Righting the Penmanship of America

While handwriting is no longer taught in schools, for centuries it was an important element of education in America. By the late 1640s, for example, Massachusetts required each town to appoint a teacher to instruct children to read and write. Because grammar school teachers were often not very accomplished in the art of writing, students were usually sent to a separate writing master.

The master showed students how to make and hold a pen, sit at a desk, position the paper, and form letters. He would also “set the copy” by writing letters, words, or sentences across the top of each student’s book for him or her to reproduce. From the sixteenth century, European and British writing masters also produced printed writing manuals designed to aid students as well as attract acclaim, and, hopefully, new business for themselves.

By the mid-eighteenth century, American writing schools flourished: John Hancock, for instance, was likely taught by Abiah Holbrook at his South Writing School in Boston. However, it was not until 1791 that the first entirely American writing book was produced, by John Jenkins and printed by Isaiah Thomas (before then, students had access to a few English writing books).

Jenkins (1755-1822) was a schoolteacher whose writing was, in fact, not very good. As he tried to better it, he determined that nearly the entire alphabet might be broken down into six individual strokes that could be combined to form letters. Although he called it “New and Easy,” this practice was in fact centuries old.

In a way, though, Jenkins’s system was new, in that it was less about the idealized, perfectly formed letter that students should practice and strive for, and more about the principal strokes; the art of writing for Jenkins was really about engineering.

While other penmen were a bit disdainful of Jenkins, his book bore the “recommendation” of dozens of New England luminaries, including Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock (perhaps the ultimate endorsement for an American writing book!). Addressing his book to instructors and students of both sexes across the land, John Jenkins re-examined and repackaged handwriting for the new nation and paved the way for a new breed of writing masters in America.

By Jill Gage, Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing