Sunday, January 24, 2010

Penmanship and Consequences

Vertical vs. Slanted Writing (1890's)

At Parker Elementary, Ms. Norma demanded perfect posture for our penmanship session. Straight backs and solidly planted feet were needed to execute perfect circles for letters like a, b, d, e, and perfect starters for our h, k, and g letters. We would spend half of our penmanship time tracing the pre-written letters in our penmanship book, and then we would be rewarded with copying from the chalkboard, freehand no less, the lesson of the day. Each day Ms. Norma had painstakingly topped four or five evenly spaced horizontal lines on the chalkboard with vertical letters to be envied to state our daily "moral" lesson of life.

Each letter was to be accurately and deliberately vertical with consistent spaces and loops. Personally, I looked forward to penmanship, and would proudly flaunt my lined papers of gobbly-goop letters in front of my brothers. My favorite was the flair that capital letters demanded, announcing their kingdom on the paper. But, what I didn’t know is that my ancestors probably had not learned this vertical style of writing.

Vertical writing was introduced in America in the 1890’s. It was already being practiced in Australia, Germany, England, and other progressive European countries. But it wasn’t’ even tried in Kansas until around 1895 after the New York schools had given the new chirography a three year trial with great results on the improvement of reducing “spinal curvature and shortsightedness among school children.”(1)

This revolutionary style of writing replaced the 52% “slanted" or “sloping” style, often considered an unhygenic style of writing. This unhygenic style of writing is often seen on older genealogical documents. Due to the impossible posture needed to execute perfectly slanted letters, the person sacrificed comfort giving way to a twisted head and neck while sitting sideways to the desk causing curvature of the spine and adjusting one eye to be the same distance from the letters as to reproduce parallel lines for writing, causing near-sightedness. This style shortens “the sight of one eye and lengthen the other”(2) which accounted for the increase of glasses needed by many school-age children. This ignited the fuel that encouraged scientific studies worldwide to seek answers . Since the position needed to execute well formed slanted letters was both uncomfortable and unnatural, illegible letters were produced by the less conscientious writer. And even with the accomplished, the slant chirography was harder to read than the vertical and slower to execute.

Perhaps this explains why those old documents are so difficult to read.

Kathleen Brandt

(1) New York Times; March 11, 1894
(2) Popular Science Monthly; William Jay Youmans; D. Appleton and Company, 1894


  1. Very interesting!

    And, btw, I'm one of those old-school teachers who still encourages "perfect posture" when teaching handwriting (cursive), but I do the opposite of what your teacher did. My students first copy from the board, and then, the next day, they are "rewarded" with the workbook page! :)


  2. What an interesting report. Thank you sharing another excellent insight, Kathleen!