On Penmanship

During a recent conservation treatment on a 19th century manuscript, I was drawn to one aspect of its handwriting: the writer’s intentional control of the width of each line.

19th Century Penmanship Sample

This repeated downward arc ranges from 0.25 to 2 mm in width.

Looking at this repeated, fluid curve, I was suddenly struck by the writer’s deft articulation. Here is evidence of the vanished craft of penmanship, with its accompanying tools and practice. Here, too, is a precise method of expression no longer available to modern people using modern writing utensils. It’s hard to imagine what it might be like to regain this means of written expression. It might be as if, in your daily speech, you were suddenly granted an entirely new class of adjectives. Or as if a controlled stroke at the computer keyboard produced varied shades of meaning, much like playing a piano.

Modern Penmanship Sample

This admittedly bland photo documents my own attempt to replicate the previous 19th century stroke with a ball-point pen.

I am advised by parent and teacher friends that children in the digital age don’t formally practice handwriting anymore. This begs an Andy Rooney-style, kids-these-days argument that would sentimentally bludgeon complexities of the modern world. Yes, penmanship enabled genteel expression; it likely also signified class and education in ways that excluded those it didn’t empower. But it’s worth noting anytime a craft passes from practice and especially from appreciation. Penmanship is so long-gone that few of us today can look through its words to read what the craft said. I’m curious to hear any readers’ insights on practice or connoisseurship in this area.

2 thoughts on “On Penmanship

  1. Currently there are fine calligraphers who are capable of consistent controlled strokes. As with any craft or art those who practice daily acquire this ability. Although I do not claim calligraphic expertise, I have studied and practiced enough to understand that is can be, and is done presently, but only in a rare community. As an example, look at http://www.saintjohnsbible.org/see/ where several scribes followed a font developed by Donald Jackson.

  2. One of the skills I learned back in the 1960’s/70’s when I thought I’d be a commercial artist was the art of calligraphy – and was told it was going out of use and would not really do me any good. It’s also the only skill I learned in that program by which I’ve actually made money. The ability to control the width of the stroke was one of the subset of penmanship skills we had to master.
    In my collection of family history I have two letters home from the Civil War era by one of my ancestors. The penmanship is remarkable – and evidence that even the lesser-educated had some remarkable skill. Also interesting in the penmanship category are the inscriptions in an old German Bible in my possession – with different hands over quite a span of time. I find it quite fascinating.
    When studying a text from a paleography standpoint, I’ve found the knowledge of how the ink-flow works and the vagarities of the functioning of pen or brush in various circumstances helps me see – when the script is difficult – what the scribe intended to be doing and therefore give a clue to what the text is supposed to be saying.
    There are so many different things to learn from a manuscript by studying the script, how it was executed, and the content and context. I envy you at times.

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