Ornamental Penmanship Flourishes

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The first entry in Albert Nicholson's 1885 autograph book
View other 19th Century autograph book pages

Good handwriting was once highly valued. Important documents in our country's history, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, were written by men known for their superior penmanship.

Traveling teachers and writing masters taught courses in handwriting, displaying their own special styles and acquiring devoted imitators and followers. One penmanship teacher who had commercial success was Platt Rogers Spencer. By 1859, Spencerian copybooks, used to illustrate and teach students the fundamentals of proper handwriting, were in schools across the country.

Austin N. Palmer also wanted to be a fine penman. He worked at a variety of jobs to pay his tuition at a penmanship school in New Hampshire. He became a traveling teacher and in 1879, at the age of 22, he moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Palmer spent two years working for a land company and an insurance company hand writing their documents, as was the practice in those days. His work experience taught him that people needed to be able to write quickly, legibly and without getting tired. He developed what became known as the Palmer Method of handwriting to meet those needs.

Flourishes and ornamental details were common features of handwritten documents during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But Palmer knew the more practical aspects of writing were the skills people needed to develop most. He stressed "muscular movement," and created a system of ovals and straight lines called "push-pulls" that helped students achieve control and rhythm. With practice, students produced examples of flowing, graceful penmanship known as script writing.

penmanship flourishes - click to enlarge

Palmer instructed his students to use only steel pens and to dip deep into the inkwell,
filling the nib with enough ink to write hundreds of repetitions.

penmanship flourishes - click to enlarge

Palmer instructed his students to use only steel pens and to dip deep into the inkwell, filling the nib with enough ink to write hundreds of repetitions. Script writing is different from calligraphy. Calligraphy is a slow process of drawing each letter, whereas script writing is a fast and fluid process.

Palmer developed his "red book," the standard adult instruction manual, when he was asked to teach handwriting classes to 200 nuns gathered for summer school in Michigan. In 1904, Palmer convinced the New York City public school system to accept and teach his method of penmanship.

penmanship flourishes - click to enlarge

As more companies began to use printed forms, penmen wrote fewer documents. They did continue to write identification and calling cards, to write dedications in presentation Bibles, and to do the lettering and script on certificates. Some penmen testified in court as experts on handwriting in cases where a signature was in question. School instruction in handwriting began to decline. By the 1950s, with the presence of the typewriter and copy machine, penmanship was no longer a major focus in the workplace. Production of documents by mechanical means, and an emphasis on speedy processes, eliminated the demand for, and the appreciation of, fine penmanship.

Iowa Heritage Illustrated,  Fall 1998

pages from a Spencerian penmanship guide

penmanship flourishes - click to enlarge

penmanship flourishes - click to enlarge

penmanship flourishes - click to enlarge

penmanship flourishes - click to enlarge

(back to subjects taught in early schools)

(Ames Historical Society website)