A History of Cursive Writing and Penmanship

Friday, June 242 min read

As offices move to “paperless” and lecture halls fill with the glow of laptops screens, the art of penmanship is dying out. Handwriting used to be almost an art form as personal style was expressed through stylish script and signatures, and penmanship was taught in school with repeated letters and words on lined paper until every letter was exactly perfect. But in the last few decades, cursive has become less prominent, even dropping off the curriculum at many American schools. Let’s take a look back at the history of cursive writing and script to see how something that was once widespread has since declined.

Cursive as Status Symbol

Good penmanship has long been considered a status symbol, in that it meant you had the wealth, privilege, and time to access education. The ancient Romans borrowed aspects of the Etruscan alphabet to create one of the earliest forms of written script for transactions and correspondence. However, by the time the Roman Empire fell, penmanship had become a specialized discipline rarely seen outside of monastic settings, as evidenced by the beautiful illuminated manuscripts that emerged from monasteries before the Renaissance.

In the late eighth century, Charlemagne instructed an English monk to standardize the craft of penmanship, which resulted in Carolingian miniscule, a form of writing that crept closer to modern script. A heavier typeface reigned supreme upon the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century, but Italian humanists revolted by creating an even more elegant handstyle, known as “italic.” This became such a status symbol that by the 1700s, some penmanship schools emerged in the new world, like the Writing School in Queen Street and North Writing School in Boston.

In addition to indicating education and wealth, penmanship also signified gender, as men and women were expected to flourish their writing differently, with “feminine” writing often appearing more curved and bowed-out than straighter “masculine” writing. In the mid-1800s, an abolitionist named Platt Rogers Spencer attempted to democratize American penmanship by developing a cursive writing system that was adopted by many schools and businesses. (The Spencerian script can be seen in the original Coca-Cola logo.)

This idea of teaching a single style of penmanship caught on, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, cursive English was standardized in the American school system. As cities grew and more job opportunities, such as secretarial positions, opened up outside of fields and factories, strong writing skills were required. In many ways, good penmanship meant better opportunities, plain and simple.

Handwriting for Memory’s Sake

Given its alleged importance in history, why is it that most people born after the 1990s don't know about cursive? The answer is fairly obvious — computers. While penmanship is still rigorously taught in many European schools, current American schoolchildren spend much more time mastering typing and computer skills than practicing neat handwriting.

We may not need to pass a penmanship test to get a job today, but it’s still a valuable skill to cultivate outside of school. Research shows that handwriting notes activates multiple brain regions associated with optimal memory, much more so than digital devices. Taking notes by hand or writing a to-do list on paper will preserve that memory a lot longer than typing into a laptop or phone.

Featured image credit: scisettialfio/ iStock

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