Friday, September 9, 2011

Learning to write

While sitting at Freeman School one afternoon leafing through the Spencerian Penmanship booklet I started thinking about the amount of time students must have spent perfecting each stroke. I also wondered about the possibilities for disaster with a six-year-old,  a pen and a bottle of ink. I just could not imagine how their little hands could make those seven specific strokes needed to write the Spencerian alphabet.

by Doris Martin, Ranger; Homestead National Monument of America
After doing some research I discovered that penmanship instruction did not begin until the student was in second or third grade. “In America’s heyday of education children of eight years old to adults of eighty learned to write the Spencerian way,” according to the Theory of Spencerian Penmanship booklet.
Before the age of 8 children learned to read but not write. Learning to print was not taught until the 1920s when Manuscript Printing was introduced.  Students were then taught to print first and then moved to cursive writing. For example, Abraham Lincoln would not have been taught to print.  But he would have spent many hours learning how to write in cursive. According to The Theory of Spencerian Penmanship, Platt Rogers Spencer, “the father of American handwriting,” advised his students to practice six to twelve hours a day.  He believed that mastering his script would make someone refined, genteel, and upstanding. Today penmanship lessons are developed so teachers spend about 15 minutes a day on penmanship.
Even the idea that all people needed to know how to write was slow to develop. In the 1700s many were taught to read so they could read the Bible but few were taught to write. “Because reading and writing were understood to serve entirely different ends, instruction in one was divorced from instruction in the other. Reading was taught first, as a universal spiritual necessity; writing was taught second, and then only to some,” according to Tamara Plakins Thornton in Handwriting in America: A Cultural History.
The teaching of handwriting in the nineteenth century was closely associated with character building. “The letters were formed by command with the teacher calling out letter elements and the student simultaneously writing them down on the page; the letters mysteriously appeared out of the assembled elements,” according to A History of Learning to Write.
“Such exercises were seen as character building,” the article continues, “A sample of someone’s script became a recommendation of industry and self-discipline.” Victorians emphasized the “moral nature of the individual” and handwriting was seen as a method for “character formation.”
The final workbook in the Spencerian  series includes page after page of sentences intended to improve a student’s character including “Better to live well than long,” “Hold truth in great esteem,” and “Let your promises be sincere.” Students were expected to copy each sentence 15 times in correct Spencerian form.
Handwriting was also viewed as a physical act. The key word now was muscularity…and the most pressing need was to exert control over the body of the penmanship pupil. “Victorian manuals spelled out methods whereby extreme levels of physical control might be maintained over pupils. Teachers distributed writing materials in numbered, standardized steps (“Position,” “Open books,” “Monitors about face”) marked by predetermined signals. They counted out loud or barked commands (“up,” “down’” “left curve,” “quick”) as pupils performed their handwriting exercises; some manuals recommended the use of a metronome. By such means, commented the Spencerian authors with pride, “entire classes may soon be trained to work in concert, all the pupils beginning to write at the same moment, and executing the same letter, and portion of a letter simultaneously.” Thus will the penmanship class proceed “with all the order, promptness and precision of a military drill,” according to Thornton.
Good penmanship was highly prized. “Indeed, concurred a Boston school principal, ‘to write illegibly or badly is almost to forfeit one’s respectability,” according to Laura Doremus in “Character in Handwriting.”
A slate and slate pencil were used by younger students while older students, especially in rural schools, used steel nibbed pens, an ink sponge and practice paper. And some schools even had a special teacher for penmanship instruction.  “We did have a man for a special writing teacher, Prof. Carrier, who fitted little leather harnesses on each right hand and instructed us in arm movement, to write a beautiful Spencerian hand, but when he left the room, these unruly hands resume their original scribbling habit,” said Alice Laura Stevenson in the Growing Up in Michigan, 1880-1895 online exhibit.
Now as I look at those Spencerian Penmanship booklets I not only think about small children using ink I also think about  the amount of time and effort which older students spent perfecting their handwriting and all the debate today about if it is even needed in today’s computer society.

Thorton, Tamara Plakins. Handwriting in America, A Cultural History. 1st. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996. Print.

Clayton, Ewan. "A History of Learning to Write." 13. Web. 14 Aug 2011.

Theory of Spencerian Penmanship. 1st. Fenton: Michigan, 1985. Print.

"School Days." Growing Up in Michigan, 1880-1895. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Aug 2011.

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