How That Nineteenth-Century Handwriting Got So Pretty

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
May 17 2013 11:30 AM

How That Nineteenth-Century Handwriting Got So Pretty

The Vault is Slate's new history blog. Like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter @slatevault; find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

Handwriting in late-nineteenth-century letters is almost universally beautiful: regular, precisely slanted, and pleasing to the eye. This broadside, which outlines the principles of a popular system of instruction in cursive writing at the time, proves that achieving that style took a lot of work.

Platt Rogers Spencer made a lifelong career out of the art of cursive writing. He taught, founded business schools that promised to impart the skill, and wrote a series of bestselling books and pamphlets. After he died in 1864, his many children carried on that work. (You can read a copy of Spencerian Key to Practical Penmanship [1866] on the Internet Archive’s website.)

Advertisement

In the days before typewriters, people engaging in business correspondence needed to learn how to write legibly. The Spencerian hand was meant to be both easy to read and lovely to regard. In its perfectly slanted, liquid shapes, it was supposed to reflect forms found in nature.

This sheet, printed sometime between the 1860s and 1880s, presented a condensed version of the advice in Spencer’s books. It offers tips on posture, tells the reader how to hold the pen, and provides suggestions for correctives if the student can’t break bad habits. (“The pen may be confined to the thumb and second finger by two bands of tape, and the third finger may be held in its proper position by tape from it to the wrist.”)

Spencerian handwriting was eventually displaced by the typewriter and the Palmer method, a more minimalist script developed in the 1910s in reaction to Spencer’s flowing, decorative lettering.

Broadside on Spencerian writing

"Directions for Persons Learning to Write." Ca. 1850s-1870s. Image courtesy of Ian Brabner Bookseller via RareAmericana.com.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Yes, Black Families Tend to Spank More. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Good for Black Kids.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 16 2014 5:47 PM Tale of Two Fergusons We knew blacks and whites saw Michael Brown’s killing differently. A new poll shows the gulf that divides them is greater than anyone guessed.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 5:07 PM One Comedy Group Has the Perfect Idea for Ken Burns’ Next Project
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.