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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Handwriting in America

September 8, 2017 Innovation Impact

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Writer demonstrating proper posture and hand-holding position, c. 1800. THF286087

In her recent article, “Cursive: Dead or Alive?” (The Henry Ford Magazine, June-December 2017), author Anne Trubek asserts that, today, cursive writing “is becoming retro-cool, more interesting precisely because its utility has largely passed.” 

Indeed, the importance of penmanship—as cursive writing was once called—has radically declined as part of school curricula in recent years.  It is no longer required in most states’ Common Core standards—due to increased technology use, the rejection of repetitive drills as teaching tools, and the higher importance placed on reading and math in government-issued tests.  However, not everyone agrees that eliminating it from the curriculum is desirable, arguing that mastery of cursive writing helps with hand-eye coordination, long-term memory, problem-solving, and idea generation. 

The heated debate about the need for young people to learn cursive writing—or not—raises the question of how we got here.  In fact, the story of handwriting in America is one of continual adaptation to technological and social change, and in no small part the influence of two innovators whose names have been largely forgotten today—Platt Rogers Spencer and Austin Norman Palmer.

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A trained engrosser transcribed the original 1776 version of this document—the Declaration of Independence—from Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft. THF92259

In the 1700s, as more people learned to read and printed materials became more available, reading became a desirable skill.  But writing?  That was reserved exclusively for the wealthy and for those whose profession required it—like merchants, bookkeepers, legal clerks, and engrossers (those trained to transcribe the final draft of a document in a large, clear hand).  

Handwriting in those days was tedious and difficult, including learning how to fashion quills from goose feathers, mix ink, rule lines on paper, and use the ink-filled quill without spotting or smudging the paper.

Writing became a more widely accepted and embraced skill during the early 1800s, as self-trained writing masters traveled around the country offering courses of instruction.  In more populated urban areas, they offered private writing courses in what were in essence the first business colleges.

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To motivate students, teachers often bestowed awards for good penmanship, like this 1877 example. THF286089

In small towns and villages, writing masters taught the rudiments of handwriting to students in the growing number of common, or public, schools.  Learning to write came to be considered as important a skill as reading and arithmetic for schoolchildren (actually, boys) in preparation for their future roles in industrial America.

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The word “Penmanship” on the cover of this 1867 Spencerian writing book exemplifies that very writing method. THF286020

One particular writing master, Platt Rogers Spencer, would become so successful that his approach to handwriting almost completely dominated penmanship education during the post-Civil War period.  Spencer realized that, to truly influence how most Americans learned to write, he needed to go right to the source.  So he brought penmanship lessons directly to  teacher-training schools.  From there, the popularity of his writing method spread to public and private education at all levels—from business colleges down to primary schools.  So pervasive and dominant was his influence that Spencer became known as the “Father of American Handwriting.” 

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This fancy trade card gives an idea of the level of expertise in penmanship that students of the Toledo Business College would attain. THF225626

Spencer’s unique approach to handwriting reduced the alphabet to a few elemental principles, equating each letter—and parts of each letter—to natural forms like waves, sunbeams, clouds, and leaves.  In this way, he could claim that his approach was not just a series of mechanical movements but also a “noble and refining art.”  At the same time, his handwriting lessons emphasized order and precision.  With students from different walks of life—rural and urban, rich and poor, obedient and unruly, foreign- and American-born—all practicing exactly the same lessons, Spencer could claim that learning his handwriting method would mold America’s young people into reliable citizens and obedient future workers.

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The Ford Motor Company logo is an example of Spencerian writing, which Henry Ford learned in school. THF104934

Spencerian became the dominant handwriting method in America from the 1860s into the early 1900s.  It seemed to fit everything that Americans strived for.  That was, until penmanship entrepreneur Austin Norman Palmer came along, claiming that Spencerian handwriting was all wrong for Americans.  He argued that Spencerian script was too ornate, too meticulous, too slow, too tiring, even too feminine.  What Americans wanted and needed, he argued, was a “plain and rapid” style adapted to “the rush of business,” a style that was masculine and unsentimental.

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As shown in this 1920s language composition book, students learning the Palmer method were taught to pride themselves on their penmanship, which was considered a judge of good character. THF247435

Palmer introduced a new approach—one which forced the muscles to move in certain patterns—over and over and over, with the idea that the muscles would imprint the memory of these movements into the brain and become habit.  Though the approach was radically different, Palmer’s goal—like Spencer’s—was ultimately about social control.  Disciplining the body, he asserted, would also force students to conform to the conventions of society.  He came down particularly hard on left-handedness, which he considered deviant, and he insisted that left-handers learn to write with their right hand.

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Students of Henry Ford’s Edison Institute school system hard at work practicing their writing skills, 1944. THF126142

The Palmer method began displacing the Spencerian method of handwriting by the 1890s and, by the second decade of the 1900s, millions of Americans had become “Palmerized.”  In truth, given the limited resources and lack of teacher training in many communities—as well as negative attitudes by both teachers and students toward the rigorous requirements of this method—the Palmer method was not strictly enforced in most school systems and it was often combined with other handwriting methods.

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This type of school desk, made in the 1940s but used well into the 1960s, contains a hole for an ink bottle to be used with a dip pen. THF158363

Paralleling new studies in child psychology and new approaches to childhood education, two trends emerged in the 1900s.  First was the realization that young children simply did not possess the motor skills to learn cursive writing, leading to a new emphasis on learning printing first and cursive writing later.  Second, a new attitude emerged that writing could be more than a mechanical movement—it could become an outlet for self-expression. 

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The brightly colored images on this early 1970s school box, used for holding writing implements and other school supplies, were inspired by those of Peter Max and other psychedelic designers of the era. THF169170

Coinciding with these trends were new forms of technology—from typewriters to word processors to personal computers—that, by the end of the century, displaced the need for handwriting in our society.  Meanwhile, ink-dipped steel pens of the early 1900s were replaced by ballpoint and rollerball pens later in the century, and by Smartphones and iPads today.

As Americans, we tend to romanticize and revive that which we have lost.  So it comes as no surprise that, as computers have replaced the necessity of handwriting, so handwriting has become an art, a craft, the province of “makers”—equated with creativity and self-expression. 

We’ll see what lies in store for handwriting into the future. 

For further reading on this topic, take a look at, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (by Tamara Plakins Thornton, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996).

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford and handwrote this blogpost—believing that putting pen to paper helps her think more creatively than typing on a computer keyboard.  

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