Help Wanted: Paleographers and Generalists Needed to Study American Handwriting and Penmanship

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Help Wanted: Paleographers and Generalists Needed to Study American Handwriting and Penmanship


Imagine that you are at a flea market in New York City and looking through boxes, and you come across some manuscripts, a diary, and copybooks.

The first item is from Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1875. [1]

The second is from Troy, New York in 1876. [2]

The third is from Boston in 1876. [3]

The fourth is from New York City in 1877. [4]

You are excited about their relation to each other because of the close grouping of years, and what they can tell you about this era of master penmen and writing instruction. You turn to your friend, a learned professor and penman, and you casually ask him a question.

“What writing style was dominant in 1875?”

“Spencerian, of course. It was the golden age of ornamental penmanship from 1850 to 1925, and Platt Rogers Spencer and his sons ruled those years like kings,” the professor says.

“Yes, of course, I knew that,” you reply, ashamed.

“Yes, everyone knows that,” he grumbles.

Hoping to change the direction of the conversation, you turn to the items in your hand. “Well, I just found some great Spencerian material! Let me show you.”

You look together at the first document from Cambridge. [5] You suspect they have trained staff who must write in the latest style, at such a place as the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

“Explain to me the elements of Spencerian you see here?” you implore the professor.

“Well, the natural curves, the loops. Spencer was inspired by nature.”

“I see. And the lines connecting words?”

“Just an idiosyncrasy. And Spencer was inspired by water as a child.”

You search and find in the pile an earlier book, from 1869, Payson, Dunton, and Scribner's, Theory and Art of Penmanship: a Manual for Teachers. Certainly it must have these letters?! [6] But you don’t find the letterforms there from the Cambridge manuscript.

The professor chides you for looking at the book. “By the middle and latter part of the middle nineteenth century, everything that is not Spencer is just an imitation.”

You nod, and show him the page you have just seen. Your eyes have traced the curves and shading and you see more in the letters than you can explain. You want to ask a question, because the more you think about it, the less these look like the letterforms from Cambridge. You look at the Cambridge letter again. [7] In fact, they look nothing alike. But you remain quiet.

Then, you show the professor the letter from Troy, New York in 1876. [8]

“Hmm. Well, it looks like backhand. He must have been left-handed.”

“Did Spencer have a backhand script in 1876?”

The professor coughs.

Next, you open the Boston schoolgirl’s diary from 1876. [9]

“Ah, yes,” the professor says, “ink of that color was popular during this time period. Note also the wedge shape of the t’s and d’s. I love the Spencerian style. So rich in its expressiveness, so refined and practiced by this talented young girl.”

“Yes, I see,” you say. And then, your eyes wander to the letter “e,” and you follow it throughout the diary. Next, you notice the “s.” Both letters are odd. You look harder. [10] You ask, “Are the “e” and “s” written like this in Spencerian?”

“Of course,” says the professor. “It is a schoolgirl’s writing from a good school in Boston. They were trained well back then.”

To change the subject, you pull out another letter. You want the professor to be happy. He is a friend of yours. He has even written about penmanship. You turn to him for more advice.

“Please describe this in Spencerian terms. This is from a large company in New York, with a fine hand and a trained penman, to be sure. What do you call this?”

You hand him the New York City letter from 1877. [11] For some reason you cannot understand, the professor changes the subject and begins to talk about opera, lyric sopranos, and French cuisine, and tells you he has memorized the definition of "cuisine" from the Internet: "a style or method of cooking, especially as characteristic of a particular country, region, or establishment."[12]

The vendor at the flea market comes to you with a box, and a generous smile on his face. “I found this for you. Books. You will like them. Copybooks.”

You dive into the pile. Immersed in them, you occasionally burst out with enthusiastic sentences in the next few minutes:

“Spencer, oh, Spencer! A constant, like the northern star!” [13]

“A. F. Newlands and R. K. Row in 1896?” [14]

And here is H. P. Smith, also from 1896! [15]

“Horace W. Shaylor and George W. Shattuck from 1901. What a beauty!” [16]

“Van Evrie Kilpatrick and Leah Brown from 1904!” [17].

“Here are the Spencer sons, again. 1905. Terrific!!” [18]

“Zaner, 1910!” Your thumb turns to page 101. [19]

Amid all your shouting, the professor has been studying the books you hand him.

You mutter to yourself, “Surely there are English paleographers. They study medieval work?”

“Yes,” the professor agrees.

“And what of paleographers studying American handwriting and penmanship?”

There is no answer from the professor. There is only silence between you now.

You purchase from the vendor the manuscripts and books you have been perusing, and you and the professor walk quietly and listen to the sounds of the city around you. You observe the details. Your eyes trace the lines in the buildings and the trees. You see the names of children and teenagers etched in the once wet concrete sidewalks, and you try to decipher the graffiti on the mailbox.

Arriving back at your apartment, you decide to post an ad online: “Help Wanted: Paleographers and Generalists Needed to Study American Handwriting and Penmanship!“