Dipping Into America's Penmanship Past

'Your handwriting is so beautiful," the clerk at the post office said, sighing. "I'm sure you're tired of hearing me say that, but I wish I could write like you."

I explained to the clerk that if she had lived in the 19th century, she would have written the way I do. At one time, the handsome Spencerian script that graced the manila envelope had been the most common form of handwriting in America. I did not come by this skill naturally; in fact, my college roommate once described my former handwriting as a scrawl.

My resolution to improve my handwriting came while reading "Remember Me," by Linda Lipsett. The penmanship on the friendship blocks shown in that quilt book was exquisite. The lacy letters faintly resembled the cursive I had labored at in elementary school, but they were more graceful. From a quilting-supply catalog I ordered a book that would supposedly teach me how to duplicate that antique script. I thought my handwriting transformation was about to begin.

Well, not quite yet, I discovered. Spencerian letters should be written with either a quill or an oblique pen. I had neither.

I searched six months before finding a Spencerian calligraphy kit in the bargain bin of an art store. Ecstatic, I rushed home to try my new pen, but all I managed to do was splatter ink and scratch out thick, clumsy letters. What had those 19th-century writers known that I lacked?

SHORTLY after buying the kit, I read an article about a master penman, Michael Sull, who was dedicated to reviving Spencerian script. Each year, Mr. Sull taught a week-long class in Geneva, Ohio, the hometown of Platt Rogers Spencer, the father of American penmanship. Here was the teacher who had the clues I needed to form those letters, and the seminar was held only six hours away.

Come September, I huddled in the back row of the Spencerian seminar, feeling overwhelmed by the roomful of calligraphers and the tradition surrounding this folk art. Here on Lake Erie's shore, when he was only 10, Spencer had noticed that the most common forms in nature were the oval of the beach pebble and the angle of the rolling wave. Spencer combined these shapes to create a form of handwriting inspired by nature. He used whole-arm movement so that a penman could write for hours and not tire. After publishing a copy book in 1848, Spencer's script was embraced by most schools.

During class time, I wrote drills for hours and learned that whole-arm movement meant writing with more than just my hand. In order to write these letters, I first had to be able to see the shapes in my mind. The names of great penmen - Aimes, Madaraz, and Zaner - were repeated each evening during history lectures.

What had begun for me as a means to better my handwriting exploded into a passion. By week's end, my letters had turned into swallows that swooped across my paper. I understood the importance of posture, blotters, pen wipes, and other finer points of penmanship. And when I began to send out decorated envelopes, the compliments flowed in.

I still marvel at the thick and thin letters in antique diaries and the signatures in old books. There is a certain grace to those letters that no computer-generated font can match. Maybe it's because those letters hint at a time when paper was scarce and penmanship was a coveted skill.

Today, I dip my pen and continue to practice in a style steeped in the legacy of America's penmanship past.


In 18th-century England, there was no standardized way of writing script. Penmanship books of the era illustrated many "hands."

Each style was reserved for a specific occupation, gender, or class. Many of the styles were derived from the native Gothic script of the Middle Ages, but a new set of hands had also arrived from Renaissance Italy. Italic was used mostly for Latin texts; the British Exchequer demanded that the pipe-roll hand (a Gothic script) be used; merchants soon adopted a strip-ped-down version of Italic, considered a masculine hand.

By the early 1700s, Roman characters were considered appropriate only for women. Italian handwriting had completely displaced Gothic script by the 19th century. Platt Rogers Spencer revolutionized handwriting in the US and linked the skill with high morals and intelligence.

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