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Columbia Exhibition Chronicles The Evolution Of Handwriting Over Four Centuries

The writing of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, renowned writing masters and their students on display

By Lauren Marshall

The Fac-simile Spencerian Record: Ladies and Commercial Penmanship Arranged for Schools, Counting Houses and Private Learners. Undated manuscript. It is said that Platt Rogers Spencer, one of the most important penmen of the 19th century, picked up the art of penmanship from observation of nature. This drawing, intended to be engraved as an advertisement for an early Spencerian book, includes drawings of animals curling about the letters.

A Booke Containing Divers Sortes of Hands, as Well the English as French Secretarie with the Italian, Roman, Chancelry & Court Hands, Jean de Beauchesne. London: 1570. Developed in the 15th century from medieval court hand, secretary hand was used mostly for informal writing through the sixteenth century. Variations of the secretary hand were used for legal purposes into the 19th century.

D'Nealian Handwriting Readiness for Preschoolers: Book 1, Donald Deal Thurber. Illinois: c1987. D'Nealian handwriting, a major handwriting system developed in the 1970s, starts the student with print letters that are slanted and end in upturned hooks, which are intended to make the transition into cursive writing more natural than in other print-script systems.

Hand-written documents and printed writing manuals from 1658 to the present day chronicle the evolution of handwriting style and the methods of teaching penmanship in a new exhibition, "'Take great Care and you'll Write fair': Four Centuries of American Handwriting," at Columbia's Kempner Exhibition Gallery of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library through March 3, 2000.

Capturing gradual changes in writing style over four centuries, the exhibition on the 6th floor of Butler Library begins with items written in the cramped gothic secretary hand, developed in the 1400s, and ends with the simplified D'Nealian taught to today's elementary students. Examples of the italic hand, the "grandfather" of modern handwriting; round hand, a style that dominated writing for almost two hundred years through the 19th century; running hand; and late 19th century commercial cursive show how handwriting styles adapted to changes in society and commerce.

Because commerce depended upon pen and ink to record transactions and conduct correspondence before the typewriter, handwriting evolved from a specialized practice of the elite to an indispensable skill of the masses. The demand for handwriting that was faster to execute and easier to read and learn increased steadily from the 18th to the beginning of the 20th century.

The exhibition includes sections on the secretary and italic hands, the "mixed current hand" developed from the two earlier styles, the round hand, John Jenkins's system that broke down letters into interchangeable parts, the running script, and Benjamin Franklin Foster's teaching of arm movement, ornamental penmanship, the Spencerian style of handwriting and its competitors, the teaching of penmanship, and "ladies' hands," as well as writing implements including the quill and steel pen.

The Universal Penman, George Bickham. London, 1741. The Universal Penman, which included examples of handwriting from the best-known penmen of the day, had a widespread influence on penmanship. This round hand plate was drawn by Joseph Champion, Sr. (1709 - ca. 1765), writing master, accountant, teacher and author.

Highlights include a letter written in 1779 by George Washington showing his distinctive flowing round hand and a letter written in 1781 by Benjamin Franklin, who felt that legibility, pleasing appearance and economy were important factors in handwriting as well as typography. Other documents include deeds to Manhattan property predating the Declaration of Independence, written exercises of writing students, the written Latin exercise of a student at King's College, as Columbia University was called before the American Revolution, and samples of the handwriting of renowned writing masters. Examples of ornamental penmanship are also featured, including a copy of George Bickham's The Universal Penman ( London 1741). This compilation of writing from the best-known penmen of the day was used by writing masters as inspiration for their own work and as copies for their students.

Penmanship, Priscilla Lewis. Manuscript, Massachusetts, 1835. Priscilla Lewis, aged 14, had an unusual command of hand as seen in this composition, which includes different scripts and added ornaments. Lewis went on to Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., taught school at South Walpole and married George Arthur Plimpton's father in 1840.

Samples of "ladies' hands" highlight the diverse roles of women at the time. Although specific hands were designated by writing masters as "suitable" for women throughout the centuries, their recommendations were not universally accepted. The smaller scale and greater ornamentation of "ladies' hands," considered suitable for elegant correspondence, were intended mainly for leisured ladies, not for the larger class of working American women.

The exhibition is drawn primarily from the Library's splendid Plimpton Collection formed by George Arthur Plimpton (1855-1936), senior partner of the textbook publishers, Ginn & Company, and one of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library's most generous donors. From his days in law school, Plimpton set about collecting material on the history of education, in which writing was an important subject. Plimpton's materials on the history of writing demonstrate the scope and depth of his collection, which ranges from medieval manuscripts to the American copybooks that form the backbone of this exhibit.

In conjunction with the exhibition, E. Jennifer Monaghan of Brooklyn College will give a lecture at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library on Jan. 25, 2000 at 6:00 p.m., entitled " 'First with Writing fall in Love': Masters and Students at Boston's Eighteenth-Century Writing Schools."

Ornamental angel, undated. Ink on paper.

For more information on the exhibition and the lecture, contact the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at 854-5153. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library is open Monday, 12:00 to 7:45 P.M. and Tuesday to Friday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Please call to confirm hours.

Published: Jan 13, 2000
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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