A History of Cursive Writing and Penmanship

Friday, June 242 min read

As offices move to paperless communications, birthday messages become increasingly digital, and lecture halls fill with the glow of laptop screens, the art of penmanship is dying out. For hundreds of years, handwriting was almost an art form — personal style was expressed through stylish script and signatures. But in the last few decades, cursive penmanship has become less prominent, even dropping from the curriculum at many American schools (although it is coming back in some school districts). Let’s take a look back at the history of cursive writing and script to see how something that was once so widespread has almost disappeared.

Cursive as a Status Symbol

Good penmanship has long been considered a status symbol — it meant someone 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 the 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, penmanship schools emerged in the new world, incuding 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. “Feminine” writing often appeared 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 prominence in preserving history, why is it that most people born after the 1990s don't have strong penmanship skills? The answer is fairly simple — 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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