"Born to Please":

The Art of Handwriting Instruction

Introduction | Early Modern Handwriting Manuals | The Eighteenth Century | The Spencerian and Palmer Methods | The Early Twentieth Century | Variants and Unique Examples | New Office Skills, or, Post-Handwriting


In the Early Modern period, the need for both rudimentary literacy and writing skills expanded to a larger proportion of the population. The attendant need for instruction in writing was answered in part by the new technology of printing, which allowed writing manuals to influence larger numbers of teachers and students alike. With penmanship no longer confined to the scriptorium and the legal world, the growing sphere of secular, growing transnational mercantille networks brought about significant changes in how elites and the educated classes conducted its public and private lives through handwritten documents.

In America, compulsary public schooling was required by law in some areas of New England beginning in the 1790s. The attendant need for textbooks and copybooks for handwriting instruction boomed along with a growing United States population over the nineteenth century. Competing theories and methodologies for teaching handwriting emerged.

Related advances and innovations demanded their own subgenres: shorthand, blackboard writing, Melvil Dewey’s “library hand,” as well as books that addressed new social situations relating to this expansion in letters: sample books of business letters for skilled tradesmen, etiquette manuals and courtesy books, and finally the emergent genre of typewriting manuals at the end of the nineteenth century.

Many of these books come from the William Savage Textbook Collection, which was maintained by the School of Education for many years as a reference collection for state educators. The collection, totalling over 4000 volumes of American schoolbooks from the 1780s to the 1980s, was transferred to Rare Books and Special Collections in 2005 and is fully cataloged and available for research. Additional sources may be found in Rare Books and Special Collections, and we welcome further interest and questions.

This exhibition is the electronic equivalent of an exhibition mounted in Thomas Cooper Library in 2008. Both versions were created by Jeffrey Makala.

Next Page: Early Modern Handwriting Manuals


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