Writing By Hand Matters! Benefits (& History) of Penmanship

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Fountain pens are a regular topic of discussion here at the Gentleman’s Gazette, but a true gentleman knows that not even an expensive pen can compensate for poor handwriting. While the art of penmanship seems to be on the wane, we believe this gentlemanly pursuit still has a place today, and that handwriting should be as clear and beautiful as the ideas being put on the page.

For centuries, from the Middle Ages’ illuminated manuscripts to the florid, personal correspondence of the 18th and 19th centuries, the ability to produce writing that was not only legible but also beautiful was a sought after and highly vaunted skill.

Handwritten letter of condolence by President Abraham Lincoln

Handwritten letter of condolence by President Abraham Lincoln

Over the 20th and into the 21st centuries, however, cultural and technological changes have many people convinced that handwritten correspondence is a thing of the past. As such, an emphasis on good handwriting has also declined precipitously in recent decades. The printed script is used only when filling out forms or scribbling notes, and, for many, cursive has become consigned exclusively to signatures.

The Modern History of Penmanship

So, to find out how this all occurred, we’re going to investigate the recent history of penmanship with a special emphasis on the fountain pen and try to uncover the various factors that led to its decline. And, for the sake of brevity, we will be focusing on penmanship from a largely Anglophonic perspective and looking only at fairly recent history.

The modern history of penmanship began in the middle of the 18th century when a culture of written correspondence through letters proliferated in Europe and North America.

It was considered a mark of intelligence and good social standing for one to write beautifully and legibly, so handwriting was taught in both public and private institutions. In fact, some special schools arose that catered exclusively to teaching penmanship. Guide books were also offered, and the first North American volume entitled “The American Instructor” was published in 1748.

An old letter written using Carstair's method of writing

An old letter using Carstair’s method of writing

While there came to be many methodologies for proper handwriting and penmanship, one of the most influential arose in 1809 from Joseph Carstairs, a British educator. He believed that writing ought to be formed smoothly and made up of one continuous stroke rather than having letters formed from multiple individual strokes as had been done previously.

The result was a broad and fluid script that could be written quickly and efficiently, utilizing the entire arm’s movement to maintain speed and control without cramping in the wrist or the fingers. This fluid style was particularly useful when writing in cursive.

Fountain Pens – Favored For Cursive Writing

Penmanship courses during this period covered both cursive and printed script, but because cursive allowed one to write quickly as the pen didn’t need to be removed from the pages often, it was favored for most handwritten documents. As cursive was the favored script beginning around the middle of the 19th century, the fountain pen became the favored writing instrument.

We won’t delve fully into the fountain pen and all of its intricacies today. But, for an extensive analysis, including how it works and its history, our Fountain Pen Guide has you covered.

For now, suffice it to say that by the end of the 19th century, the fountain pen had become the almost universal instrument for written correspondence and for good reason; the fountain pen’s nib allowed for a multitude of fine detailing and precise strokes, as well as for the even distribution of good quality ink that easily maintained a consistent flow, and, in particular, the internal ink reservoir of most fountain pens eliminated the need to return to an inkwell or inkpot to refill the pen as one had to do when using a dip pen or its antecedent, the quill pen.

Various fountain pen nibs

Various fountain pen nibs

As the 20th century began, penmanship was considered fundamental to elementary education, and the fountain pen reigned supreme among writing instruments. Armed during grammar school with sharpened pencils, students of good handwriting in the 19th and 20th centuries would dutifully copy out individual letters and later phrases, sometimes filling up entire copy books as they practiced.

While dozens of different writing manuals were employed in North America, the most popular of which were the Palmer and Zaner-Bloser methods, nearly all of them assumed that students were preparing to write with fountain pens. Even later, writing systems like the D’Nealian method developed in 1978 maintained norms established by the Palmer method, such as the suggested writing grip, which were more suitable to fountain pens than ballpoint pens.

As students in the mid to late-20th century rose through the schooling ranks and entered the working world, however, many of them began to write with ballpoint pens, again, for their low cost and perceived convenience. Indeed, ballpoint pens also came to be distributed in schools for this same reason. And, as you might expect, because there was a discord between the tools used and the methods taught, penmanship in schools did decline somewhat.

Despite these impediments, cursive handwriting continued to be taught in American schools well into the 1990s, though it was increasingly seen as archaic. Also, to the many drawbacks we already mentioned, many teachers thought that the method of teaching cursive handwriting, which relied on rote skills and repetitive practices, amounted to simple drudgery. Other schools de-emphasized cursive handwriting or removed the course entirely, perhaps to focus on increasing amounts of standardized testing coming into vogue around that time.

Practicing a signature using a fountain pen

Today, cursive is most commonly used in signatures.

Today, most American schools do provide rudimentary instruction in basic penmanship, but cursive is exceedingly rarely taught. In Europe, meanwhile, courses on cursive and penmanship are still somewhat more widely taught, and some students are even instructed on how to use a fountain pen. But, all of this instruction is somewhat in decline in Europe as well.

Preston’s Personal Experience in Penmanship Training

Speaking personally, I was taught the D’Nealian method for printing in elementary school and was also instructed in cursive as a third-grader in 2003. Cursive wouldn’t be emphasized in further years of my schooling, however.

Preston writing on a piece of paper

Preston did stick to cursive handwriting, with some unique shapes now on some of his letterforms.

I did stick with it, although I’m sure that some of my letterforms have taken on unique shapes over the years. I did notice, though, that I was one of a small handful of students out of my larger class of 200 or so who did keep up with writing in cursive.

Penmanship: A Dying Art?

One of the first causes for the decline in penmanship came from the invention of new pen technologies. For all of its many benefits, the fountain pen wasn’t without drawbacks. In particular, the refilling process could be time-consuming and indelicate handling could lead to ink stains and spills. Also, fountain pen nibs were very delicate and could be easily damaged, especially on rough surfaces. 

Massachusetts inventor John J. Loud attempted to fix the delicate nib issue by creating, in 1888, a pen that dispensed ink via a tiny ball at its point. That is to say, a “ballpoint pen.” Loud’s pen, though, had difficulty maintaining ink flow, and its practical utility was severely limited. He himself had only intended for it to be used to write on industrial materials like the rough leather used by tanners in the late 1930s.

refilling pen ink

Aside from possible ink stains and spills, refilling ink could be a tedious task – which might’ve led to the decline of fountain pen use.

László Bíró, a Hungarian journalist, improved on Loud’s design by introducing a new, more viscous ink developed by his chemist brother György. This new, more paste-like ink could still be delivered through the ball at the pen’s point, but with a more consistent rate of flow that led to more legible writing.

Bíró’s pen design grew in popularity and, shortly after the conclusion of World War II, the design was sold to Marcel Bich, the co-founder of the now-famous Bic pen company. By the 1970s, a variation on the ballpoint pen with a more smoothly flowing ink was introduced. This became known as “the rollerball” or “gel rollerball pen.”

So, how did these newer pen designs precipitate the decline of penmanship? Well, remember first that the ballpoint pen wasn’t originally designed for fine writing. Loud wanted a way to write on rough surfaces like leather, and Bíró needed a pen that wouldn’t need to be refilled often and would be good for scribbling out notes or editing newspaper stories. So, the ballpoint is fundamentally a utilitarian pen. It’s good for writing things out in simple script, but it doesn’t lend itself well to the more beautiful art of traditional handwriting.

Patent Scatches from László Bíró which he sold to BIC

Patent Scatches from László Bíró which he sold to BIC

The round tip, unlike a fountain pen’s nib, can’t be used to create lines of varying thickness and can’t be finely controlled. And dispensing the paste ink requires firm and consistent pressure that can lead to a more uncomfortable experience and, indeed, cramping of the hand and doesn’t allow for the whole arm. This will affect not only comfort but also speed and will make it difficult to continue writing for long periods of time.

While gel rollerballs have much-improved ink flow and address many of these concerns, they also can’t produce lines of varying thickness, and, like ballpoints, gel rollerballs also tend to be more poorly balanced compared to fountain pens. One can certainly achieve fine handwriting with a ballpoint pen or gel rollerball, of course, but their designs aren’t conducive to fine penmanship. Ultimately, they’re more of a convenient option.

Fountain Pens: Now Relics of An Earlier Time?

So, how did the new pen styles manage to supplant the superior fountain pen so quickly? One of the major reasons, as you might expect, is cost.

When the modern ballpoint pen was first introduced in 1945, it sold for $10, which, when adjusted for inflation, would be about $120 today. This was only slightly less expensive than fountain pens of the time. To better compete with fountain pens, ballpoint pen manufacturers found a way to reduce costs by utilizing cheap labor, materials, and manufacturing.

In 1959, Bic debuted its Cristal ballpoint pen, which retailed for just 19 cents or about $1.70 in today’s money. And today, of course, you can get a multi-pack of Bic Cristals for less than 5 cents per pen.

In the mid to late-20th century, consumers flocked to what was cheap, convenient, and disposable, so the ballpoint pen became ubiquitous. But, as standards in both workmanship and ink declined, the problems inherent to ballpoint pens only became further exacerbated.

Quality Penmanship Required Quality Pen

The pursuit of ever-lower prices advanced a pen that was poorly suited to the art of fine writing and, thus, negatively impacted the art of penmanship overall. Ultimately then, quality penmanship best requires a quality pen. And, as you might expect, quality has a cost to it. However, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a high cost.

There are excellent fountain pens available today that cost nothing more than what you would see from a quality ballpoint pen. For example, the Pilot Metropolitan, which retails for around $15, is one of our picks in our roundup of inexpensive fountain pens

But, if you’re continuing on your fountain pen journey and looking for a step up from the base level models, you may find our guide to intermediately priced fountain pens helpful and our assessment of the hefty-priced Montblanc Meisterstück might be something you’ll enjoy.

A perfectly honed instrument like a fountain pen is fundamentally an investment, then. And you should expect to invest not only money but also time and practice. Indeed, no matter the pen you choose to use, good penmanship requires time and dedication to master.

A Montblanc Meisterstuck 149 aka The Diplomat

A Montblanc Meisterstuck 149 aka The Diplomat

So, while it is true that mastering the art of fine penmanship does require a considerable amount of work, one will typically find that putting in the investment will give exceptional dividends and, indeed, a good deal of the strife and frustration that some associate with practicing penmanship can be alleviated simply by practicing with a fountain pen instead of a ballpoint or rollerball. 

On that note, our guide on How To Write With A Fountain Pen will teach a beginner everything they need to know about using a fountain pen, and also have another guide on mistakes you can avoid when doing so!

The Art Of Penmanship Requires Time & Dedication

Fortunately, learning to write with a fountain pen is a skill that a gentleman can easily master in the comfort of his own home. All he needs to do is find a set of letterforms that he likes, copy the upper and lower case letters, and then get to work practicing them. Then, once he’s mastered the letterforms, he can start trying sentences.

handwriting on a notepad with some fountain pens scattered on the side

Practice makes perfect.

Pangrams like “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” will ensure that he gets to practice with every letter and multiple loop and ligature arrangements.

The Decline In Penmanship & The Rise Of Technology

But, to return to the central question of today’s post, improper pen usage, lower quality writing instruments, and a decreased focus on teaching penmanship in schools led, somewhat, to the decline of penmanship. However, this wasn’t the only factor and certainly not what delivered the death blow.

While the widening distribution of typewriters in the 1930s and ’40s caused some to prophesize that this would lead to the death of handwriting, these predictions were largely ill-founded. Other than business and legal correspondence and other professional applications, the typewriter was too expensive and too impractical in most circumstances for everyday activities like taking notes or writing letters. So, penmanship persisted. 

Jacket Label Printed With Typewriter

Typewriters have had a variety of uses; this model prints jacket labels.

However, all this changed at the close of the 20th century when access to cheap word processors and desktop computers made it easy for anyone to type almost anything. Schools that had previously taught penmanship began to teach typing and keyboarding instead. Home printers made it more convenient to print out rather than write out school or work assignments and even personal correspondence.

Furthermore, with the rise of email and online chatting, handwritten letters were dismissed as snail-mail, and digital communication was the preferred way to keep in touch for a generation fixated on lightning-fast speed, minimal effort, and the latest technological trends.

Raphael writing a letter

With the rise of emails and instant messaging, handwritten letters soon became obsolete.  (Straw Yellow Pocket Square Egyptian Scarab pattern by Fort Belvedere)

Finally, mobile phones and, especially, smartphones provided a convenient, adaptable, and omnipresent way to almost eliminate even quotidian forms of writing like shopping lists, schedules, and short personal notes through specialized apps. Today, some schools have even organized all digital curricula, outfitting their students with individual laptops or tablets.

Will Handwritten Communication Soon Reach Its End?

The changes and innovation we see in handwriting may imply that we’ve finally reached the last days of penmanship and that soon, all communication will be digital? However, we don’t believe this will come to pass.

Commentators have been predicting the death of handwriting for decades now. While new technologies have definitely supplanted handwriting in some areas and are easier and more convenient, there are certain things that digital communication can’t do as well as handwriting.

Preston standing while typing on a laptop; he's wearing a navy polo shirt

Will digital technology be the death of handwriting? We hope not!

It should be no surprise that here at the Gentleman’s Gazette, we often prefer to do things the classic or old-fashioned way. There’s nothing more classic (not to mention warm and personal) than a handwritten thank you card to a great client, a personal letter to a friend, or even a humble postcard to one’s parents. 

It should also be reinforced that penmanship is a valuable art in and of itself as it will allow you to create something unique and beautiful. And for some, copying out letters while practicing your penmanship or falling into the trance of writing a long letter can have a relaxing and almost meditative quality.

Preston's handwritten letter to Raphael

We like doing things the old school way here at the Gentleman’s Gazette!

Moreover, when you consider that studies have shown writing things out by hand improves memory retention and speeds mastery of new information, we think that there’s definitely still a place for focusing on penmanship today. And after all, if there weren’t a place for focusing on penmanship, what good would all these fountain pens we have be?

Conclusion

So, if we’ve made one thing clear today, we hope it’s that penmanship and the particular charm of a handwritten letter are not bygone relics. But instead, personal and beautiful mementos of a more elegant age. We hope you’ll consider taking up a fountain pen, practicing your penmanship, and writing out more letters and thank you cards soon.

Are you a big fan of writing by hand, too? Share your thoughts on the “lost” art in the comments section! 



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