Anatomy of a Ninteenth-Century Penmanship System

One week (plus a leap day) left to get a letter from the Onyx Court! (I’m slightly behind on answering a few letters I’ve received, but vow not to let “slightly” become “a lot.”)

A while ago I mentioned the Spencerian System of Practical Penmanship, which kniedzw had bought a while ago — a reproduction of an 1864 course in penmanship. I struggled with the conflicting impulses to doooooo iiiiiiiit and to run far, far away, and ended up falling partial victim to the former. Being a grown adult with fine motor control and experience in writing, I decided I didn’t need to fill out every workbook in its entirety . . . but it wouldn’t hurt me to do the first line of each page.

(This was mostly true. Hand cramps were, however, a genuine factor.)

So if you would like to follow me on my odyssey through the nineteenth century — including many illustrative photos — come behind the cut . . . .

So it starts out sensibly, with straight lines and basic curves (concave and convex both).


These are the First, Second, and Third Principles of the system, and you commence to practicing some letters that use them, singly and in random combinations:


I find myself starting to disagree with the penmanship system when it introduces its c’s, though. Compare these facing pages, with e’s on the left and c’s on the right:

That bitty loop thing at the top of the c makes it rather easy, I think, to mistake for an e. (Especially when, as you can see in my example, you don’t draw it very well — but I think it’s a problem even in a good hand.)

Furthermore, this illustrates one of the flaws of the “system,” which is that it starts off with its tidy little principles, but those don’t hold up for very long once you get past the simplest letters. There ought to be a principle for the turn that joins the left and right curves of the e, but instead the book just waves that away. This pattern will continue, and get worse as we go along.

We continue on through s’s and r’s (which likewise get handwaved away as being totally built off the same three principles, even when they’re not), and start getting into more letter combinations, and so on through the end of the first of five booklets.

So far, so good. In the second booklet, we will presumably start in on the other kinds of letters, like t’s and f’s and so on.

. . . okay, joined diagonals first. And then more i’s and u’s and w’s, n’s and m’s, and x’s, with the numerals tossed randomly at the ends of the lines, with no actual notes on those; you’re just supposed to copy them, without instruction.

(Incidentally, you can tell it’s around here that I started to get sloppy. I have some quite beautiful examples in the first workbook, but it’s all downhill from this point.)

On through more a’s, i’s, m’s, e’s, n’s, c’s — haven’t we done this stuff before? — “cam,” r’s, “ruin,” s’s, “some,” “utui,” “dim,” — whoa! All of a sudden we have some new letters, taller ones, that we haven’t practiced before, and we’re doing them with much less of a printed guidance grid than we had before. But then it’s back to “mew” and “max” and “mice” and things we’ve done before. Ummm . . . .

And then it’s time for the third workbook, where we no longer have a grid at all — just lines, printed much more closely-spaced than before. A few pages in, we’re facing this:


We spent two entire workbooks on repeating the same small letters over and over again, but now we get a bunch of new letters dumped on us with no basic practice at all. And the instructions try to pretend this is just the same stuff we’ve been doing before — First Principle, Second, Third — which it sort of is . . . but you know, not quite, and not to the extent that we wouldn’t benefit from drawing those weird p’s and q’s in a proper grid for a while.

Or, y’know, the t’s and d’s we had before, or the h’s, k’s, l’s, b’s, y’s, g’s, f’s, and z’s that appear over the next four pages. Oh, yeah — four pages is all we get, before suddenly it’s time for this:


Capitals! Which are very ornate! And we haven’t practiced at all!

There’s a vague mention of how the swoops up and down on the lower-case f are the Fourth Principle, and the Fifth Principle is (apparently) the Third, just done, uh, bigger or something, but it gets less than a tenth of the attention paid to all those u’s we drew for two books straight.

Ah, Victorian psueod-science. The Spencerian System puts on a veneer of being all organized and stuff, boiling the letters down to basic common elements, but it’s no more than a veneer. As we go on through the capitals, we will be subjected to all kinds of flourishes that, okay, all consist of curves — but it would be a hell of a lot more useful if, say, the intro swirl on that D were treated as a unit, and we were set to practice it a bunch of times before we started attaching it to various letters.

It’s also unnecessary, but hey — this is Victorian penmanship. I have to accept a certain amount of decoration. Not, however, this much:

As you can see, I utterly suck at the capital I’s and J’s. But that I! Seriously! I hardly even know where to begin. (And the instructions aren’t helpful on that front, either. It doesn’t tell you where to start the letter, or whether you should do it in multiple strokes or a continuous one; it just tells you this is composed of the Second and Third Principles. Uh-huh.)

One book ago, we were still on a handful of letters. Now we’ve done all the rest, and most of the capitals. There are a few more to go, and they aren’t getting any better:

One book of those, and then it’s time for sentences! Every last one of them a tedious platitude, selected for brevity (so you can write it twice on each line) and its opening capital. We begin with A, and go through to Z:


And we’re done! You have learned the entire Spencerian (Pseudo-)System of (Im)Practical Penmanship.

The most beneficial thing I got from this was the early stuff, with the most detailed grid to help guide my lines. A lot of making your cursive look good is a matter of consistent slant — which you can see I got worse about as I went on — and the grid is helpful for that. The more ornate capitals are also nice for Onyx Court usage, since certain characters are more likely to be elaborate in their writing. But as an actual system? It’s terrible. It isn’t actually half as systematized as it pretends to be, and it spends too long on the basics, then not remotely long enough on the more complicated stuff.

As a historical document, it’s interesting. But I don’t recommend it for actual practice.

. . . and if you get an Onyx Court letter with some really awkward-looking capitals, you’ll know to blame P.R. Spencer. 🙂

0 Responses to “Anatomy of a Ninteenth-Century Penmanship System”

  1. dorianegray

    It bears a startling resemblance to the “joined-up writing” I was taught in primary school. Though we didn’t have all those workbooks, just copied the letters from the blackboard.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yeah, we learned this in third grade — though our version was very much minimalist, without all these flourishes. Cursive/joined-up writing is ideal for dip pens (and maybe fountain pens, too), because the continuous line keeps the ink flowing; every time you lift the nib from the page, the ink on the tip may dry just enough to mean it doesn’t start again when you put it back down. In these days of ballpoint pens . . . it isn’t as necessary.

  2. diatryma

    Huh. I have said for years that my second Spanish teacher’s handwriting was nearly impossible for me to read because it was too handwriting-book, and this backs me up some. Hers was a near-perfect cursive with impressively consistent slant, and I could not find letters in it. Every word may as well have been that ‘nim nim nim’ page.

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