The End of Cursive Handwriting?

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In addition to the verdict, in my opinion, television viewers recently got to witness another travesty during the Zimmerman trial. When handed a piece of paper and asked what it says, Rachel Jeantel, Trayvon Martin’s 19 year-old friend, after some hesitation replied, “I don’t read cursive.” It was the first time I heard someone of the youngest generation state this out loud, but it came as no surprise.

This is the end result of a disturbing trend in K through 12 education. According to an article in the The Baltimore Sun1 46 states no longer include teaching cursive handwriting in their common core standards, making way for keyboard instruction. Indeed, Hawaii and Indiana have dropped it all together.

And while a new national survey of elementary school teachers revealed that approximately 75 percent of second and third grade teachers still include cursive handwriting as part of their instruction there is no question that it is on the wane.2

Thus ends 125 years of standardized classroom instruction known as “The Palmer Method.” Developed in 1888 by Austin Palmer, his book Palmer’s Guide to Business Writing was first published in 1894. Austin Norman Palmer was born in Fort Jackson, New York on December 22,1860. While attending the business college of George A. Gaskell, Palmer was introduced to penmanship through the ornamental specimens that lined the walls of Gaskell’s office.3 Gaskell (1845-1886) was the author of several books on the subject, including Gaskell’s Guide to Writing, first published in 1884, and Gaskell’s Guide Embracing Instructions in Plain and Ornamental Penmanship, 1885.


George A. Gaskell’s calligraphy

Gaskell in turn was influenced by Lyman P. Spencer (1840-1915) who following his service in the Civil War developed his Spencerian Script style of writing and in 1879 published the New Spencerian Compendium of Penmanship along with co-author Henry Flickinger. The Spencerian System of Penmanship was a huge influence on Palmer, who, however, declared it too feminine and ornamental and set out to create his own method. Emphasizing simplicity and speed, it allowed the writer to write quickly and effectively compete with the typewriter. His textbook proved quite successful, selling one million copies by 1912. In 1915 it won the Gold Medal at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, and the Gold Medal at the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1926.


Letter written by Lyman Spencer


Title Page, 1979


Spencerian lesson from the book.


Covers for Palmer’s Books.


A Palmer lesson.

Use of the Palmer Method in schools began to decline in the 1950s when the Zaner-Bloser Method of teaching block lettering (print) before cursive gained popularity. No doubt the advent of the ball point pen, first developed in 1888 by tanner John J. Loud as a means to write on leather, and ultimately replacing the fountain pen, helped this trend along. The Palmer Method ceased publications in the 1980s.All this has left me wondering how future generations will sign their names.

  1. For anyone interested in the subject, there is a website dedicated to all things cursive.

  2. In addition the University of Scranton houses a terrific archive of penmanship.

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  1. The Baltimore Sun: Debate on whether cursive writing should still be taught? by Liz Bowie, November 26, 2011.

  2. Washington Post: Survey shows cursive, on the decline, is taught in many classrooms nationwide., by T. Rees Shapiro, May 07, 2013