Hygiene and Handwriting

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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During the late 19th century and into the early 20th, when typewriters were just emerging, practicing precise, formulaic penmanship and letter-making was an essential business tool as well as a measure of social class. Such publications as The Standard Letterer and The Penman’s Art Journal were among dozens of printed aids “devoted to writing, drawing, designing, etc.” and were replete with all the handy tips, exercises and recommendations for the proper tools necessary to use while learning the correct technique.

There were various stylistic standards that once learned were impossible to unlearn. Penmanship differed profoundly between nations. In the United States, the two primary approaches were Spencerian and the Palmer Method. The former, developed by Platt R. Spencer with the first handbook published in 1848, rejected the teaching of penmanship as a series of stylized, memorized letters, but rather as common elements based on natural forms, which could then be combined to form individual letters. Ornate script was the most formidable characteristic.

Plamer Method

Developed by A.N. Palmer in the late 19th century, The Palmer Method dominated over Spencerian by the 1890s. Palmer objected to the Spencerian method as slow, mannered and inefficient—it required lifting the pen off the page, which made it difficult to write with any speed. Palmer’s simplified approach was faster and resulted in more pragmatic script. It was “more attuned to business writing than creating ‘pretty’ letter forms,” states a bibliographic citation. Palmer’s uniform ideas were associated with “the muscular Christianity movement of the late 19th century,” and he grew an empire of correspondence schools, manuals and training materials.

There were numerous other ways to write and handbooks to teach them. This is the 1911 version of “The New Barnes” method, from the A.S. Barnes Company, which published textbooks under the “Library for Teachers” imprint, and advocated “vertical writing.” An 1894 article in The New York Times noted that “Its hygiene advantages” were unquestioned, eliminating “spinal curvature and myopia due largely to the slanting system.” Vertical writing is “practical, rapid and legible.” Children learn very quickly, “as it is a natural method.”

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Competition raged to dominate the field and schools were aggressively lobbied for adoption of approaches. “When asked if he thought vertical penmanship would be introduced into the schools of New York,” wrote the Times, Joseph B. Weatherbee of Public School No. 21 in Brooklyn responded: “I think it is undoubtedly only a question of time. As with all innovations, there are some who regard it merely as a sort of fad, but its advantages over slanting penmanship are so apparent that they cannot fail to convince the most skeptical.”

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Bad for posture.

Good for posture.

Good for posture.

Hygiene was the foremost virtue of this method, and Mr. Weatherbee went so far as to assert: “For hygienic reasons alone the slanting system should be abolished.” Counter arguments blamed spinal curvature on bad seats and desks, taking the onus off the practice of writing.

Writing has devolved since then, but the past has left marks that continue to resonate. Appreciate more penmanship here at DesignObserver.


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