Sarah Bliss: A Study of Handwriting in Libraries

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Sarah Bliss: A Study of Handwriting in Libraries

Samples of the writing of Sarah Bliss

The handwriting of Sarah Bliss (Sarah Peters Mary Bowker Bliss) that can be found in the Redwood Library and Athenaeum card catalog, here in a (presumed) early sample [1] and here in a later sample [2] is startling in its form: aesthetically pleasing, rounded and easy to read, and mostly leftward slanting or backhanded. It is noticeably the writing of another era. But how does one date it? What style of writing is it? Is it the penmanship of that time, or of librarians of that time? In many ways, it is neither; yet it is also both the writing of the time and the writing of librarians.

The influence of writing masters?

Sarah Peters Mary Bowker (who later married Richard Bliss, the librarian of the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island) was born in 1839 in Boston, and as a student she may have imitated the writing masters there, as was a common practice.[3] [4] Or she may have used early writing books common in Boston schools by penmen such as Bascom, [5] Dunton, Root, Towndrow, Winchester, and during her later years in school, maybe Spencer, as his books came later. Or did she see other books? [6] As far as one can judge, these styles and others from common books by these authors do not predict her writing style.

Ladies' styles?

It might even be worth considering if she was influenced by one of the writing styles for "ladies." For example, here is 1848 "ladies' epistolary" style from Platt Rogers Spencer and Victor Moreau Rice. [7] And here are others from the New Spencerian Compendium, by the sons of Platt Rogers Spencer, copyright in 1879, and with several ladies' styles, copyright 1882. [8] [9] Considering the great difference between her writing and these show, this argument seems implausible. If in fact it was another "ladies' style" that she was writing, I myself have found no evidence of that.

Other examples of backhanded writing preceding Bliss

What might the reason be for her style? Among the possible answers are that she began to use some variation of round hand with its open and round letters and mostly vertical (non-slanting) angle. While her writing is certainly not a classic round hand, maybe she was in some way influenced by that style or another? Could she be writing in a style that does not have any specific name, but that was somewhat common at the time, or earlier?

It appears that the style of Sarah Bliss is similar to others who are cashiers, lawyers, comptrollers, clerks, etc.

Here, for example is the writing of Charles James Sprague, who is a cashier at The Globe National Bank in Boston. He writes this letter on March 9, 1846. [10] See also his writing in 1865. [11]

John I. Davenport, a lawyer from New York City, writes this letter on March 18, 1872. [12]

This letter is attributed to Nelson K. Hopkins, the state comptroller for New York State in Albany, on November 26, 1874. [13] Among the most interesting details is that the letter looks as if it is written by a clerk or secretary and then signed by Nelson K. Hopkins. This style looks quite a lot like the early work of Sarah Bliss.

George W. Clinton, of Buffalo, New York, a lawyer, writes this letter on March 23, 1875. [14]

George Hoadley, an attorney in Cincinnati, writes this on October 24, 1876. [15]

Also similar to the writing of Sarah Bliss is a 1876 document from the Division of Advertising and Printing Accounts, Office of the Secretary of the War Department. [16] If one assumes the people in this office were trained, this suggests that this style of writing may have been taught in business schools or in some other training program particular to clerks and secretaries.

Another letter from 1877 has a similar look to the writing of Sarah Bliss. This letter, from the New York Produce Exchange, also appears to have been made by the slow and careful hand of a practiced writer. The difference between the writing of the letter and the signature suggest strongly that a secretary or clerk wrote it. [17]

Also bearing some resemblance to Bliss' writing is this letter by R. M. Bishop, of Cincinnati, from February 7, 1880. [18]

The greatest similarities one can find to the writing of Sarah Bliss's card catalog are in documents dated 1883 and found at the Boston Athenaeum. These in fact may be written by Sarah Bliss, as she was employed there from 1872-1875 and 1879-1888. [19] Yet, could it also be the writing of another person, trained to write in this way? One must concede that it is also possible. As for its letterforms, one can see that the style is used throughout the heading and letter, with no different backhanded style used for the question. Instead, red colored ink is used for emphasis. [20] Of some interest: At the end of the letter, there is mention of the hiring of "two letterers," a reminder of the value of the style of writing, and of the attention to different kinds of writing within the library. Also, of note is the contrast between the handwriting style of the letter itself--copied by the practiced hand of a clerk, secretary, or assistant--and that of the library director, C.A. Cutter. [21]

Could Sarah Bliss have decided that she should use backhand exclusively in the card catalogs, either for emphasis, or because she thought it was easier to read than the rightward angle used most often by her contemporaries? Perhaps it is possible. Did she broaden and round her letters (not usually done in backhand) and know that the roundness also made the words easier to read? This is also possible. Was backhand in fashion at all before she was working at the Boston Athenaeum? Yes, as the previous examples have shown.

Was backhand in fact a style? Yes.

Backhand as a style

In 1811, American C. W. Bazeley publishes Elements of penmanship: simplified and illustrated. It includes backhand script.

As mentioned earlier, there is evidence of Chauncey Bascom's backhanded scripts circa 1840, [22] as well as another unknown author, who demonstrates two backhanded styles [23] from a date that likely precedes the Bliss writing we are here examining.

Spencer's sons books show examples that she may have been inspired by. In their 1879 New Spencerian Compendium are examples which one might assume are named after different penmen: Hayes Back Hand, Cottingham Back Hand, and Abbott Back Hand. [24] [25] In the Spencerian system of penmanship copybook, copyright in 1888 and revised in 1894 they have a backhand that is called a Spencerian back hand. [26] These examples of backhand--while similar in many respects--do not seem to be close matches for the writing of Sarah Bliss. This is not to say that she did not use these or other backhanded models for inspiration, for it is often the case that a student will write much differently than they are taught.

Left-handed writing?

Could a reason for the slant also be due to her being left handed? It seems so, although there is no proof of that. Here is a sample from a Civil War veteran who lost his right arm and who was trained to write with his left hand using backhand. [27]

As Albert Willistine Clark states in his 1909 Public school penmanship: a handbook for teachers, "Backhand writing is scientifically correct for the left-handed person. [28] Would her teachers have allowed her to write with her left hand in school? This seems possible.

Library hand

Intertwined among these dates and styles is also the emergence of "library hand," a style first discussed theoretically in 1885 by the American Library Association and later voted upon and promoted by the Cooperation Committee. The first approved styles of it were printed on page 271 of Library Notes, Volume 1, No. 4 by Melvil Dewey in March 1887, [29] but it continued to undergo both dramatic and minor changes by Dewey and many adopters for several decades after its first introduction. [30]

While Sarah Bliss seems to have used some letterforms that are borrowed from library hand, that is here perhaps a minor point in the larger assessment of her overriding writing style. It is also worth noting that Bliss, as a person who worked under C. A. Cutter, and having herself a library in Cutter Classification, rather than the Dewey Decimal System, she was in some ways insulated from Dewey's politics and handwriting influence. This complexity deserves its own discussion inside the history of library handwriting.[31]

As one last point of chronology, the later emergence of "vertical writing" in 1893 by E.O. Vaile and William Beverley Harison [32] and also the introduction of Ray's Round Rapid Self-teaching Business Penmanship [33] makes impossible the influence of these later styles on the 1883 letter.

However, as for any Bliss catalog cards after 1893/1894, they seem to show some evidence of vertical writing and library hand influence. And in fact, the alphabet of Newland and Row in Natural System of Vertical Writing was recommended to librarians by Melvil Dewey as early as 1903. [34][35]

Conclusions about the writing of Sarah Bliss

How does one answer every question about her writing?

The writing of Sarah Bliss remains, to me at least, a complexity that serves to prompt questions even more than it answers them. For every letter that anchors an empirical argument and a theory, there is another letter, sometimes on the same card, that is some sort of contradiction.

In some later cards, there is some use of manuscript-print, or what Dewey calls disjoined hand. This non-script writing--used almost exclusively on maps, mechanical drawings, packages for addresses, and signs in those years--is in fact almost certainly influenced by Melvil Dewey and the movement of library hand, and to it, a number of the cards of Sarah Bliss show much resemblance.

Sorting out her cards by groups of dates relative to the timelines of backhand, library handwriting, vertical writing is a goal I have attempted with only minor success. Too, I have tried to sort her cards by the shapes of particular letters. This has been useful, but I have found that even within a single card she will vary the same letter. To weigh the history and date of one letter over the other presents a problem, and taken together, they only add to the difficulty of making an argument.

In the end, though, it seems that one must classify her writing as a late 19th century American backhand with elements of library hand and idiosyncratic letters intermixed and varied. More work and more study remains to be done, though, so that this summation carries the proper weight and evidence. These letters already presented, certainly not from Sarah Bliss, suggest that back hand had some place in everyday life and offices in 1866 [36], 1876, [37] and 1877; [38] and further, it seems that what appears to be her early work [39] is of a similar style. To see the broad range of back hand writing that comes before and after Bliss, see my related article, "A History of American Back Hand and Backslant Handwriting and Penmanship." [40]

As for her later work, already noted, [41], the elements of library hand, vertical writing, and even other letterforms are present. Lastly, one can see in it less of the leftward angle and a more vertical angle in the writing--these being also suggestive of the influence of library hand and vertical writing. While her corpus is limited, it remains an important part of the history of writing in libraries, library handwriting, and American handwriting.