Updated: Jul 29
Once upon a time, American handwriting looked so beautiful. Today, some would call it calligraphy. What made American handwriting so unique? Our independence, of course!
I had a blast taking a Spencerian (a uniquely American script) workshop with Master Penman, Michael Sull. Since that experience, I’ve had a lot of people ask me how the “calligraphy” workshop went. So, I thought it was absolutely necessary to share the history of the Spencerian script because it is so rich in our American history and culture!
Pointed Pen Spencerian Example authored by Musselman
So, what is Spencerian?
Spencerian script is a pointed-pen script that was developed by an American named Platt Rogers Spencer (1800-1864). Just to give you a frame of reference, here's a timeline!
First, a Pop Quiz!
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. During this time, Americans were celebrating their own independence, and handwriting was just one form of expression that was used to demonstrate that. Most Americans were using English Roundhand if they had learned it, and it is commonly referred to today as Copperplate.
Who penned The Constitution?
The Constitution was penned by the gentleman Jacob Shallus. 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!
John Jenkins is actually the first person who tried to standardize American handwriting. 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. There's a gem of a story from Michael Sull receiving a copy of this book. I won't spoil it for you; it's best if you hear him tell the story, but you can view a great YouTube video of him unveiling it here: The Arrival of the John Jenkins Book "The Art of Writing."
Platt Rogers Spencer, born in 1800, would grow up to love penmanship. Business Schools were growing and teaching penmanship by the beginning of the American Civil War. He took a great part of it by producing manuals and instruction books. His sons also became prolific penman.
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.
"Evolved 'mid nature's unpruned scenes, On Erie's wild and woody shore, The rolling wave, the dancing stream, The wild-rose haunts in days of yore.
The opal, quartz and ammonite, Gleaming beneath the wavelet's flow, Each gave its lesson - how to write - In the loved years of long ago.
I seized the forms I loved so well - Compounded them as meaning signs, And to the music of the swell Blent them with undulating vines.
Thanks, Nature, for the impress pure, Those tracings in the sand are gone; But while love shall for thee endure, Their grace and ease will still live on."
-Platt Rogers Spencer
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.
It wasn't too long after Platt Rogers Spencer died that the typewriter was born. The first American typewriter to become commercially successful was invented in 1868. In 1888, however, Austin Palmer invented an easier writing 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. Coincidentally, the ball point pen was born in 1888!
There you have it - a brief overview and timeline of our beloved American Handwriting. There is a lot more history, though, and I encourage you to read about John Jenkins, PR Spencer, and Charles Paxton Zaner. Zaner is a much-loved instructor of Spencerian penmanship that streamlined penmanship education in the 1890s.
I hope you've enjoyed this timeline! For questions, comments or inquiries, please get in touch!