coverHandwriting in America: A Cultural History is a fascinating look at how penmanship reached the state it’s in today.

If you read this book (which reads much like and may be a thesis, with numerous quotes from a huge range of sources), prepare to have just about everything you ever believed about handwriting turned upside down.

In the foreword, author Tamara Plakins Thornton shows us the seeds of the intellectual journey that resulted in this book: "Foremost among (my attitudes) toward handwriting was my secret conviction that good penmanship does not matter, that if anything it denotes a person who is fearful or incapable of being in any way unusual. Of course, what lies behind that conviction is the belief that handwriting in some way reflects personality, most especially those qualities that differentiate one person from everyone else. Faithful imitation of penmanship models -- what teachers would call good handwriting -- thereby signals conformity and ordinariness, while breaking all the penmanship rules, even to the point of illegibility, is a mark of individuality."

hand tiedThe ribbon around this hand is actually a penmanship tool, intended to train muscles to the proper position and range of motion. As the person wrote, the ribbons would tug when he/she reached the outer limits of "proper" and literally rein the hand in.

Thornton's attitude, typical of mid- to late-20th Century attitudes toward handwriting, was probably picked up in school, where she says she had little to no emphasis on handwriting. By the late 1960s, penmanship as a discipline had descended to such low status that schools had begun to eliminate it, a process that by the 1980s was woefully complete. Thornton became interested in the subject’s cultural heritage when, as an adult, she saw an 18th Century advertisement that advocated the adoption of particular handwriting styles appropriate to a person’s gender, social status, and occupation. Adopt a handwriting style? One appropriate to your station?!?

This is what hooked me on the book. I’d assumed that penmanship had always been taught the way it was taught me by a martinet named Mrs. Pairsh, who had wholeheartedly adopted the most militaristic of A. N. Palmer's methods, ordering us to start practice by issuing commands: "Pens. Position. Circles." When class was over, at lunchtime, she ordered us: "Turn. Stand. Face forward. March." (She did, however, get results.)

penmanship drillsIf enthusiasm lightens labor, as this penmanship student wrote some 25 times on this page alone, one hopes he had some enthusiasm for the job. Even at a 6th or so grade level, his writing is much more disciplined than ours is today.


It intrigued me to learn that handwriting instruction has gone through phases, fads, up- and downturns in popularity -- all the things that reading, math,and science have endured.

The first few chapters of Handwriting in America proved the most interesting to me, and the first two chapters most interesting of all. Called "The Lost World of Colonial Handwriting," the first chapter explains how a particular writing style was, far from being considered an expression of individuality, actually selected and adopted -- learned, cultivated, and practiced.

Clerks learned one writing style; engrossers another; aristocratic ladies still another, and gentlemen something different yet again. These styles were instantly recognizable to everyone who mattered, so that merely by looking at something a person had written, his/her social status, educational level, and relative importance in society were immediately known. It was a useful system for a class-based society, a society that was facing increasing depersonalization in communications brought on by the rise of the printing press. That society would have been aghast at the idea that merchants’ and gentry’s words should be given the equal weight that the printing press, with its uniform text, gave them.

Reading and writing were not taught at the same time, and sometimes writing wasn’t taught at all. Not everyone was thought to need to know how to write, and the ability to read wasn’t considered dependent on writing. Especially in America, reading was considered essential because it gave individuals personal access to Scripture. On far-flung frontiers without clergy, spiritual development was often self driven.

exercisesThe intricate exercises on this page (of which this is only a sample -- it includes many others!) show some of the movements students practiced interminably to gain proficiency in the strokes used to make letters.


But writing? Inessential. A good eye with a hunting rifle, the ability to judge planting times, good weaving skills, yes; but not writing. Writing was at best a commercial skill. For women, it held the same importance as needlework or dancing, while illegible writing on the part of gentlemen was considered proof that they were above crass commercialism. These attitudes also served as a powerful social control.

Suppose you were a lowly clerk with the proper mercantile "hand" for your station. Suppose you had some rather radical political or social ideas and the audacity to write an inflammatory pamphlet. You’d most likely have it published scribally, meaning it would be reproduced by hand by someone who, as I understand it, would reproduce it using a style appropriate for your station in life. Anyone among the upper classes (or other classes, for that matter) would know by the handwriting style with which the piece was written that you were only a clerk and that your words and thoughts should carry no weight.

As Thornton sums up, "The appropriate degree of authority granted to the handwritten word, to literacy in the largest sense, was inscribed into the very words themselves, guaranteeing that literacy would carry neither socially promiscuous meanings nor culturally disruptive uses."

definitionsNotice the detailed definitions of very basic terms -- slant, a straight line, a curved line. This penmanship book differentiates ad infinitum between right-hand and left-hand curves.


Big changes came during the Victorian era, particularly in teaching methodologies, that eventually came to identify handwriting development with character development. The Victorians conceptualized the development of a disciplined, ordered handwriting as evincing the internalization of the discipline, integrity, resourcefulness, and other characteristics they felt essential to a strong, upright character.

In men, a "muscular" handwriting was admired. Women ("ladies," anyway), mirroring their supposedly passive role in society, were expected to exhibit frivolous, overly ornate hands that took inordinate amounts of time to pen properly -- thus demonstrating that they had nothing of importance to occupy their time.

In typical Victorian fashion, they complicated the process to such an extent that they’d write literally pages of instructions on how a person was to sit, pages more on pen position, and still more pages on paper position. I have engravings of a skateboard-like tool with a hole in its front end, on which a student’s forearm rested while he practiced penmanship (the pen went through the hole to touch the paper and the skateboard was supposed to train his muscles to the proper movement).

how to make an aRead this, and see if you can decipher exactly what it says. Imagine trying to remember what stroke was what, how it differed from others, and how they fit together while your hand was struggling to follow your muddled brain. Could they have made it any more difficult?


Later on, one school of handwriting instruction broke letters down into individual component strokes, which at their most extreme were taught externally to the letters: You’d learn Stroke A, Stroke B, and Stroke C, and then learn that a particular letter was composed of A and C, for instance. Overcomplication? Well, the Victorians were good at it!

Out of this group came Platt Rogers Spencer, who developed the wildly baroque swirls of Spencerian script. At the height of this movement, some writing masters’ instructions for certain feats (usually illustrative of the masters’ prowess) included holding the pen stationary on the paper while rotating the paper 180° before continuing -- hardly something useful for ordinary folk.

Later came A. N. Palmer, who was considered revolutionary in his time and who approached penmanship training with a regimentation that left generations of children with shivers if they heard the term "push-pull." Children were, among other things, made to stand at blackboards and, at "push" and "pull" commands from the teacher, make rows of consistent up/down chalk marks. As skill advanced, these would be done on paper in decreasing sizes until a good writing size was reached.

palmer buttonDuring A.N. Palmer's era, if you did everything right and completed your push-pulls with aplomb, you might receive a button like this one as a reward for your efforts.

As typewriting had mechanized office communication, Palmer turned individual writers into machines -- the social importance ascribed to handwriting had again transmogrified from an integral indicator of character to a disconnected musculoskeletal function. Palmer"s method did, however, result in uniform, legible handwriting. The downturn of penmanship was in part in response to that extreme regimentation.

Later chapters trace the development of graphology, which has its roots in mid-1700s attempts to decipher character from physiognomy (phrenology was one branch of that school of thought), and the evolution and devolution of the craft as it gradually slipped into disrepute and became sidelined as an inessential element in an educated, well-rounded person.

The 248-page book is available almost anywhere, with hardback list price at $45 and paperback at $18. You can probably even find one at a used-book store. Either way, it’s well worth the read and may even become a valued member of your reference library, as it has mine. Published by Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-07441-7.

Email me!

Stationery: original designs, great paper Paper: craft, history, manufacture, miscellany Handwriting: coaching, techniques, tips For sale: pens, ephemera, whatever All & sundry: animals, kids, photos, writing, weird stuff Resources: books, links, others