Legible penmanship once paramount in handwritten communications

May 3, 2021, 6 AM

By Janet Klug

I often write about the appeal of modern stamps with their bright colors, appealing subjects and innovative use of printing technology.

I often write about the appeal of modern stamps with their bright colors, appealing subjects and innovative use of printing technology.

Modern stamps that flash and dazzle are compelling and attract the attention of people who are not yet stamp collectors.

We who are involved in stamp collecting should be pleased that postal administrations around the globe create the kinds of stamps that help attract new collectors.

But flashy stamps can only attract new collectors if they see them. Unfortunately fewer stamps are being used on an ever-declining number of first-class cards and letters.

E-mail and cheap long distance telephone rates have superseded what now seems to be the charmingly old-fashioned practice of letter writing.

It is lamentable, really. Some favorite items in my collection are stampless letters, wherein the letter sheets are folded and sealed with wax to become both the letter and the outer mailer.

Other treasured items in my collection are covers that still contain a letter or other enclosures. Such letters provide a snapshot of bygone days.

I like the appearance and feel of these old letters. They evoke an elegance rarely seen in today's world.

If we go back to the days before desktop computers, typewriters and telephones, and even before telegrams, written communication was just that — written by hand with a pen and some paper.

Letter writing was indispensable for keeping in touch with loved ones. It was vital for successful commerce, industry and government. The postal reforms of the mid-19th century that provided cheap and dependable mail delivery were essential in fueling the industrial revolution.

With so much riding on the written word, businesses prized individuals with "a good hand," that is, those whose penmanship was beautifully legible.

Shown in Figure 1 is a cover postmarked Cleveland, Ohio, Nov. 21, 1890.

The cover bears an advertisement for the Spencerian Business College, which taught courses in penmanship, shorthand, English and elocution.

Platt Roger Spencer founded several business colleges throughout the United States in the 1830s.

His passion was writing, and writing as beautifully as he could.

He developed techniques that he began teaching others when he was 15 years old. These techniques formed the basis of Spencerian penmanship that was taught widely in schools throughout the United States until the 1920s, when it was replaced by a less ornate style developed by Austin Palmer.

Most who are reading this column learned the Palmer penmanship method. Perhaps, like me, you remember filling a fountain pen from an ink bottle and creating endless pages of connected loops to practice your penmanship.

Collecting examples of Spencerian penmanship is not difficult if you are a stamp and postal history collector. Old stampless letters are available at prices that start at just $1 or $2.

Shown in Figure 2 is a folded stampless letter sent from New York to Toledo, Ohio. The postmark is dated April 26, although the year is not given. The inner pages of the folded letter show the date as "26 April 1839."

The letter's swirling Spencerian script comprises a business letter about market prices for commodities and notices that a draft had been received for $6,401, a veritable fortune in those days. Imagine what confusion might have ensued if the writer of this letter had not had a good hand and the amount of the draft was illegible.

Shown in Figure 3 is a cover mailed from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Lansing, Mich., on Nov. 11, sometime in the 1850s. The Spencerian script is smaller, but the letters are still legible and beautifully formed.

The critical need for good penmanship slowly declined. In the 1820s various attempts were made to develop machines to write using type. Several kinds of machines were made, but they were not suitable for general use for another 50 years.

An early form of typewriter made by Peter Mitterhofer (1822-93) is pictured on the 1993 Austrian 17-schilling stamp (Scott 1591) shown in Figure 4.

The most successful typewriter prototype was developed by Christopher Sholes, whose machine was manufactured by Remington Arms Co. in 1873.

An advertising cover for the Remington Typewriter Co. is shown in Figure 5. The cover was mailed June 6, 1912, from Portland, Maine, to Waterville, Maine.

An image of the latest thing in typewriters in 1912 is pictured in the advertising corner printed at the upper left of the cover.

The early typewriter machines were at first operated by young men who were called "type writers." The young men were the equivalent of today's techno geeks.

As typed documents became more commonplace, the tedious penning of multiple copies of business documents in Spencerian script died out. Typing was easier, faster, more accurate and more economical. Multiple copies could be made simultaneously by the use of carbon paper.

With amazing swiftness, electric typewriters replaced clunky manual ones. Electronic word processors replaced electric typewriters and desktop computers replaced word processors.

Today, some school districts no longer teach penmanship, or "connected writing" as it is now called. Some Gen Xers have no penmanship skills whatsoever, but they can keyboard and send cell phone text messages at the speed of light.

Although I stand guilty as charged for sending more than my fair share of e-mails, I still prefer a written note. Perhaps it is old fashioned, but it has always seemed a more personal and permanent way to communicate than an e-mail.

One of the letters that is shown with this Refresher Course is 167 years old. Do you think that 167 years from now in 2173 people will be collecting e-mails and text messages from the year 2006 with the same awe and reverence that we collect stamps and covers?

So do yourself and future collectors a favor. Write a letter today, using your best Spencerian or Palmer penmanship.

Put a real stamp on the envelope, preferably an eye-catching commemorative, and post it to a friend or relative. Tell them about the stamp.

Maybe you will create a new collector, but even if you don't, you will put a smile on the face of someone you care about.