Monthly Archives: August 2014

A Brief History of Cursive Writing

Since letters have been invented, people have looked for ways to write them more swiftly. Scribes writing on clay tablets developed a more fluid form of writing that served as an early cursive in Mesopotamia.

The cursive writing we recognize today started developing in Europe the 16th century. Connecting letters with loops and tails seemed to grow increasingly more uniform across languages as education became more available to the citizens of those nations. Instruction was made more simply by the invention of textbooks printed using a special copper plate. Students could trace the preprinted letters with their quill pens. The resulting form of writing was simply referred to as copperplate.

For a great example of copperplate writing, look no further than the U.S. Constitution.

Copperplate served as both a simple, functional script and as something that could be made to look fancy for special ceremonial papers. As literacy was far from universal, and the need for legible handwriting was great, copperplate writing was considered something of an art form to be seriously studied. Reading and writing was no small task in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Penmanship was critical.

The many forms of cursive writing in the centuries to follow evolved out of copperplate. Around 1840, a man named Platt Rogers Spencer believed it was important to make handwriting a true art form unlike those attempts that preceded him. A master craftsman in the art of handwriting Mr. Spencer developed his own variation of cursive that required dedicated training and skill to master its swirls and embellishments. The Spencerian method became the official writing style of government and corporate documents from around 1850 to 1925. Whole schools and textbooks were developed to teach this writing style around the country. The need for the super-flexible nibs most vintage pen collectors refer to today as “wet noodles” were essential for the modulating lines of Spencerian script that grew from extra fine to double and triple broad to accentuate a circle and add weight to the elements of each letter’s formation.

Today you can still see great examples of Spencerian script in classic century-old American brands such as Ford’s and Coca-Cola’s logos.

As elegant and beautiful as Spencerian script was, it was also time consuming and difficult to master. American business in the 19th century moved at a surprisingly fast clip by even today’s standards, and the Spencer method of writing was too slow for the needs of offices around the country. To keep up with the newly invented typewriter, secretaries, stenographers and many other white-collar workers needed a faster way to write.

In 1888, Austin Norman Palmer came to the rescue with his own method of writing. What became known as the Palmer Method caught on quickly for its legibility and ease of use. Most of the cursive writing we learned in school is, or was, based on the Palmer method.

Although Palmer method textbooks ceased publication in 1980, the very similar Zaner-Bloser method of cursive writing remains popular to this day. Developed in 1891, the Zaner-Bloser school realized the value in becoming a powerhouse in textbook publication for their handwriting and remain one of the top sources of handwriting instruction in schools across the country to this day.

In 1978, the D’Nealian handwriting method tried to breakdown the Palmer method into simpler steps to teach little kids how to write in cursive. It too remains popular, although my quick imperfect research into this piece seems to have found that the Zaner-Bloser method seems to dominate what is left of the industry to teach our youngsters how to write in cursive.

For much more detailed information about the history of handwriting and to learn how to master copperplate, Spencerian script, the Palmer Method and other forms of handwriting, visit The International Association of Master Penmen, Engravers and Teachers of Handwriting. The IAMPETH is an incredible resource for all of your handwriting needs.

Click here to be linked to their website:

Coming soon: Quick Tips for Taking Your Handwriting to the Next Level

Is Cursive Writing Going Extinct?

As we ponder the start of a new school year, did you know most schools are no longer teaching children how to write in cursive? This fact first came to my attention by friends, who are parents, telling me their kids aren’t learning cursive. Recent documentaries that address the phenomenon have also been brought to my attention.

Without wanting to launch rants from across the political spectrum, it turns out many states had been opting to forego cursive instruction for third graders and up for several years. The Common Core standards picked up that trend. Now children are only expected to learn how to print in kindergarten and the first grade.

After first grade, it is expected that kids are going to be using keyboards for the remainder of their natural lives. I suppose this is not an unrealistic assumption given how most kids and teenagers (and adults) seem glued to their tablets, smart phones and computers.

Nevertheless, this is something I find highly disturbing…and not just because I am a purveyor of fine antique writing instruments.

How will children develop their fine motor skills? How will kids learn how to think, without constant distraction and temptation from their electronic devices? How will future generations do something as simple as signing their name on a contract? (Will they only be able to print their names with the motor skills of an overgrown 6-year-old on a mortgage or a multimillion dollar business deal?) What about future historians? Most of human history was recorded on paper, often in handwriting. Or what about simply generations of families trying to get in touch with their ancestors. How will they read the letters, Bibles and other records of past generations?

“Oh, wow. Look at all these letters Great Granddad sent Great Grandma during World War II! I wonder what they say? Who can read that crazy scribbling? Why didn’t Great Granddad just e-mail from the Ardennes?”

While I strongly believe in teaching kids how to master computers at a young age, I don’t know why a computer should be their only means of note taking. Let’s be honest, if you give a bored kid an internet-connected computer device and expect them to pay strict attention and take notes during a lecture, you’re living in a fool’s paradise.

If you are like me and think it is important that we teach our kids cursive writing, we are not alone. There is even a website dedicated to the pursuit of cursive called “The Campaign for Cursive.” You can check them out at

In the meantime, I’m going to take a more in-depth look at the history of cursive writing and what you can do to either teach it or improve your own handwriting in the next two blog posts.

Stay tuned!

Happy Hunting at the D.C. Pen Show

Hello to the members of the Black Pen Society. I hope this year's pin is as cool as last year's!

Hello to the members of The Black Pen Society. I hope this year’s pin is as cool as last year’s!

This is the thrilling weekend of the D.C. Pen Show, one of the biggest vintage pen shows in the country.

Sadly, we couldn’t be there this weekend, but all of our best goes out to the our friends who are buying and selling at this year’s show.

I’d like to give a special shout out to our friends in the Black Pen Society. You know who you are. Enjoy this year’s “secret” meeting. Sorry I can’t be there. The Illuminati got nothin’ on us.

Pen Ads of World War I

Today, essentially, marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. It is still one of the most savage wars the world has ever known. It left nearly 2% of the world’s population dead: 23 million. There is a good reason those who fought it were called the Lost Generation.

Sealed button-filling pens and take-anywhere ink tablets were revolutionary new creations for sailors and doughboys hoping to write home during the first world war.

Sealed button-filling pens and take-anywhere ink tablets were revolutionary new creations for sailors and doughboys hoping to write home during the first world war.

Yet, there’s no reason wholesale slaughter shouldn’t prevent the tide of marketing.

Parker had a particularly fascinating line of pens aimed directly at servicemen in the trenches. These pre-Duofold pens were considered “sealed” and leak proof. Best of all, you no longer needed fragile glass bottles of ink, which would not withstand the rigors of combat.

Parker sold special ink tablets. These dried tablets could be dropped in a cup of water or any other small container for a nearly instant supply of ink to fill a pen and write your family or sweetheart back home.

These ads come from around 1917, when the United States officially entered the war, which ended Nov. 11, 1918.

Enlist the safety-sealed button filling Parker pens for your needs at school or while fighting in the trenches in this classic WWI Parker ad.

Enlist the safety-sealed button filling Parker pens for your needs at school or while fighting in the trenches in this classic WWI Parker ad.

Please note the artillery is being moved by horses in the ads. This would be the last war to see horses used with any widespread practical regularity. It also would be the last to see swords and lances issued with actual intent for battlefield use. (Yes, the Japanese issued swords in WWII, but they were strictly weapons of last resort.) Cockades and spikes also saw their last use on helmets. Battlefields would be dominated by machine guns and the newly invented tanks. Oceans were devastated by submarines. And for the first time, aircraft could fly over enemy territory to observe movements, attack with machine guns and drop bombs. Cars and trucks came to play vital roles. Motorized ambulances saved countless lives. And chemical warfare would devastate countless people with agonizing pain and misery…if not death.

Getting back to the ads, I love that a pack of more than 30 ink tablets cost only 10 cents. Do any of these tablets still exist? I would love to see some and try one.