amy azzaritopast & present

past & present: handwriting and flourish art

by Amy Azzarito

flourish by h.s. blanchard

Even though most of us spend the majority of our day banging away at keyboards, there’s nothing quite like a handwritten note. We seem to be far removed from the time when that ornamental penmanship, now reserved for weddings, was once a common characteristic of an educated individual. But even if most of us can’t write with those elaborate flourishes, we can see have a little piece of flourish design – named for the elaborate flourishes of pen. Flourishes have become a popular design motif for everything from tattoos to pillows.

image above via slang from chaos

The link between handwriting and individuality is a modern one. A second modern assumption is that reading and writing are intrinsically connected. For 17th century Americans, the two skills were completely divorced. Children learned to read first by memorizing letters, then syllables and finally complete words. The end result was the ability to read the printed word but not to write and not to read handwriting. Nearly everyone would learn to read, but only the educated few would learn to write.

how to hold a pen while flourishing from iampeth

script by francis b. courtney (1867-1952), a graduate of the spencerian business college in cleveland, ohio

For many children during that gap between learning to read and learning to write in cursive, handwriting seems like an elusive secret language. Today, most of us learn a stripped down version of the real thing. The moment to learn penmanship in America would have been in the 19th century – when the “father of American handwriting” was born.

CLICK HERE for more on flourish art and a roundup of flourish art in contemporary design!

flourish by francis b. courtney (1867-1952)

Gems of Flourishing Charles Paxton Zaner, 1888

Platt Rogers Spencer was born in 1800 near the Hudson River. His family was too poor to afford paper so Spencer practiced on whatever was handy – leaves, bark, snow and sand – everything was a canvas for handwriting.

example of spencerian script from iampeth

Spencer was only 15 when he began instructing other in the art of penmanship. He worked on perfecting his own script, which was filled with flourishes and meant to be rhythmic and comfortable. He loved nature and carried river rocks, which he’d bring out to demonstrate the perfect oval shape.

flourish by l.m. kelchner via the spencerian study group

After Spencer’s death in 1864, the popularity of his script soared as Spencer’s family (he had 11 children!) created an industry around teaching the script. Through a series of popular textbooks and business colleges throughout the United States, Spencerian became the style of penmanship. So what happen to the flourish? Modern life and the Palmer method.

That ornate pictorial calligraphy created by those fluent in the Spencerian script? That took time. The Palmer method was about speed. Rather than lift the pen as required by the more ornate scripts, such as the Spencerian method, the Palmer method was built around never lifting the pen from the paper. Like Spencer, A.N. Palmer began teaching penmanship when he was only a teenager. While working in Cedar Rapid as a clerk and bookkeeper, Palmer realized that the Spencerian script took a lot of time and was hard on the muscles. Palmer quit his job and went back to teaching penmanship and in 1894 his book Palmer’s Guide to Business Writing became a success.

In 1912, one million copies of Palmer’s book were sold. (The textbook was a huge hit in Catholic schools.) The International Association of Mater Penmen and Teacher of Handwriting estimate that by the time of Palmer’s death in 1927, over 25 million Americans had learned writing from the Palmer Method of Penmanship.

Facts to Know
The most well-known use of Spencerian script is, arguably, the Coca-Cola logo. The logo was designed in 1880s by the company’s bookkeeper, Frank Robinson. As a bookkeeper, Robinson was likely trained in business and penmanship at a Spencerian school.

Books to Read
Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey – I found this little book to be a lot of fun. The author weaves the stories of her own experiences with handwriting in with a historical look at the subject. Highly recommended!

Rare Books on Calligraphy and Penmanship – If you have a little time on your hands or are just looking for some inspiration,  you should definitely check out the list of digitized books from IAMPETH.

flourish coasters $16, flourish dinner plates $53, flourish serving tray $22, coasters , flourish pillow $100, flourish people coasters by sesame letterpress.

flourish tags by sesame letterpress

from sesame letterpress

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  • fascinating, lovely post! i hope the art of the pen does come back into fashion. especially hand written letters to loved ones. truly a dying art…

  • Such a great post! It really could have been the images alone – they are all so lovely. But, I love that you included the history as well.

  • After a nasty run-in with a fountain pen yesterday, I was looking in to pen position and the Palmer Method. The unfortunate thing about Palmer is that it makes the assumption that all practitioners are right-handed. Apparently, flourish is best practiced by the non-left-handed. (This also, btw, seems to be one of my major problems with fountain pens) Harumph!

  • Wonderful post! Do we still teach children proper penmanship? I haven’t seen any this beautiful in quite some time. Today, I rely on my brother’s postcards and letters for such detailed script. The flourish art chosen for this post is lovely!

  • So nice to know hand-lettering and hand written notes are still appreciated! I work as a store artist for a local grocery store so hand-lettering is my passion. I always send my best friends hand written and designed birthday cards instead of buying them at the store.
    Great post and a wonderful mini history lesson!

  • Interesting post, I wish we were taught this in schools now! I’m not sure how relevant this is but my Nan was born in 1904 and had many stories to tell, one of which was that back then children who were naturally left handed, like herself, were forced to learn to write with their right hand. As a result my Nan was ambidextrous. Maybe that’s why all the lessons were right hand bias?

  • Thank you for highlighting penmanship. I am a calligrapher and I do hand-lettering every day. Unfortunately we are not taught penmanship in school today so one must seek it out and practice on their own. The way that the masters you have highlighted were able to flourish is amazing and rarely seen today. IAMPETH is an excellent source of information for anyone interested in learning or expanding their knowledge in calligraphy.

  • Ah! During high-school, Calligraphy was among our mandatory classes. They taught us the Palmer method, precisely!
    This wasn’t long ago, either… Barely 10 years ago! I am very, very happy to find this informative post.

  • I have been waiting for this! I am so fascinated by this subject and always want to learn more but it seems like the only thing anyone is circulating is DIY wedding envelope instructions. Bleh. This is so much more interesting. I wish D*S would feature posts on interesting script/typography styles more often. We all encounter text every-single-day so why not learn to appreciate the design behind it?!
    Very enjoyable and informative post.

  • As someone who is not afraid to admit she used to practice her handwriting in free time at home as an adolescent, I loved this post. Just recently I received a letter from a friend, in his 40s, who never learned cursive! I couldn’t believe it.

    There really is nothing like the handwritten note and while I love my e-mail and Facebook and Twitter accounts, at the same time I mourn what seems like the slow passing of longhand correspondence.

  • In many Montessori preschools, cursive letters are used to introduce children to the letter symbols. Most Montessori children first learn to form letters and write in cursive. Manuscript is learned at a later time, and is easier to master than when children learn manuscript first and cursive at a later time.

  • I love the elegance and grace of the this flourish style and in fact have recently printed out pages from Rare Books on Calligraphy and Penmanship to use as a guide for a tattoo. Just lovely.

  • Thank you for this post! I love beautiful penmanship and flourish.
    The Palmer alphabet chart brought me right back to elementary school “penmanship class”. We were instructed with a method just like this and time was set aside for us to meticulously copy each letter hundreds (probably several hundreds)of times. Once a month, a penmanship instructor would come from Boston to review our work and teach us a new letter. In our report card, we always received a grade for penmanship!

  • Awesome!

    I was so thrilled to see the Spencerian Business School in Cleveland mentioned in this post; my great-grandfather taught there and my grandmother learned her gorgeous Spencerian penmanship from him! I treasure every birthday card and letter she sends me and wish I could emulate her awesome style. At 90 years old, she still outclasses me :)

  • I’d never heard of flourish art before. But, my fountain pen is one of my few luxury items, I just love it. (Unfortunately, being a leftie, there tends to be a lot of smearing!)

  • lovely post. Took me back to when I would write something I thought was brilliant, turn it in, and get a low grade for penmanship!

  • I would so love to be able to do something like this. All the way through school my report cards were always great – until you got to “handwriting”. No matter how hard I tried my writing was always terrible, and very often still is.

  • This great post and comments took me a second day to digest! One note: Handwriting that “doesn’t lift the pen” became much more individualized by the advent of the ballpoint pen which allowed pushing backwards rather than pulling the ink–a motion that would have resulted in a splattered page . (BTW Lefties can actually find hand dip pen nibs cut in opposite slant for hand calligraphy. Check suppliers like Hunts nibs.) I did a lot of Calligraphy for hire in the 80″s and miss it.

  • The pen is not dead. IAMPETH members keep the ink wet and flourishing… a visit to the website will see ‘modern’ examples and links to many using their pens to share their talents and skills.

  • It’s great to see that there’s still general interest in the gorgeous art of calligraphy and it’s not just my quirky self sighing over it!

  • Thank you for this very enjoyable post! I’ve recently been practicing my penmanship to enhance my letter writing. I learned much from your post!

  • I’ve wanted to learn Calligraphy for some time but i could never afford a set of books for it. Thankfully now i have printouts i can use for free!

  • ARTISTIC , very beautiful , reminds me when i use to do LETTERING but certainly not of this level . it is marvellous piece of ART

  • I grew up watching my mom writing like that, it always amazes me. While I would love to learn to write that way, I can’t learn from my mom (we just end up fighting about something non-calligraphy related).
    Where can I learn it? Not just from a book, but from an actual teacher.

  • Thank you for the article and also all the posts. I have been able to connect with many of the links. I love that flourished pillow and think it’s only right for a calligrapher to have a pillow such as this in her studio!

  • A big Thank You to Cathy Amberson, a calligrapher who instroduced me to the Design Sponge website, particularly the July 2010 collection of fascinating tidbits and thought-provoking little gems of calligraphic history! Carry on!

  • I inherited, chalk and pencil drawing, as well as another piece of this style artwork from my maternal grandmother. Does anyone know how to have the pieces appraised? Many years ago I saw a Folk Art exhibit here in San Francisco and saw similar pieces displayed. I’ve been curious about their value ever since.

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