"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

The Spencerian and Palmer Methods



H. C. (Henry Caleb) Spencer.
Spencerian Key to Practical Penmanship. Prepared for the “Spencerian Authors” by H. C. Spencer. 
New York and Chicago: Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor & Co., 1866.
William Savage Textbook Collection.
– Platt R. Spencer developed his “Spencerian” method while teaching handwriting in the early nineteenth century. Instead of teaching penmanship as a series of stylized, memorized letters, Spencer broke down letters into common elements based on natural forms, which could then be combined to form individual letters. His first published work was in 1848, and after his death, his family continued in the business, which essentially dominated penmanship instruction in America after the Civil War. Books such as this 1866 edition were successfully marketed by members of the Spencer family to schools across the country.



A. N. (Austin Norman) Palmer, 1859-1927.
The Palmer Method of Business Writing: A Series of Self-Teaching in Rapid, Plain, Unshaded, Coarse-Pen, Muscular Movement Writing For Use in all Schools, Public or Private, Where an Easy and Legible Handwriting is the Object Sought; Also for the Home Learner.
Cedar Rapids: A. N. Palmer Co., 1915.
Gift of Elizabeth Newton.
– The Palmer Method was the second major handwriting technique popularized in the late nineteenth century, fully displacing Spencerian handwriting by the 1890s. Palmer found the Spencerian method too slow, ornamental, and inefficient, especially in the way it required lifting the pen off the page. If one tried to write too rapidly using a Spencerian script, clarity quickly deteriorated. To compensate, Palmer developed a quicker, simplified and more pragmatic script more attuned to business writing than creating “pretty” letterforms. Palmer allied his philosophy with the muscular Christianity movement of the late nineteenth century, and his business empire of correspondence schools, pads and copybooks, manuals and training materials grew quickly to be the dominant tradition in American handwriting instruction from the 1890s through the Progressive era.



Frederick M. King, Ed.D.
Palmer Method Cursive Writing: Grade 5. Centennial Edition.
Schaumberg IL: A. N. Palmer Co, 1984.
William Savage Textbook Collection.
– Proof to the longevity and influence of A. N. Palmer’s methods, the company which bears his name existed into the 1980s. By the mid-twentieth century, the Palmer method lost favor in the schools. Handwriting instruction moved to first teaching manuscript hand, or block printing, at an early age, followed by teaching cursive writing once printing has been mastered. The Palmer company – here in its Centenntial edition – attempted to adapt its methodology to changing pedagogical needs in creating new copybooks such as this one.



A Reaction to the Palmer Method
Mary Monica Waterhouse Bridges.
A New Handwriting for Teachers.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1899.
– In this elaborately-produced edition with lithographs and copperplate engravings, Bridges makes a case for revisiting the great sixteenth and seventeenth century Italian letterforms and incorporating them into a new hand to be taught in the schools. “It is certainly desirable that there should be more good models for slow writing, as there is abundant occasion for its use….It would be a good thing if reproductions of these…were hung in schools, not only to give to children the history of their own Alphabet, but also to show them how lovely a thing handwriting can be.”


Emily Dickinson – Spencerian?
P. J. Croft., ed.
Autograph Poetry in the English Language. Facsimiles of Original Manuscripts from the Fourteenth Century to the Twentieth Century.
Volume II.
London: Cassell, 1973.
– Dickinson’s very distinctive oblique, looping script, shown here in two 1861 manuscripts addressed to her sister-in-law, illustrate several problems with which her posthumous publishers and scholarly editors have had to contend. As she never intended her verse for a wide audience (the vast majority was collected and published only after her death), her capitalization and especially her punctuation style remains ideosyncratic, and heavily influences how one reads the poems. Thomas Cooper Library owns one manuscript letter of Dickinson’s, part of the William R. Bailey Collection of American Literature.


“Very large capital letters are in bad taste for ladies”
Mrs. Manners (Cornelia Holroyd Bradley Richards, 1822-1892).
At Home and Abroad; Or, How to Behave.
New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1869.
– This antebellum etiquette manual (the first edition appeared in 1854) was intended for both young ladies and gentlemen, in an era when many, if not most, similar texts were divided along gender lines. Mrs. Manners here gives detailed, prescriptive advice on behavior in most social situations, and devotes several chapters to the writing of letters and their forms. She expresses strong opinions on ink (blue black, not red black or brown black), paper (white, not blue), and letterforms (“gentlemen are generally, now, avoiding the huge capitals and great flourishes, which were once esteemed to be so admirable”). This copy is one of three known copies of this edition.

Next Page: The Early Twentieth Century



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