On Writing, Part I— Handwriting

Prior to the Holidays, I’d been thinking a lot about writing; about handwriting. The beauty of erstwhile, long ago penmanship. That led to a bit of research regarding same. I’ve long been aware that the penmanship most of us were taught was more or less the Palmer Method; one which can have pretty results, but lacks something that was inherent in much older handwriting. We, most of us, were taught a watered-down version, with no lessons in style; no learning of ligatures, elegant alternates or swash capitals, etc. True penmanship is a dying art and has been for a half century at least.

001_styles_handwritingI became curious about methods used to teach handwriting (in the West) prior to Palmer’s. I found several, also somewhat recent (history-wise); the Spencerian Method, for example. Better; less generic, more detail-oriented, but it’s clear that the Palmer Method was merely a simplification on that school. In the history of handwriting, I found little that differentiates any of the “schools” or methods until one reaches as far back as Blackletter or Carolingian minuscule, which were primarily for scribes, being that most people were illiterate back then.

Which hints that prior to the 1700-1800s (when these methods were primarily published), those who learned to write did so in much the same way they learned to speak— by individuals around them; a tutor perhaps. Education was more scarce, as were “schools of thought” or a “correct form.” As a result, there was more diversity in the hand of an educated adult. Or even an not-so-well-educated adult. No set form. I like this idea.

cursive handwriting, 1775A large part of why I became so interested in the (lost) art of handwriting was on account of old postcards I’ve collected over the years wherein the hand of the writer is so beautiful and distinct that it put mine to shame. And I want to learn how they learned. But what I find from that time period that are ‘forms’ of learning to write are less interesting than the individual hands. This is still true, of course— everyone’s writing tends to be unique.

A hundred years ago and more, however— I think largely on account of [1] very different writing tools (from pressure-sensitive pen nibs to ball point) and [2] a dearth of typed communication— penmanship was just a much larger part of one’s personal presentation or brand, as we sometimes call it now. It was more everyday as well as much more important in formal matters. Penmanship was akin to clothing, in terms of how well or poorly it recommended you to others. It hasn’t been given the same consideration in many years; is considered superfluous to the point it’s been removed from school curricula.

I don’t think a cursive hand is necessary (they will still learn how to print), but I believe some amount of early school work ought to be done with pen and paper only. (What a sad thing to not have the opportunity  gain confidence in what will shape one’s own signature, even if that, too, is eventually obsolete.)George Bernard Shaw's handwritingEdited to add :  The Art of Handwriting Instruction

To be continued—

3 thoughts on “On Writing, Part I— Handwriting”

  1. Did you find the supposition that the Chancery hand (also known as Italic) of the 15th century developed from the 9th century Carolingian. The 1775 image, although not beautiful, looks closer to cursive italic than some of the hands derived from copperplate, such as Spencerian.

    1. Ah! I quite forgot about Chancery— It’s not connective, but I’d say it may have been a sort of link between Carolingian and cursive; it shares a lot with the ‘modern’ cursive. And I agree, that 1775 looks very much like our modern hand; little has changed in basic structure since the Renaissance as far as day-to-day handwriting does, aside from personal style.

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