By Kimberly Brown, Family Historian
The 23rd of January is National Handwriting Day, established by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association in 1977. As the birthday of John Hancock, the renowned signer of the Declaration of Independence, January 23rd is an appropriate day to acknowledge the little-celebrated art of handwriting.
The typewriter, invented in 1870 and widely used by the 1920s, was the cause of the demise of handwritten documents. But before the advent of the typewriter, all documents were handwritten. This included family records and private correspondence as well as government and business records. For that reason, handwriting is big deal for family history researchers. Have you ever found yourself cursing the name of a sloppy census-taker who enumerated your ancestors illegibly? Have you ever said a silent prayer of thanks when the marriage record you needed was clean and easy to read? The neatness (or sloppiness) of a recorder's penmanship can make all the difference in what you are able to learn about your ancestors. Because handwriting is such an important aspect of genealogy, let's explore the history of handwriting for National Handwriting Day.
Believe it or not, cursive handwriting in the English language pre-dates the Norman Conquest! In the thousand years since that time, handwriting has undergone significant changes. Beginning in the seventeenth century, different styles of scripts were developed for different classes of people; if you were literate, you would write in the style appropriate to your gender and station. Clerks and secretaries had their own style of penmanship; so did gentlemen and ladies. Indeed, the primers that children used to learn to write were different for boys than for girls. In Victorian times in the United States and in England, handwriting differences were taken to the extreme. Women's penmanship became even more disparate from men's as it grew extremely ornate; women tried to cultivate a decorative "lady's hand."
Platt Rogers Spencer, an American statesman, decided that the United States needed a quick but legible penmanship for business and letter-writing. In 1840 he developed Spencerian script. Though it would be considered overly elaborate in our day, Spencerian script simplified and standardized penmanship. Although Spencer died in 1864, his sons published his book, Spencerian Key to Practical Penmanship, in 1866 and Spencerian script was widely used for the rest of the nineteenth century.
In 1888, Austin N. Palmer developed a simpler style of cursive penmanship, and the "Palmer method" gradually replaced Spencerian script as the handwriting style taught to American schoolchildren. But the Palmer method also eventually fell out of favor; typewriter and computer instruction replaced penmanship courses in American schools. Instruction in handwriting has declined from two hours per day in the 19th century to less than two hours per school year in 2007.
It appears, however, that handwriting is making an upswing. Some schools, afraid that penmanship is becoming a lost art, are re-introducing it into their curriculum. Many more schools and students around the nation are participating in national handwriting contests. It appears that the art of handwriting won't be lost after all.