A guest post by Emily Simmons

This week my research has taken me on a brief foray into the cultural history of handwriting. I’d like to think about the forms and functions of handwriting in a print culture.  How, for example, might penmanship education and practice have changed in an age where print was prevalent, but hand-written letters were still the main form of daily correspondence? Or, how might would-be authors have viewed handwriting (or been judged by it) as they composed with an eye to ‘getting into print’? I’m looking for work on the cultural valences of handwriting characteristics, such as neatness versus sloppiness, consistency versus variation, or even (especially?) aesthetics in relation to utility. How might these different features of handwriting have been valued by readers and producers, and how was their value shaped or propagated through systems of handwriting education (which, not surprisingly, seem to have been changing rapidly through the century and in line with in printing technology)? I wonder how Victorian registers for good and bad handwriting differed from ours.

Tamara Thornton’s Handwriting in America: A Cultural History has proven useful so far. In the first place, I am fascinated to learn that the pedagogical system for teaching cursive often consisted of breaking the shape of each letter down into smaller units: ovals, circles, straight lines, and curves.  Students were then taught to memorize these shapes and the combinations of each that made up each letter of the alphabet.  So, penmanship pupils began by learning “bit of letters” and formulas for their assembly.  Pupils would be asked to orally recite the components of different letters, rather than demonstrating an ability to write them down. Now, an interesting figure appears in Thornton’s chapter on Victorian America.  Platt Rogers Spencer was an entrepreneurial penmanship educator whose ideas about the uses and values of penmanship strike me as extraordinary.  Spencer took the obtuse system I have just described and infused it with a little Romantic logic.  His system warrants a lengthy description:

“Like almost every other nineteenth-century penman, he reduced the alphabet to a few elemental principles, but he also grounded his approach in a moral and aesthetic philosophy. Spencer did not represent handwriting elements as mere bits of letters; instead, he identified them with natural forms. Should the pupil ‘seek the origin of those forms and combinations which he is called upon to analyze and reproduce in his practice, … he will be led immediately to the study of Nature … There the elements of all the letters, in ways without number, enter into the composition of countless objects fitted to delight the eyes of the beholder.’ The straight line could be seen in sunbeams, the curve in waves and clouds, the oval in ‘leaf, bud and flower, in the wave-washed pebble, and in shells that lie scattered upon the shore.’ The ‘true imagery of writing is called then from the sublime and beautiful in nature’” (Thornton 49).

I find this incredible, not because it is a succinct way of integrating the pedagogy and practice of handwriting into archetypal Victorian programs of moral and spiritual uplift, but because of the stretch required to bridge the gap between a curved line and a conceptual wave, and the extremely arbitrary connection between the two things. Well, and to think that even such supposedly ‘mechanical’ arts needed to be elaborated in this way and justified as serving a higher purpose. Apparently writing masters applauded Spencer’s doctrine for providing penmanship with “dignity as an intellectual pursuit.” Part of my incredulity, I think, stems from my own interest in penmanship as a practice that helps to ground and emphasize the materiality of writing. Stories and novels that make note of the appearance, shape, and size of handwriting draw our attention to composition as an act that necessitates a recording medium – be it a pen, keyboard, or audio device. No matter how Romantic or inspired an author’s motivation may be, he or she cannot translate that inspiration into a readable form without the aid of some physical device and manual effort. But Spencer struggles to transcend this reality, it seems. Thornton acknowledges that it was unlikely that most Victorian Americans wholeheartedly bought in to Spencer’s ideas, and yet he established something of a ‘Penmanship Empire’ during his lifetime, publishing more than one textbook series, which were administered in schools throughout forty-two states, and establishing a chain business colleges with dozens of institutions throughout the US (Thornton 48).

Now, Spencer was followed by another imposing figure on the landscape of ‘handwriting education’, but I will save his introduction for another post. As of yet I’ve only found American sources in Thornton’s book, so I’d be very interested if anyone knows of a similar secondary source on Victorian Britain and the cultural history of handwriting.

Emily Simmons is a doctoral candidate studying Victorian Literature at the University of Toronto.

– Tamara Plakins Thornton. Handwriting in America: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996.


8 thoughts on “Sublime Penmanship

  1. For more — much more — specifically on handwriting instruction/attitudes in Great Britain and Europe of the nineteenth century (and earlier), read UK calligrapher/historian Joyce Irene Whalley’s THE PEN’S EXCELLENCIE [sic] — named after one of the early British manuals she discusses.

  2. At the risk of bring science into every one of my comments – I wonder if likening written forms to nature (science’s object of study) was Spencer’s attempt to elevate the prestige of his field of study, rather than a pedagogically-motivated move.

    I’m interested to find out what you have to say about penmanship in your next post.

    1. Thanks for the comment Connie — while I haven’t come across anything specifically related to science yet, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it’s implicated in these ideals of beauty combined with methodological rigour. Certainly, it sounds like other professional ‘penman’ were pleased with Spencer’s work insofar as it elevated the dignity of their profession.

  3. Thanks for this, Emily. Much of Kittler’s Discourse Networks is devoted to both reading and handwriting instruction in the nineteenth century. Of course, his study is rooted in the German context, though British authors pop up here and there. I would love to see a book-length study on British penmanship, but I haven’t come across one yet.

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