Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Isaac's Penmanship

With his usual eagerness for self-improvement, Isaac noted the following purchase in his journal:  "During P.M. looked over my catalogues to find some standard Work on Penmanship, feeling the want of such a work for occasional reference for some time, and just concluded to send for Spencerian's Compendium."  Actually, Isaac's handwriting is fairly neat and the difficulty in transcribing his Journal resulted more from his dense crowding of words and fading ink on some pages (suspected to be caused by his watering ink when the supply was running low), rather than from his handwriting.  In 1870, when he ordered the Spencerian handbook, he wrote with the flourish of a young man, expressing both in style and content the confident attitude of youth.  When he resumed writing in the journal in 1884, he was more thrifty of his opinions and materials, writing in sentence fragments, with little philosophizing and a smaller, closer script.

Spencerian script was developed by Platt Rogers Spencer in 1840, but it was his sons who published his previously unpublished writing guide after their father's death in 1864, and through their publication the Spencerian style of writing gained great popularity through about the 1920s.  When Coca-Cola created their logo in the late 19th century, they used Spencerian script. 

My handwriting over a drill from handbook.
  My own handwriting is often remarked upon, most often by clerks in stores when I am writing a check--even when I am signing those awkward electronic screens after swiping my credit card.  I have my mother to thank for my penmanship.  One summer when I was about ten, Mother decided that my cursive writing was unsatisfactory and set aside time every day for me to practice using my entire arm and shoulder, rather than  only my fingers.  I was required to make row after row of uniform loops across the page, and if she caught me drawing the loops with my fingers, the practice time was extended.  She had no name for what she was teaching me, but I believe it was the Palmer Method.

In 1894 Austin Palmer published a book titled, Palmer's Guide to Business Writing.  His idea was that using the muscles of the arm rather than the fingers, and simplifying the letters, reduced both the labor and the time it took for writing and allowed someone writing by hand to compete with the speed and clarity of the typewriter.  Gradually the Palmer Method replaced Spencerian script.  The drill above is from Palmer's handbook.

By the time I was in grade school, students were taught to print before they were taught cursive, which had apparently produced the block-like cursive that my mother found ungraceful.  For many years it was the practice to teach children entering school how to print (also call manuscript).  Then, about grade three, cursive writing was taught.  Over the years, certain styles predominated, but unless you were a teacher or the parent of a child in school during these changes, you were probably unawae of the shifting styles and teaching techniques.  The pictures below are from the Palmer Method textbook, when penmanship was a serious part of the curriculum.
In recent years a new debate has arisen.  A blog from 2007 asked:  "Cursive vs. Printing:  Is One Better Than the Other?"  The author pointed out that cursive is a better exercise for strengthening fine motor skills, and also that children who can read cursive can read manuscript writing but the reverse is not true.  On the other hand, first teaching print (manuscript) is comparable to the text in books and educational material.  Furthermore, cursive is less legible and harder to read, the proof of which is the line below the signature line on many forms which asks:  "Please print your name."  (  An online debate from 2010 dealt not with what to teach but rather which to use, and responses were mixed.  A dialogue between two people leaving comments seems to reflect the younger point of view.  The first person wrote:  "I think in this day and age cursive is dying a slow painful death."  The second person replied:  "In an age where handwriting is going the way of the dinosaur, I would have to agree."  (

Now, in case you haven't heard, many states are abandoning the teaching of cursive entirely or are leaving it to the discretion of teachers to determine whether there is time in the crowded mandatory curriculum to devote to cursive instruction.  The Theory is that classroom teaching of "keyboard skills" is more valuable in the electronic age.

I know my blog is being followed by current & former teachers, as well as students, parents, and grandparents.  This is the perfect post for those of you who have not yet left a comment to express your opinions about the abandonment of teaching cursive penmanship in schools.
In Isaac's time, penmanship was an indication of a person's education and sophistication.  There were still many who could neither read nor write and who signed documents with an "X".  The illustration of Isaac's penmanship is taken from the flyleaf of his journal, actually written before he ordered the Spencerian Handbook.
In my time I have regarded legible penmanship as a courtesy, enjoying a hand-written note of news, thanks, congratulations or concern, thoughtfully hand written by a friend, far more than a greeting card with only a signature.  Taking the time to write neatly, whatever the purpose, seemed as necessary to me as taking the time to fix my hair and put on lipstick before leaving the house.  Perhaps today's generation finds both of my "necessities" old-fashioned!

One individual responding to the question of cursive vs. manuscript wrote:  "Well-done cursive is really beautiful, and I think in the letter-writing culture of old, presentation was almost half of the pleasure of reading a letter."  I tend to agree, although I bristle a little at the characterization of that tradition belonging to the "culture of old."  Her comment received this reply:  "I found a box of letters a few months ago between my grandfather and his sister during WWII, and they were all so beautifully written.  Each one of them was like a small piece of artwork."  I would add that each was like a small piece of history.  Yet, if teaching is abandoned, will the cursive writing of ancestors become undecipherable to their descendants?

Two of my favorite museum memories are visits years ago to the manuscript rooms in the British Museum in London and the New York City Public Library.  Reading a handwritten letter of a witness to the beheading of Anne Boleyn, which described how Anne's little dog had run out from under its hiding place within the folds of her long skirts at the moment the ax fell, imprinted the horror of her execution in my mind in a very personal way far beyond what reading those same words in type could have done.  And, seeing the cross-throughs and interlinings on hand-written manuscripts of famous authors allowed insights that will be forever lost to future scholars and would-be writers viewing today's computer-written manuscripts, where changes are deleted forever.

Although most writers probably compose on computers, during an interview on CBS author Stephen King expressed the significance of writing in longhand:  "It slows you down.  It makes you think about each word as you write it, and it also gives you more of a chance so that you're able...the sentences compose themselves in your head.  It's like hearing music, only it's words.  But you see more ahead because you can't go as fast." 

An Op-Ed by Trevor Butterworth concludes, "...there is plenty of evidence that handwriting involves a series of complex cognitive processes in which perception and motor action are intertwined."  In reply to his conclusion, I would ask, when penmanship is abandoned in favor of keyboard skills, are educators neglecting the training of young people's minds in order to make them more productive at communicating ideas devoid of reflection, reason, and innovation?
 If Isaac had kept an electronic journal, would I have found it worth reading over a century later?  The picture to the left is of the top corner of page 422 of Isaac's Journal, typical of his handwriting a year before the journal ends.  Perhaps not beautiful, it is certainly neat, with a creative flair to it.  I believe that the words he wrote each day by hand speak to me more clearly than reading them on a computer screen ever could.  I also believe that his daily habit of writing in his journal allowed him to reflect more deeply and create more imaginatively than today's rapid tapping on a keypad.                                 
Take a minute to leave a comment telling me what you think! 


Anonymous said...

I really like your blog! We talked at B&N yesterday in the nook department. I really should have given you my email. (Silly me.) You can find me through this link:

Or feel free to email me. I use gmail. My email is kammywood.

Kim said...

Lynda - Before I became a reporter, I had beautiful handwriting. I am lefthanded, just like my Grandma Leonard, who also took pride in her beautiful cursive writing. Taking notes quickly as a reporter definitely led to the decline of the quality of my cursive writing, though I can do it if I think about it (not during note taking, though). While I understand that keyboarding is vitally important these days in schools and in life, I believe there is also value in neat printing and cursive writing. Thanks for this interesting post!

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Anonymous, as you said in your e-mail, putting all instruction on "keyboard skills" and allowing cursive to fade completely ignores the reality that..."after all, electricity goes out and servers go down."

Jen_B said...

This is a reason why I'm glad we homeschool our two girls. I make sure they learn penmanship. Our oldest doesn't care for it but she is really excited to learn cursive in the second half of 2nd grade. It is very hard to find books that teach the Palmer method. Today books teach modern cursive without all the loops. I want my girls to learn how I learned.

I also agree that those that can read cursive can read script but no the other way around. My 6 year old often reminds me that she can't read cursive. I wonder what will happen to check writing and name signing and of course, the letter, if we do not teach penmanship in school. How will they legibly write a thank you note? As you can tell, this post hit a sore spot for me and public school.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Jen, I guess you identify with my frustrated mother!

Grandma W. said...

My mother used to be so proud of her beautiful penmanship. It was beautiful. The penmanship today is awful - I can barely read some of our service men's writing. Cursive is another of those beautiful things from the past that is being taken away from us. So sad!

Lynne Snodgrass said...

Oh, don't get me started. With the current trend of communicating by texting and typing with our thumbs, we are heading to a future of not being able to communicate with one another intelligently, not to mention losing our capability of spelling even the most common words. My grandchildren still write thank yous for gifts, but they are all printed notes. I'm not sure if they learned cursive in school or not. So sad.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Wow, I'm impressed that they send thank yous. I, obviously, still enjoy receiving mail, but even thank yous via e-mail are not so common as they should be...

Nancy said...

I believe penmanship tells a lot about our personality and gives us a sense of individuality. The school where I taught teaches cursive in the first grade. The kids who have learned that way seem to have better cursive as well as printed writing. We will be losing more than cursive abilities if it is totally taken out of the curriculum.

As a child, I loved reading your mother's letters and would sit and try to copy it. I believe that that led to my own legible handwriting. Of course, I thought she was pretty special.

This blog shows one more thing wrong with today's schools. Also, not that many parents take enough time to sit and study with their kids.

Thanks for your insights.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Nancy, You have beautiful penmanship. I didn't know that Mother was an influence. She did write beautifully.

The Blog Fodder said...

Another great post.
I learned printing then writing beginning in Grade 3 as you said. Not sure what style of cursive but the exercises you show look familiar. Not teaching kids how to write is rather short-sighted.

Unknown said...

Lyn, I really enjoyed this post. I'm sorry that long-hand writing is "dying a slow death" to make room for modern electronic communications. I much prefer to read a hand-written card or letter from a friend.

Unlike most editors who would refuse to consider them, I always treasured the handwritten poetry submissions to "Chiron Review," esp. those written on old envelopes, paper sacks, etc.

At the museum I love the hand-written manuscripts, letters, postcards, diaries and ledgers. Hand-written documents are one-of-a-kind works of art. Typed manuscripts and letters can be, on a lesser level. But, to me, electronic communications are devoid of personality and aesthetic appeal.

With all that said, as hypocritical as it is, I absolutely hate writing anything in long hand, & am much more productive typing on a computer ... :-)