Introduction to 19th Century Penmanship & How to Do It.
Updated: Aug 21, 2021
Regardless if you call it 'Calligraphy' or just 'Fancy Handwriting', here is a good way to get you started on a vanishing art. Learning this interesting craft that will give your office the look of a classical scholar's study.
Misnomers about 19th century American literacy and the damage from losing this legacy.
In the new age of keyboards and touch screens, we have silently lost one of the most valued personal skills that has been honed and perfected since ancient times. The penman’s hand is now a strange curiosity that is occasionally encountered at art-fairs or historic events. What was once practiced by men and women of simple to grand means throughout the generations is now almost gone.
*Roundhand script from Towndrow's manual (1830)
Along with the loss of writing skills, our literary practice is also on a decline. This is important to note that penmanship, poetry, and common prose are all inextricable from the influence of literacy. A 2013 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that 23% of the Americans they surveyed had not read a single book that year. Seven years earlier (2006), the sampling was 16%. This gives insight as to why the majority of people today don’t seem to be as knowledgeable in references to Greco-Roman mythology, biblical references, or even the mention of classical artists, authors, and composers that were well known to people of the early 20th century and before. Literature of the previous centuries would casually mention such references with the assumption that their pre-internet readers would get the meaning. Today, most of these references are indecipherable without accessing Google for fast answers assumed to be 100% accurate.
Not that many 19th Century Americans were Illiterate.
Penmanship is often misunderstood. It was not a privilege reserved exclusively for “Lords and Ladies”; it also graced the hands and voices of everyday people.
According to the US Census of 1850, illiteracy of native-born white Americans was less than 5%. Despite the conditions in foreign lands and prohibitive efforts of antebellum slavery against literacy, the “free colored” and “foreign white” demographics of society were reported to have only an 8.24% level of illiteracy. While the level of individual penmanship would have varied in quality form person to person, the pursuit of gaining sophistication in speech was considered a worthwhile endeavor. The one group of Americans who were prevented from learning to read were those of African descent who were enslaved in the years previous to ‘The Great Rebellion’ and the resulting emancipation. Census personnel did not even try to rate the level of education or dearth of it among enslaved people but the contemporary estimates were that literacy among the slave population was minimal at best.
It was a necessity to everyday life.
There are countless documents and ledgers in existence that attribute to the importance of literacy. From a rich business owner to a common farmer, correspondence was maintained; contracts had to be understood; agreements had to be signed; business needed to be conducted and invoices paid. Amid a humble 19th century farmhouse on any given day, it would not have been an unusual sight for the housewife to be working busily at her desk writing letters, paying invoices, and “keeping the books” with the same proficiency as any corporate office worker today.
Penmanship served as a form of identification: In many old books and films, you may hear someone say “I have a letter here and it is written in his hand…” People then were not only capable of associating an individual with their particular writing style; they could tell if someone was attempting to fake another person’s hand as well. As you develop your own writing skills, you will naturally acquire a sense of being able to forensically determine a lot about another writer from the intricacies of his/her marks. This was a common skill that was necessary in the days before photo identification. Likewise, if you become known for having an extravagant writing style, it will be even more difficult for criminals to forge your signatures without being easily exposed upon closer examination.
How to Write 'Copperplate' or Roundhand Cursive...
*See the section on pens and accessories to explain the terminology and nomenclature.
The various forms of handwriting – To the penman historian, my list is too simple but here is the basic progression of mainstream penmanship. “Handwriting” is more accurately referred to as ‘cursive’ in which text flows by means of using loops and ligatures to conjoin the letters in each word written. This stylized method is also called ‘script’ and can vary in its simple to complex format depending on the type of cursive being used. “Block letters” or ‘manuscript” is simply the act of writing out each letter separately in a ‘block-print’ format with a rigid manner similar to the Times New Roman font commonly used in office software. Italics are similar to block letters but it has a slight slope as well as some of the style of cursive writing. It is good for emphasizing quotations or introducing new terminology to written content. Getting back on track with the cursive writing, here are the basic formats dating from today back to before the 18th century. Here are some basic instructions to get started on.
Step 1: Relax Your Hand - You need a fluidity in your stroke and that comes from relaxing your muscles; it does not come from overworking them.
Step 2: Finger Positions - Follow the diagrams and brace your quill between the thumb, forefinger, and the side of your middle finger. Note how the ring-finger and little finger may contact the writing surface and guide your wrist and palm to stay off the page.
Step 3: Prepare Your Nib or Quill - A new metal nib should be rubbed down with a cotton or linen rag with a mild solution of soap and water. Rinse and it's ready for use. This will allow your ink to channel properly between the tines creating a steady stream to the paper.
Step 4: Dip Your Nib Half-way Into an Ink Solution that's Properly Mixed - Dipping too deep fouls your pen with too much ink and it will drip on the page. Same thing happens with you don't scrape off the excess ink upon the lip of your inkwell. This requires practice.
Step 5: Never Hold Your Pen With the Nib Inverted - This is a common practice among novices and you'll never be able to make the beautiful lettering you admire. It's also as ridiculous to penmen as someone holding their TV upside down to watch Netflix.
Step 6: Use the Pen to Brush the Ink Onto the Page - You should never have to apply much force. This will only break your tines and cause your ink to run. With time and practice, you will learn how to apply enough pressure to flare a line or withhold to create a fine line.
Step 7: Keep Your Nib Clean - I like to moisten a cotton rag and clean the nibs between uses. Eventually, the tines will wear down and the nib will need to be replaced. If your quill stops delivering ink to the page, dry it, trim it with your pen knife and try again. If your metal nibs stop delivering ink to the page, clean them and retry. If that does not work, discard and replace.
The Various Methods of Penmanship from the 17th century to now.
*Image of Roundhand writing from Huntington’s Method (1821)
D'Nealian method- (1978 - present) The most recent innovation of the Palmer method that is similar to Zaner-Bloser for teaching a block manuscript with a cursive format. It is very similar to its 20th century predecessors but is modified to facilitate greater ease in teaching children to write.
Zaner-Bloser- (1950s – present) Is intended to be an improvement over Palmer method where manuscript was taught first followed by training in cursive.
Palmer Method – (1900s – present) It has its roots going back to the 1840s but was not formally introduced by the release of its introductory textbook in 1894. It is designed as a simplified version of Spencerian that would allow the writer to be faster with content creation.
Spencerian – (1850’s – 1920’s) An elegant writing method that really came into its own in the mid 19th-century although samples of this style dating much earlier can be found. The lines tend to have less of the dramatic flares and flourishes of earlier Roundhand styles but are still favored as an elegant and easily legible form of writing. It is also ideal for use with steel-tip pens.
‘Copperplate’ & Roundhand or ‘Round-Hand’ – (1650s – 1880s) This is the classic cursive that uses the dramatic flares, flourishes and flowing script makes it a veritable artform that a few still practice today. This style spans the majority of the ‘Modern English’ era from the mid-17th century right up until the waning years of the 19th century. It remains a favorite style for engravers and professional penmen.
*Editor's note: 'Copperplate' is merely when Roundhand has been transferred to a copper printing plate. It has since become used in the modern vernacular as an alternate name to describe primarily the Roundhand writing style so it has been included for the benefit of SEO for our readers in this article. However, the 19th century definition for Copperplate is "A plate of copper engraved or an impression from it." [Source: Webster's Counting House and Family Dictionary (1859)]
Steel Dip Pens & Feather Quills
*This picture shows the 2-most common quill types with steel pen and ink-scraper.
The Steel-Nib Pen – Metal nibs date back to antiquity and remained an expensive office accessory that had to be handmade right up until the early 1800s when mass-production made them a common and affordable writing implement. The fine point is ideal for artwork and uniformly slim script as in Spenserian handwriting.
A broad point allows the writer to make the broad strokes, flares and flourishes so typical to classic roundhand writing.
Quills – These remained the cheap and easily made writing tool from ancient times right up until the early 20th century. Goose quills were the most ideal. They were cleaned, dried, and could be hand-cut to the writer’s specification. A fine point or broad point could easily be made by an individual’s pen-knife. While a small pocket or watch fob knife serves a million purposes, it’s ability to trim a nib on a quill gave the ‘pen knife’ it’s name.
· Ink Scraper – It looks like a scalpel but it is actually a very sharp blade that will shave away the ink and top layer of a paper sheet in order to correct errors. So much time goes into a letter that it would be a shame to chuck it because you made a mistake near the end. This ensures that you will save the letter by correcting the mistake.
· Pounce & Blotter – Ever see an old-timey penman sprinkle some powder onto the document to dry the ink? This is called ‘pounce’. It is a powdered gum material that is actually used to prepare a paper to receive ink without running or bleeding. Pounce can also be used to sprinkle onto wet ink but it is more for preparing the paper. Once finished, the spare pounce can be poured back into the ‘pounce pot’ which resembles a large salt shaker. The blotter is a semi-circular rolling device with a layer of absorbent paper attached. This is a 19th century device that comes in handy at drying or (blotting) wet ink so that the document may be handled immediately after being signed.
· Other items include brass fasteners (the forerunner of staples), glue, tape for binding related documents together and sealing wax for sealing important items such as sensitive documents or cash envelopes, and lastly, a small blotting rag to wipe the nibs.
*Sealing wax used on an 1862 Adam's Express cash envelope from Fortress Monroe, VA.
Inks and Writing Fluid
There were a variety of inks and writing fluids with various levels of quality then as today. Some inks bleed out a brownish-halo, also called ‘rusting’. Cheaper inks with a high iron content tend to brown within hours of application. Over the years, I have tried many ink recipes and my basic observation is that while it is common to have an ink change color as it dries, pretty much all of them are easily visible when applied and settle into their natural colors within minutes. With ‘black’ being the most typical for written text there is this misnomer that only women use colored inks in accordance with etiquette. In truth, there are a lot of existing documents, diagrams and forms with colored ink applied. The bad news is that many of the colored inks of previous centuries used pigments that faded with time. A good example of this can be seen in the Cherokee Tribal Land Grant signed by my uncle in 1904.
The red ink used for the number stamp is clearly visible but the blue ink has faded to a faint purplish-brown. The black ink signature is still clearly visible despite having a bluish color shift.
There were 3 different ways to get your ink which was bottle, powder, and wafer.
Bottle – For offices and schoolhouses, it was best to buy a bottle of ink. It was typically stoneware or even a repurposed wine bottle of about a pint or quart capacity. The black-glass bottle in the picture is typical to the types of bottles imported from Great Britain during the period. This is an actual specimen recovered from a dig in the California gold fields dating to the 1850-60s. The lip was clipped to form a funnel that would better facilitate pouring ink into an inkwell. At the end of the day, the ink was returned to the bottle.
Powder – Powder was usually pre-measured and placed in envelopes with enough quantity to fill one inkwell. This is ideal for a portable writing kit and is best mixed with either plain white vinegar or rainwater.
Wafer – Wafers are a fine dried ink powder compressed into ‘pill’ form. However, the flat sides and convex top and bottom earn it the proper title of ‘wafer’. One or two wafers will make about an ounce of ink by mixing with either rainwater or vinegar. It reconstitutes the same way as powder but I find them more convenient to carry with a pocket inkwell.
Types of Paper Used
There are many types of paper for a variety of uses then as now. Rather than focus on paper for other uses such as blotting or filtering paper which is rendered absorbent by the extensive use of woolen rag stock, the three main types of paper for office use are writing, printing, and wrapping paper.
Writing paper – cream wove, yellow wove, blue wove, cream laid, blue laid.
Printing paper – laid and wove
Wrapping paper – blue, purple, brown, whited brown, brown
*Samples of original 8x10 ruled letter paper with embossed manufacturer brand (ca.1850s). Also note the original portable inkwells. (spring-loaded glass ink vials encased in threaded wooden ‘barrel’ casings; A shaped rubber gasket prevented spillage when the cap was attached.)
Although there was a bleaching process from the early 1800s onward, the acidic process tended to weaken the paper as well as be an unnecessary extra cost and step with the manufacturing procedure in most cases. Achieving a ‘true white’ 1.0 gain or D65 color temperature really was not an objective since there was nothing aesthetically bad about off-white paper. So while relatively ‘white’ paper could be obtained, something like white printer paper of today really isn’t authentic when compared to original samples of cream or even ‘white’ paper. In other words, if you like replicating the old ways, please stick to traditional papers and avoid the modern ‘typing paper’. Despite washing being part of the process, the cotton or linen rag stock used in the manufacture of paper stock gave it an off-white or ‘cream’ colored hue. This paper is also durable and can last for centuries without any significant deterioration. By the mid-1800s, writing paper could either be plain or ‘ruled’ for use in ledgers and journals. There were two categories of paper, wove and laid.
Wove – paper that is set uniformly to present a smooth surface.
Laid – paper that is laid on a screen and has the perpendicular cross-hatch texture.
The weight or ‘paper-thickness’ was measured in weight per ream (480 sheets). A good example would be ‘large post’ (21” x 16 ½”) that would weigh from 11-22 lbs. per ream depending on paper density. Below are the general paper sizes per Richard Herring’s Paper and Paper Making (1856) p. 104-107
Common 19th Century Paper Sizes:
Billet 6 ⅛ x 4
Octavo 7 x 4½
Commercial note 5 x 8
Letter 8 x 10
Paper Flat cap 14 x 17
Crown cap 15 x 19
Demy 16 x 21
Folio post 17 x 22
Double cap 17 x 28
Medium 18 x 23
Royal 19 x 24
Super royal 20 x 28
Double demy 21 x 32
Double folio 22 x 34
Double medium 23 x 36
Imperial 23 x 31
Elephant 23 x 28
Double royal 24 x 38
Columbier 23 x 34
Atlas 26 x 33
Antiquarian 31 x 53
My style and how it has served me today: As a modern penman, I vacillate between using a more formal early 18th century “copperplate” or “round-hand” to a more relaxed form similar to Spencerian depending on the situation. It always attracts attention regardless if I write with a quill, nib or modern pen. As a child, I hated writing. Thanks to this artform, I turned one of my greatest hates into my most favorite resting pastime. Now, I actually produce items that people buy and frame for their home décor. Above is a gallery of diagrams from my portfolio over the years. I find it to be a soul feeding interest that allows me to unwind and re-focus, There are many out there with far greater skill but that's fine. I just enjoy the process and I hope it is something that you'll take up as well. It is just one more way to reach out and connect with this world as our ancestors did.