Penmanship Essay

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The idea of literacy, even through the eighteenth century, was limited to the ability to read. People who could read the Bible, basic civil documents, and the paperwork associated with earning a living were thought literate. Learning to read was accomplished in primary schools through teaching methods that centered on phonics. Most of the persons meeting this definition of literacy did, however, learn to write their name in order to sign contracts or deeds. Writing became part of the public school curriculum in the early nineteenth century. Model scripts were displayed in classrooms as part of penmanship instruction that continued into the mid-part of the twentieth century. Instruction in penmanship became less important in the latter half of the twentieth century as the typewriter and, then, computer word processing were thought to make good penmanship less important.

Writing was a skill believed to be beyond the ability of the young child, since the ornate scripts of the times required a level of hand-to-eye coordination and small muscle development not yet attained by those under eight or nine years of age. Writing schools were organized for boys in the colonial period who had learned to read in primary school and who had an interest in attending grammar schools in preparation for admittance into colleges and the professions.

There were professional penmanship instructors in the nineteenth century who had mastered the various competing scripts and taught the “art” of penmanship and whose services could be obtained for embellishing documents. Often, these professionals became itinerant teachers who conducted evening classes that included such niceties as letter writing and composing invitations.

As civil and economic life expanded, the need for practical writing led to the development of less ornate scripts that could be taught to children in the upper primary grades. One of the cornerstones in the development of public schools in the United States was the concept that a common education involved both reading and writing and that these elements should be taught to both boys and girls. This was in keeping with the expanded definition of literacy to include writing.

The new emphasis on writing a legible, if not beautiful, hand was in place by the 1840s. A nation of commerce would require clerks, stenographers, and businesspeople who had mastered penmanship. This led to the creation of new scripts that would increase speed and legibility at the cost of flourish. Business colleges sprang up and penmanship became a curriculum staple. Decorative scripts would become the basis of calligraphy.

Developers of model scripts that were popularly adopted by the common schools included Platt Rogers Spencer in the mid-part of the nineteenth century and Austin M. Palmer in the first half of the twentieth century. The model scripts they produced could be found displayed across the front wall of classrooms everywhere.

Pencils were used in the early grades so that the simple manuscript printing of words and numbers could be taught. For the younger children, these pencils were larger than standard and the paper used was ruled so that the students could begin to develop the habit of allowing certain letters to be printed within one vertical space, two, or three. Cursive writing, as a school subject, was usually introduced in the fourth grade.

The introduction of the ballpoint pen in the 1950s and the introduction of the typewriter followed by the computer caused a diminishing expectation as to the importance of penmanship much beyond personal utility and led to its gradual demise as a principal school subject. Penmanship is still taught in schools, but it receives less emphasis and the time once spent on it has been divided among the other school subjects.


  1. Henning, W. (2002). The golden age of American penmanship and calligraphy. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press.
  2. Nash, R. (1969). American penmanship, 1800–1850: A history and a bibliography of copybooks from Jenkins to Spencer. Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society.

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