I recently discovered a couple of vintage fountain pens in a box of discarded cheap ballpoint pens and short pencil nubs. I tossed out the broken plastic ballpoints and pencils but retained the fountain pens. I soon discovered the filling lever on the “Eversharp” pen was jammed because of an accumulation of dried up ink.
In order to research ways to repair old fountain pens, I went online. I didn’t find any useful advice, but did find plenty of videos about new fountain pens. There is a variety of pens and their often astronomical prices. My search engine soon began including results for calligraphy and penmanship.
One thing led to another, and I became sidetracked onto the topic of cursive writing. A Facebook photo asked if readers thought cursive writing should be once again taught in schools. This clinched my interest in the subject. Now that I own two old fountain pens, the subject of penmanship has reared its beautiful head, once again.
Penmanship is certainly an artform to be admired. My grandmother Johnson honed her skills as a way to provide a good example to inspire her pupils’ efforts at her small rural grade school. I remember that all of my public school teachers had smooth, attractive handwriting, too. Meanwhile, I was ashamed of my own cursive script. As soon as it was permissible, block printing became my default handwriting style.
The cursive script we know today, has roots in the late Roman Empire. Their written script had evolved upper and lower case versions of letters. Practical writing of commercial transactions and personal letters enabled variations that resembled the flow of later cursive scripts.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy fell into general disuse while writing became a specialized skill that was mainly relegated to monastic settings. It wasn’t until the late eighth century that King Charlemagne assigned an English monk the task of standardizing his empire’s handwriting style. The monk designed a script called Carolingian Miniscule. It featured latin letters, word separation, punctuation, plus upper and lower case letters.
Gothic script soon came about because the prices of parchment were very high, causing the need of a dense writing style. The Gothic font was used in the first books to come off of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press. By the 1600s, Italian humanists resuscitated the lighter Carolingian writing as a reaction against the heavy Gothic form. Decorative, fancy handwriting developed as a status symbol. Penmanship lessons and teachers began influencing the next generations of writers.
As Europeans settled into North America, penmanship began evolving along its own lines. Famous examples of 18th century penmanship are found in the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain and the United States Constitution. Handwriting styles for signatures branched into specialized forms that were associated with social rank, profession, and gender. Think of the John Hancock signature as one example of this.
The next major development in American penmanship came about through the efforts of bookkeeper and abolitionist, Platt Rogers Spencer. He designed beautiful, graceful letters based on natural curves and lines instead of memorized stylized characters. The Spencerian Method took shape when he taught his own handwriting courses. Spencer’s first handwriting instruction book was published in 1848. His family continued to market the Spencerian Method to school systems after Spencer’s death.
At the dawn of the 1890s, Austin Norman Palmer invented the next important handwriting style in the US. Palmer was unhappy with the inefficient, ornamental Spencerian method. It was nearly impossible to write quickly in the Spencerian style. Palmer wanted a simple, pragmatic handwriting that would be more efficient for business purposes.
Palmer used his new cursive script as the foundation for a lucrative business that included books, copybooks, pads, and other training materials. His interests included correspondence schools and marketing to school systems. The Palmer method soon dominated handwriting instruction from the 1890s into the early 1950s.
By the late 1950s, handwriting instruction had shifted into the method I remember learning. Pupils were first taught block printing or “manuscript hand” in the early school grades. In later grades cursive writing was introduced once children had mastered block printing. This was based on a similar cursive method that was promoted by Charles Zaner and Elmer Bloser as an offshoot of their Zaner-Bloser Company. It was developed as a method to transition children from block printing to Palmer script.
In 1978, Donald Thurber introduced his own variation of cursive instruction called the D’Nealean script. The name is a contraction of his first name with his middle name. D’Nealean is taught at about the same time as block printing to first and second graders. This method is regarded as somewhat controversial at this time.
After the introduction of typewriters, and computers in American schools, more time was given to machine skills than handwriting instruction. Unlike European schools, where handwriting is still actively taught, American handwriting has greatly deteriorated.
With all of this in mind, it’s time for me to repair the old fountain pens and start improving on my latent Palmer handwriting skills. I have daydreams of trying my hand at the Spencerian Method.