The Study of American Penmanship and Handwriting

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The Study of American Penmanship and Handwriting

For all of the millions of books written about the United States or by its citizens, only a small handful have as their subject our language, and many fewer address one of the most fundamental parts of it, that is, our writing: how we write, and why we write in the style that we do.

There are academics, researchers, and authors alike who have written excellent books and articles, but all too often, they have as their subject the same people or the same writing style. Rather than seek out the variety of styles, there is more often an inclination to reduce the scope of the study to a few. One will see, again and again, the names Spencer and Palmer. Yet they are only two among tens of thousands who helped or provided exemplars for young school age children, business college students, and adults. In all, these many penmen and penwomen, writing masters, and teachers employed dozens of commonly used styles and hundreds of variations for each letterform. Here is a list I have begun, to honor them, and to help correct the historical record. [1] Why are these not more prominent in the literature on penmanship?

I would posit that there is some implicit belief that some styles are considered superior to others. While in some cases, this belief may make some sense, and even be justifiable, it is more often that one style is exactly that, a mode or fashion of the time. With no more basis in fact than the belief that a polka dotted dress is better than one that is striped, teachers and master penmen alike of both yesteryear and even today try to convince themselves and others that one style of writing is better than another. At best, these penmen and teachers are indeed doing a service to help others and to improve the public's poor hand; at worst, they are only trying to find a way to exploit the public's ignorance, or to prey upon the person's vanity while also attempting to burnish their own reputation and stature in the never-ending race to be honored in their own field. Perhaps the best and worst traits of humankind reside in all professions; such it is with penmanship.

Another distraction from studying the actual writing of everyday people is the fact that the master penmen and penwomen, brilliant without doubt and enviable in all respects, are easily admired, most collectible, and most valued. But their work may or may not have been seen by the general public or may not have been used as a model for books. I will grant that the most common names, and yes, the men themselves--Spencer, Zaner, Bloser, Palmer--were very important and provided a foundation for much that followed. And yes, it is easy for academics to reach backwards, as a necessary reflex for historical accuracy, or the appearance of it, at least, to mention Jenkins. But are there not others, harder to name and less well known, who also laid down a foundation for the writing in America?

How many books on the history of American penmanship include information about the schools in Boston?

In 1739 there were five public schools in Boston, in which nearly 600 pupils were taught. In the South School there were 120 scholars; in the North School, 60; in the North Writing School, 280; in Queen Street School, 73; in the South Writing School, 62. In May, 1749, the number of scholars had increased to 705, and in 1757 to 741 [2]

John Tileston's School, D.C. Colesworthy, Boston: 1887, page 15

Was this not, quite literally, almost a lifetime before Jenkins published his book? Could one conclude that thousands graduated from these public schools and yes, some schools quite literally named "Writing School"? Did this generation or two of people and their children possibly exert as much or more influence on the writing of their time, and the writing that followed, than did Jenkins' book, which came in 1791? Is it possible that his teachings arose from these schools or others who are yet uncredited?

What do we know about Ezekiel Cheever, who began teaching in New Haven, Connecticut in 1638, and who finished out his seventy years of teaching and died in 1708? What of John Proctor and his writing school? What of Zachariah Hicks, of John Tileston? Is there wide knowledge that "Caleb Bingham, author of the American Preceptor and the Columbian Orator...was for many years an usher in the North Writing School, under Mr. Tileston"? Is it possible that Tileston had an effect on Bingham's writing style, educational materials, and teaching methods?

Is it possible that most authors will easily congratulate Jenkins but not mention Wrifford, or that people will admire and then quote the supposed ideas of Spencer without noting that they are in fact from Foster? Ray Nash and a few others stand up to announce these truths in their books and writing. But these truths are not often repeated now, and I wonder if they are too inconvenient and unpopular as conversation starters. Yet, carved high on a wall in the Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building in the Library of Congress is the quote from Francis Bacon, "The inquiry, knowledge, and belief of truth is the sovereign good of human nature."

Yes, Platt Rogers Spencer is revered now, and he was then. What was said of him by his contemporaries, or by his sons and James W. Lusk, attempting to reckon with or summarize his contributions and to define his style? What are "some of the features that mark it as peculiarly 'Spencerian.'[3] [4]

But was he the only penman heralded as the best and without peer? In fact, no.

Overall, there appears, to this writer, to be a surplus of hagiography regarding penmen both in the past and present, and there is too little interest in the true historical facts and the actual writing of the people who have lived in our country since its birth. Why? I suspect the facts are oftentimes lost in the passing years, too difficult to research, or the available material is too vast to be easily studied. In addition, as someone told me, perhaps there are only a dozen people in the country who really care about the details and history of American penmanship. Although it is hard to know if that is true, the very fact that a person believes and says this stands as its own indication of the overall interest. There are a few excellent and thorough historians and others who study documents, but these people are too few. Sadly, the experts in paleography are devoted to ancient and medieval manuscripts, but not to manuscripts written in the colonies, states, or United States.

Too many other researchers who might have studied writing and could have applied their keen observational powers and scientific method remained, and still remain, it seems, in other fields. One wonders what effect Carl Linnaeus might have had if he had encouraged the binomial naming of writing styles, or if Charles Darwin had chosen to gather writing specimens from around the world. What if Louis Agassiz had preserved handwritten material and ask students to ponder it? What history of writing would we have then?

In the end, to understand the full history, we must look much closer, much harder. We must examine again the assumptions of others before us, we must avoid taking advertisements for a product or a person as a truth, and we must find facts and evidence that create in us a discomfort and upset and then follow those leads to new truths rather than attempt to avoid them because they do not conform to established ideas. I will concede that if we find facts that support the established ideas, that is fine too, and it is a worthy cause to build upon the existing scholarship.

We have to look for the nuanced differences and the small details, and we must remember that earlier scholars worked sometimes with microfilm, or their travel was more limited and more difficult, that they did not have the luxury of high resolution images from libraries and museums around the world, and sites like and Hathi Trust as repositories. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, consumers, enthusiasts, amateurs, professionals, libraries, and multinational companies all have easy access to high resolution cell phone cameras, scanners, computers, and complex computer systems, and these tools are liberating the manuscripts, some of which have been untouched or unread for many decades or centuries.

Yet, still, in many of the libraries, the books that I am studying have been cataloged but have not been checked out by anyone except for myself, decades later than their accession date, usually. In some cases, librarians do not know that their institutions even have this material, and they are likewise unaware of the filing cabinet or boxes on the shelves, the finding aids are not marked, or the books cannot be found and have not been noted as missing. In some cases, the books have been removed from the library and are available only in a scanned format from a vendor; at worst, they are not available at all. Too few university presidents and library patrons value it or are looking for it; yet more must, if we are to preserve and to learn our shared history.

Why should we bother to try to study something that few care about? Because to study the writing of our country and our people is to study them and their history, us and our history, the true and complex history of writing in America from its beginning to the present day. It cannot be explained easily, and so the first step is to agree--and I hope you, as a reader will agree--that we know only some details about the history of copybooks, penmen, and writing instruction. We may be able to speak broadly about the most famous or of the larger trends, but we do not know much about the smaller details, and in some cases, we know nothing.

To every scholar, researcher, and librarian who is looking at the smaller details and the particulars, I applaud your efforts and I am happy to join in your cause. I hope that you can inspire future generations. Many will be needed to do this work, and perhaps, in a few generations, we will know the fuller truth.

For now, I must be content with striving to unearth one small fact at a time, like many other researchers, in the hopes that it will in some way help us understand what we do not know (although in some cases, we must learn to rethink what we thought we understood) and to help us better know a small part of this vast and under-researched area of study.