How and Why to Improve Your Cursive Penmanship

Over the years here at the Art of Manliness we’ve sung the praises of the handwritten letter and simply writing things out by hand in general. Typically, when folks think about writing a handwritten note, they imagine doing it in cursive. Perhaps it’s because we’ve all seen movies set in times past where people open up handwritten letters to reveal a note filled with handsome script.

Whatever the reason, I know a common refrain we hear with these posts is that many people feel their cursive handwriting is atrocious, to the point that it’s illegible. And when we get letters in the mail from readers, many of them begin with, “Sorry for my bad handwriting. This is the first time I’ve written in cursive since second grade.”

With schools spending less and less time on cursive handwriting (and sometimes doing away with penmanship lessons altogether), and our increased reliance on keyboards to communicate, it’s understandable that most people aren’t getting much practice writing things out by hand.

It’s easy then to dismiss the decline in penmanship as a non-problem, but there are a surprising number of people who do wish their handwriting was better. And there actually are a few reasons you might consider joining Moleskine Cahier Journ... Moleskine Best Price: $8.55 Buy New $4.61 (as of 08:20 UTC - Details) their ranks. Today we’ll discuss those reasons, as well as how to improve your cursive penmanship.

Get out your inkwell, sharpen your quill, and let’s get started.

The Rise and Fall of Cursive Penmanship

Ever since written text came into existence, there has been a class of individuals who specialized in handwriting — scribes, penmen, etc. And every age had a unique handwriting style. Monks in the 8th century gave us the Carolingian script with its bold, easy-to-read letters. During medieval times, the legibility of Carolingian script gave way to the more indecipherable “black letter” script. Renaissance scribes and writers returned to the Carolingian style, but made it look a bit more ornate by slanting it and connecting some of the letters with lines. Because this type of script originated in Italy, it became known as “italic.”


Copperplate script

The 16th century ushered in a more ornate style of handwriting called “copperplate” – so dubbed because students used engraved plates to learn to write it. Copperplate incorporates all sorts of loops and capital letters with unique flourishes, and was used to pen the Declaration of Independence.


Spencerian script

Cross Tech3+ Satin Bla... Buy New $31.68 (as of 10:10 UTC - Details) With the rise of literacy in America, a more systematic way of teaching handwriting was needed. Enter Platt Rogers Spencer. Spencer used nature to teach penmanship — water worn pebbles served as his model for ovals and the waves on a lake served as the inspiration for the lines that connected his letters. Spencerian script was a simple, yet elegant form of cursive handwriting that focused on legibility and ease of writing. Beginning in the 1830s, Spencer developed a system to teach his script that included over 100 question and answer catechisms on how to draw each line and curve in his particular style. By 1850, Spencerian cursive was the standard writing system throughout America.

After his death in 1864, students of Spencerian penmanship began to make the style even more ornate by adding in flourishes, shaded strokes, and extra ovals. This fancy style of Spencerian cursive became extremely popular and can still be seen today among professional penmen (like Jake Weidmann).


Palmer script

During the early years of the twentieth century, a handwriting instructor named Austin Palmer realized that while the loops and flourishes made Spencerian cursive look nice, it wasn’t very practical or efficient for the growing amount of bureaucratic paperwork that faced bookkeepers, accountants, and other businessmen. Moreover, it had become overly complicated to teach, especially to children. He also observed that Spencerian cursive primarily used finger movement to write all the letters, which often led to cramped hands.

To solve these problems, Palmer modified the Spencerian system in the following ways: First, he simplified the letters and got rid of the flourishes. In many ways, this was a return to the original cursive that Spencer taught. Second, he simplified and condensed the teaching of cursive — no more complex catechisms. Finally, he introduced “whole hand movement” to combat the fatigue and hand cramping that came with finger-only writing. Given these benefits, the Palmer Method became the standard way of teaching penmanship well into the 1960s.

Since then, several other systems of cursive have been developed, all with the goal of simplifying how it’s taught. D’Nealian script was the most popular (and the one that I learned as a child). Developed in the 1970s by Donald Thurber, D’Nealian script was a way to help children transition from manuscript (block letter) writing to cursive. While it’s easy to learn, it’s certainly not as nice looking as Spencerian or even Palmer cursive.

Up until the early 1990s, teachers in schools across America spent a great deal of time on penmanship. But with the rise of computers, the amount of time spent on penmanship began to decrease in the U.S. (From what I read, this didn’t happen in Europe to the same extent. If you’re a younger reader from Europe, let us know if you had rigorous penmanship lessons in school.)

Fast-forward to today. With increasing pressure to meet federal and state test standards, many schools have dropped teaching cursive handwriting completely. Besides the pressure to spend more time preparing for standardized tests, school districts have also dropped penmanship from their curriculum because they feel it’s no longer necessary in our world of computers, tablets, and smartphones.

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