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Gabrielino High School

Ironically, Typed

The Importance of the Instruction of Penmanship in American Public Education

Ki Pheng Lim

AP United States History


19 May 2017

Ki Pheng Lim


AP United States History

19 May 2017

Ironically, Typed

Written history has been integral for historians to piece together the customs and practices of old societies that would otherwise be lost in time. The physical representation of daily life has become increasingly important today since the people are now more aware of the necessity to leave records for the future and the prevalence of digital technologies may prevent the preservation of culture in its most accurate form. However, while handwriting has informed historians of the values and traditions of American culture since the founding of the nation, the instruction of penmanship and structured handwriting has not played an integral role in the curriculum of schools, with the exception of a brief stint of cursive's popularity in the late twentieth century.

American colonists prided themselves on creating a Eurocentric culture that reflected the superiority of their roots. According to a manual on reading and transcribing early American handwriting, “the greatest influence on American handwriting was from secretary hand and italic hand” (Sperry 3), which both originated in Europe and were widely used in Britain during the era prior to and during colonization. In spite of the desire to mimic the culture of their English cousins, colonial America provided little opportunity and little motivation to practice handwriting, especially in the agrarian society of the era. Even though “by the eve of the American Revolution, adult male literacy in New England was nearly universal” (Urban & Wagoner 35), such high literacy rates would have been unique to New England, as Puritan insistence on being able to individually interpret the word of God necessitated some form of education. Because such religious devotion was unique to the New England area, such skills would not have been widely available in the Chesapeake region and the Southern Colonies, regions that valued trading and agriculture, respectively. Naturally, common Americans with the ability to write would have been few and far between.

After the Revolution, Americans began to adopt “an extreme synthetic method in teaching” (Dougherty, 281). Penmanship, an already rather rare ability, became even more exclusive than it had in previous years because it was considered “a skill of importance to future ministers, lawyers, clerks, and men of business affairs” (Urban & Wagoner 46). Therefore, master penmen taught writing “as a specialized skill … requiring years of practice before mastery could be attained” (46). They often hoarded their teaching materials to keep demand artificially high for their services. Writing was paradoxically such a vital skill in leading a successful life that its instruction became secretive and limited.

The ability to write eventually became a symbol of status and reserved for the most ambitious. Even the upper echelons of society did not cultivate this skill; the wealthy often hired others to write documents in their name. In fact, the ability to hire penmen was a sign of true nobility, making the skill more valuable. The Declaration of Independence featured in the US National Archives, for example, was most likely transcribed by engraver Timothy Matlack and signed by the various delegates of colonial governments (Trubek 68-69).

One reason for the limit instruction of penmanship in the public education system resulted from the role of American scripts in fulfilling business needs and not personal desires. Popular forms were mostly characterized as “simple, attractive, rapid penmanship” (Henning 1). The first script that gained any measure of popularity was Copperplate, which was derived partially from British roundhand script. It required flexible nibs that would put more ink on the paper with an increase in pressure. Copperplate soon fell out of favor, however, since it was still not efficient enough and few manufacturers of flexible nibs existed. “The demand for speed resulted in a simplification of the form of the letters with an elimination of all nonessentials” (Dougherty 284) that further pushed the American handwriting along its evolution. At the same time, “especial writing classes in commercial schools” (283) were established, especially as the nation grew more educated and writing became more essential.

The lack of penmanship's influence in American institutions was a byproduct of the underdeveloped public education system. Until the Civil War, schools were mostly local and sectarian, mostly set up by churches in the area and exclusively for allowing children to learn how to read religious texts. Individual states began to pass mandatory education legislation only after the first world war, and federal laws that accomplished the same goal were finally passed during the Great Depression. The already small and struggling public school education had other priorities than teaching students how to adopt a secondary system of writing, especially because dedicated colleges already existed for this purpose and few students would be able to master the art of penmanship within the relatively short time most Americans attended school prior to the legislation that provided compulsory education. (Singer)

This increasing need for the systematic teaching of writing was most apparent in Benjamin Franklin's proposal for a school that would instruct students in “everything that is useful and everything that is ornamental” (Urban & Wagoner 59), which included penmanship and other useful subjects. Unfortunately, Franklin's ideas gained little traction among the people and would not come to fruition, mostly due to the traditional emphasis on classical subjects. In addition, many of schools were considered post-secondary institutions and were mostly attended young elite American men. There was little opportunity for common American citizens to master handwriting. Penmanship would continue to be ignored by the majority of the American people for some years.

By the 1850s, a more successful variation of the Copperplate script emerged as the most popular script of the time. Developed by Platt Rogers Spencer for business use (Hensher 50-51), the Spencerian system utilized almost “militaristic drilling” that required supplies and manuals (Trubek 72, 77). Following in the Victorian ideals of America at the time, almost every aspect of human nature was tightly controlled. In particular, the Carstairs system bound the hand in a rigid manner that prevented finger movement during drills. While versions of the Carstairs system “have had more or less influence in every course in handwriting which has been published” (Dougherty 282), it was especially suited for Spencerian's systematic instruction style. As a result, the highly specialized pen masters of the day were not as needed or as prized by the populace, as their skills became less rare and more accessible to the public. To keep their craft alive, many resorted to creating penmanship colleges instead of spreading it to the public education system. In this way, they continued to generate an income from pursuing their passions yet also limited the opportunities for the general populace to embrace this art form.

The popularity of Spencer's script owed mainly to the creator's personal charisma and his numerous journeys throughout the country spread the system across private penmanship colleges. Spencer and his students opened their own colleges, contributing to the popularity of the script. While the prevalence of Spencerian is to be expected within cities with high population density due to being the centers of business and commerce, “there is good evidence that they penetrated into remoter regions” (Thornton 58).

Another factor that contributed to the popularity of the Spencerian school of writing was the massive increase in literacy between 1800 and 1860. Although “groups in which high rates of illiteracy” (59) existed in various parts of the country, as a whole the nation grew more interested in the power of education.

More importantly, the materials necessary for the instruction of penmanship became more readily available as America became increasingly industrialized. Nibs in particular, which were extremely difficult to manufacture prior to automation, were more common. As a result, “the evolution of Spencerian script was influenced by the availability of high quality steel pens” (Vitolo), appealing to more Americans by becoming less esoteric.

Naturally, since penmanship and writing were useful tools for the endeavoring businessman, Spencerian became popular by virtue of timing and marketing. Similarly, because instruction of Spencerian was limited to private colleges, it never penetrated into the public education system. Moreover, the efficiency of Spencerian script was much less than what the founder claimed it to be, and therefore was never truly used by the general populace for personal correspondence. Additionally, many post-Civil War workers found that “the workload [of document clerks and other secretarial workers] was too intensive for … Spencerian” (Trubek 78). Not only was Spencerian difficult to learn due to the constant drilling and endless loops, the system did not appeal to public school systems, since it required public schools to invest in copybooks, liquid inks, and flexible nibs. If a student wanted to delve into business handwriting, he would most likely be referred to a commercial school instead of American public institutions.

Multiple alternative systems came and went, but the script that supplanted Spencerian was created by master penman A.N. Palmer, which was adopted by “schools after they abandoned Spencerian” (78), often referred to simply as “Palmer”. Meant to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor as the ideal method for executing “good, practical business” ( script, the wide array of copybooks and worksheets attributed to its veritable success. In fact, “by 1912 … a million copies of his writing manuals had sold” (Trubek 81) as more Americans were needed to fill the ranks of the industrial working class. Eventually, Spencerian faded into obscurity for the majority of America as a result of the rise of these scripts, collectively known as modern cursive.

Over time, Palmer evolved into or was the inspiration for scripts with less ornamentalism, such as “Zaner-Bloser, which … became—and remains— a dominant force not only in elementary education but also in the curriculums materials and handwriting supplies market” (82). In spite of the founders' touting of their script as an improvement upon Palmer, it may be noteworthy that its “presentation was essentially not different from Palmer's” (Thornton 208n53). Many of the rival scripts of the time could simply be considered “merely Palmer by another name” (66), and therefore one and the same. Historians disagree over the distinctions between Palmer, Zaner-Bloser, and similar styles, but nonetheless, the ornamentalism that accompanied the written word shrank as time passed. Because no experts “have shown that there's really a major benefit to learning … basically a second system of writing after you've already learned to write” (Vox), proponents for scripted handwriting gradually decreased, especially with the development of the typewriter and subsequent forms of mechanical word processors.

During the late twentieth century, the Palmer method was taught widely in American public schools due to the passage of legislation that required cursive to be a part of the integral curriculum standards students would be measured against. Teachers were forced to learn cursive themselves to teach the handwriting script effectively, then taught students the new writing. Yet over the course of only a few decades, “schools have been continually de-emphasizing the teaching of cursive writing” (Leclerc). This phenomenon has occurred in response to increased questioning of the value of cursive as a motor control exercise and the ability for members of society to participate in most important social functions without the skill.

Of course, some insist that cursive script has retained its importance in modern American education. Indeed, several states have passed legislation mandating the instruction of cursive script alongside keyboarding, including California, after the adoption of Common Core nationwide eliminated this standard. Unfortunately, the College Board reported that of students that attended elementary school in the 1990s, a period when most students were taught the Palmer method, and also took the SAT exam in 2006, only 15% wrote in cursive (Vox). Clearly, these alternate forms of handwriting were never valued by the populace, and inevitably is not taught on a wide scale in public education.

Like any other skill, penmanship was only acquired on a necessary basis and the way people wrote reflected their circumstances. Its teaching was incredibly short lived within the American education system, which itself did not exist for the majority of American history. The importance of penmanship, which never enjoyed much prominence, arguably has depreciated in value and continues to do so in light of continued technological advances.

Works Cited

Dougherty, Mary L. “History of the Teaching of Handwriting in America.” The Elementary School Journal, vol. 18, no. 4, Dec. 1917, pp. 280-86, Accessed 16 Mar. 2017.

Henning, William E. An Elegant Hand: The Golden Age of American Penmanship and Calligraphy. Edited by Paul Melzer, PDF ed., Oak Knoll Press, 2002.

Hensher, Philip. “Vere Foster and A.N. Palmer.” The Missing Ink, American ed., New York City, Faber and Faber, 2012, pp. 67-77.

Leclerc, Michael J. “Killing Cursive is Killing History.” Huffington Post, 12 Nov. 2013, Accessed 17 May 2017.

Singer, Alan. “Welcome Back! A Brief History of Education in the United States (Part 1).” Huffington Post, 7 Sept, 2015, back-a-brief-hist_b_8098916.html. Accessed 17 May 2017.

Sperry, Kip. Reading Early American Handwriting. 5th ed., PDF ed., Baltimore, MD, Genealogical Publishing, 1998.

Trubek, Anne. The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting, New York City, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016.

Vitolo, Joseph. “Demystifying the Copperplate/Spencerian Script Enigma.” The International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting, n.d.,'s-script/demystifying-copperplatespencerian-script-enigma. Accessed 17 May 2017.

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