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  • Serena Kramer

From Quills to Keyboards: Tracing the Evolution of American Handwriting

What are the origins of your own handwriting?

Statue of Liberty (Lady Liberty)

American handwriting is like a tapestry, composed of threads from many different cultures and backgrounds, yet woven together to create a unique and lasting pattern. By studying the history of American handwriting, we can learn how these threads have been intertwined and gain a deeper appreciation for this unique art form.


Handwriting, an essential tool for communication, has played a vital role in shaping American history. Throughout the country's development, handwriting has been the primary means of recording and transmitting information, from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the penning of historic documents like the Emancipation Proclamation. Additionally, studying handwriting can help us appreciate the skill and artistry required to produce legible and beautiful writing!


Early Colonists & Secretary Hand


Early colonists used various forms of handwriting that were prevalent in Europe during the 16th and early 17th centuries, such as Secretary hand. Where did Secretary hand come from? Secretary hand was a popular handwriting style in Europe from the late 15th century until the mid-17th century. It was originally developed in Italy and then spread throughout Europe. Secretary hand was known for its formality and legibility, making it ideal for use in official documents and for personal correspondence. In England, Secretary hand was the dominant handwriting style for most of the 16th and 17th centuries, and it continued to be used in legal documents and official records until the 19th century. In the American colonies, Secretary hand was also widely used, particularly in the early colonial period when the colonies were still under British rule.


Last page of William Shakespear's will written in 1616 in Secretary Hand
Last page of William Shakespeare's will written in 1616 in Secretary hand

While Secretary hand eventually fell out of use as other handwriting styles emerged, it had a significant impact on the development of English handwriting and influenced many subsequent styles, including English Roundhand.


English Roundhand


An example of George Bickham's English Roundhand
Page 194 of The Universal Penman, first published 1740–1741. An example of George Bickham's English Roundhand

English Roundhand was introduced to the American colonies in the early 1700s by writing masters and engravers, and it quickly became the dominant style of handwriting in the colonies and the United States until the mid-19th century, when it was gradually replaced by newer and more simplified handwriting styles. However, English Roundhand remains a popular and highly regarded style among calligraphers and handwriting enthusiasts today.

1776: Declaration of Independence

Who penned the Declaration of Independence?

It was actually a fellow named Timothy Matlack who penned the Declaration using a feathered quill pen on vellum in the English Roundhand style. Most Americans were using English Roundhand if they had learned it.


Declaration of Independence / Engrossed by Timothy Matlack
Declaration of Independence / Engrossed by Timothy Matlack

As time went on and the colonies became more established, handwriting styles began to evolve and adapt to the unique cultural and social conditions of the New World. Some of these new handwriting styles included a more ornate form known as Engrosser's Script, which was used for official documents like charters and land grants. Other regional styles also emerged, such as the Boston Roundhand and the Virginia Roundhand, which were specific to their respective regions and time periods.


1787: Constitutional Convention


Who penned The Constitution?

The Constitution was penned by the gentleman Jacob Shallus in Engrosser's script. He was approached at the last minute and paid roughly $30.00 to write all four pages on vellum with iron gall ink and a feathered quill pen. He had about a day to complete the mission. This document now lives on display at the National Archives Building in Washington. No one really knew who penned The Constitution until 1937. In an effort to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Constitution, someone was able to trace it back to Jacob Shallus. Now, we can celebrate him!


Engrosser's Script


Engrosser's script is a style of handwriting that originated in Europe in the 16th century. It was a more ornate and decorative form. Engrosser's script was particularly popular in England during the 17th century and was widely used for official documents such as charters, deeds, and patents.

The term "engrosser" originally referred to a person who was hired to make official copies of legal documents by hand, and these documents were often written in Engrosser's script. This script was also used by calligraphers and artists for decorative purposes, such as creating illuminated manuscripts and certificates.

An ad titled "Engrosser Wanted" seeking a "young man who is qualified to engross diplomas, who is dependable and trustworthy, also ambitious of advancing in the art of engrossing." Columbus, Ohio

In the American colonies, Engrosser's script continued to be used for official documents well into the 18th and 19th centuries. It was particularly prevalent in the southern colonies, where it was known as "Southern American Penmanship" and was taught in schools as a formal style of handwriting. Today, Engrosser's script is still admired for its beauty and elegance, and it is often used by calligraphers and lettering artists for decorative purposes.


Lessons in Modern Engrosser's Script / A page from The Educator,  1936-1937, Zaner - Bloser now held at  The University of Scranton Weinberg Memorial Library
A page from The Educator, 1936-1937, Zaner - Bloser now held at The University of Scranton Weinberg Memorial Library


1791: The Art of Writing by John Jenkins


John Jenkins is actually the first person who tried to standardize American handwriting following the English Roundhand script. Some consider him to be the Father of American Handwriting. He was a schoolmaster in New England and wrote The Art of Writing in 1791. Jenkins also taught and wrote in other styles of handwriting and calligraphy, such as the Italic hand and the Secretary hand.


In addition to "The Art of Writing", Jenkins also published several other books on the subject of penmanship and calligraphy, including "The Writing-Master's Assistant" and "The Writing-Master's Copy-Book". These books were widely used in England and the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries, and they played an important role in the development and popularization of various styles of handwriting and calligraphy.


Spencerian Script


After Engrosser's script, a handwriting script that became popular was the Spencerian script. It was developed in the mid-19th century by Platt Rogers Spencer (1800-1864), an American handwriting teacher, and was widely used for both personal and business correspondence in the United States until the early 20th century. The Spencerian script is characterized by its elegant and flowing style, with slanted ovals and loops and a strong emphasis on proper penmanship and movement.


New Spencerian Compendium example of Capital Exercises / Courtesy of IAMPETH / The New Spencerian Compendium
New Spencerian Compendium example of Capital Exercises / Courtesy of IAMPETH / The New Spencerian Compendium

1840: The Spencerian School Was Born


Business schools were growing and teaching penmanship by the beginning of the American Civil War. Spencer took a great part of it by producing manuals and instruction books. His sons also became prolific penman. In 1840, Spencer officially started his own school to teach Spencerian script; it is said that his script was named by his students.


Spencer based his writing off of elements he found in nature. (It makes sense why everyone loves this script so much.) He found elegance in ovals, and he only shaded characters that needed the weight. His letterforms were about balance, rhythm, and grace. In 1850, his script went big time and became the de facto standard for writing. Spencerian is considered to be one of the most beautiful and graceful forms of penmanship, and it remains a popular style among calligraphers and handwriting enthusiasts today.


Poem written by Platt Rogers Spencer on his feelings of nature.

Learning to write beautifully allowed one to land a better job. It was imperative during that time to be literate. Literacy meant being able to read and write beautifully. If you wanted to land a job in the booming industry, speed and accuracy were virtues in writing. People had to write insurance policies, inventory lists, and the checkout clerk at a grocery store had to write-up your receipt and do the writing and mental math without the aid of a machine. (Imagine that!) The middle class was growing fast, and a demand for consumer goods was growing.


1863: Emancipation Proclamation


Abraham Lincoln used Spencerian script to write the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which is a great example of its usage.


The Emancipation Proclamation — courtesy of the National Archives —https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/emancipation-proclamation
The Emancipation Proclamation — courtesy of the National Archives


1867: The Typewriter Was Born


It wasn't too long after Platt Rogers Spencer died that the typewriter was born. The first American typewriter to become commercially successful in the United States was invented in 1867. This was the Sholes and Glidden typewriter, which was invented by Christopher Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden, and Samuel W. Soule. This typewriter had a QWERTY keyboard layout, which is still in use today, and it quickly became popular among businesses, government agencies, and individuals who needed to produce typed documents.


1888: The Palmer Method Was Born


In 1888, however, Austin Palmer invented an easier handwriting method called the Palmer Method (some American students will still remember learning cursive using this method). The Palmer Method was built as a quicker writing style for the modern day demands.


The Palmer Method of Business Writing. A.N. Palmer Published New York, etc., 1901. Page 29
The Palmer Method of Business Writing. A.N. Palmer Published New York, etc., 1901. Page 29

Coincidentally, the ball point pen was born in 1888! Ballpoint pens are widely available, relatively cheap, and easy to refill or replace, which made them more accessible to the general public. This allowed for more people to have access to a reliable writing tool and improve their handwriting. Overall, the ballpoint pen revolutionized the world of handwriting by making it easier to write, more accessible, and more consistent.


1891: The Zanerian College of Penmanship Was Born

Charles Paxton Zaner was an American penman, calligrapher, and penmanship instructor who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is best known for his contributions to the field of penmanship, particularly his development of the Zanerian style of penmanship.

page 18 from The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing
page 18 from The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing

Zaner was born in Ohio in 1864 and began his career as a penman at the age of 16, working as a teacher and writing master. In 1891, he founded the Zanerian College of Penmanship in Columbus, Ohio, which became one of the leading institutions for the study of penmanship in the United States. Zaner was a prolific author of penmanship manuals and other instructional materials, including "Lessons in Ornamental Penmanship" and "A Modern Business Penmanship". He was also an accomplished calligrapher and created many beautiful examples of ornamental penmanship, which were widely admired for their elegance and precision.


Zaner's contributions to penmanship and calligraphy were significant, and his work helped to popularize and standardize various styles of handwriting and lettering. Today, he is remembered as one of the leading figures in the history of American penmanship and calligraphy.

 

Check out the amazing samples below from The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing. The book is now in the public domain in the United States. It was first published in 1895, and as of 2022, it is no longer under copyright protection. This means that the book and its contents can be freely used, reproduced, and distributed without permission or payment of royalties. Below are some samples from the book...


Cover of The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing
Cover of The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing


page 13 from The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing
page 13 from The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing

Examples of Italic Roundhand pages 22 and 23 from The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing
pages 22 and 23 from The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing

Examples of Broad Pen Block, Old English Text / pages 22 and 23 from The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing
pages 26 and 27 from The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing

Examples of Retouched Old English, standard Old English, and American Handwriting pages 22 and 23 from The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing
pages 28 and 29 from The Zanerian Manual of Alphabets and Engrossing

To sum it up...

American handwriting is like a tapestry woven from threads of many cultures and backgrounds, creating a unique art form. It played an essential role in recording and transmitting information throughout American history, from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the penning of the Constitution. By studying the evolution of handwriting in America, we can appreciate the skill and beauty of this art form and gain insight into our history. So, the next time you pick up a pen, take a moment to appreciate the rich legacy of American handwriting!


 

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