Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Brief History of Handwriting

Part 1 of an Interview with Kate Gladstone

“A man's penmanship is an unfailing index of his character, moral and mental, and a criterion by which to judge his peculiarities of taste and sentiments.” - Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield

Last July I wrote “Another Dying Art Form,” a blog about the demise of handwriting. That post elicited a phone call from Kate Gladstone, who identified herself as a Handwriting Repairwoman. I found the idea intriguing and her story fascinating. I asked if she would share it with my readers, and she kindly agreed. Then life happened, interfering with her plans and delaying her response time.

I recently heard from Kate again when she forwarded her answers to the questions I had asked. Her passion for handwriting shines through in her detailed responses. Since the interview turned out longer than I anticipated, I am turning my blog over to Kate for the next 5 consecutive days. I wanted to warn you as I am deviating from my usual Monday/Thursday post days.

I am starting with my last question, because Kate gives a short history of handwriting, which I think is a good lead in to the other questions so here goes:

Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Handwriting history tends to go in cycles about 500 years long. Even throughout the millennia before anyone thought to publish books on handwriting, we can look at surviving scripts and see that they all started out very clear and easy to read. Then either the impulse for speed at all costs, or else the desire for ornament, takes over – legibility gets pushed onto the back burner – and after half a millennium or so, an originally legible writing system becomes so decorative, so scribbly, or both that people consciously or unconsciously start casting about for something that will work better: just as the early Renaissance scribes did, trying to find something clearer and more practical than the decorative but complicated handwriting styles of the late medieval era.

Today too, we have people dissatisfied with their handwriting styles, consciously or unconsciously casting about for something better: everyone from Italic teachers like me, right down to college students (and those kids and teens in the survey) who increasingly say “No” to cursive – not to mention the millions of people at any age who write fast and clearly in a semi-joined printing that tends to look more and more like Italic the faster and clearer it gets.

So the sad state of handwriting today may mean a culture desperately seeking some better form of the skill. This lets me hope that our own times can see a modern Renaissance of simply beautiful – and beautifully simple – handwriting.

The year 2022 will mark the 500th anniversary of the earliest widely influential handwriting book published in our alphabet: an Italic handwriting textbook written by, of all people, a Vatican bureaucrat (after all, back then a bureaucrat had a quill, not a keyboard, on his bureau). What if each and every one of us prepared for the occasion. by committing to repairing the state of our own handwriting, – and to making sure our children and grandchildren learn a handwriting that works? When that 500th anniversary rolls around, let's celebrate it as a world of legible writers.

What exactly is a “Handwriting Repairwoman?”
I improve people's handwriting (or teach children “write” from the start) using a streamlined modern writing style based on the style of the earliest handwriting books ever published in our alphabet, long before the print-writing and cursive styles taught today.

What made you decide to become a “Handwriting Repairwoman?”
I came into it through repairing my own – formerly – very bad handwriting, which probably had a lot to do with various neurological disabilities I have (including dysgraphia) because even my best efforts and a lot of outside help had failed to bring it to functional legibility, let alone speed. My bad handwriting and its consequences reached a crisis at age 24: halfway through graduate school.

To find out why handwriting didn't work for me, and how I could make it work, I combed through literally everything I could find on handwriting that anyone had written over the past 500 years: right back to those earliest published books. I tried anything and everything, threw out what didn't work, and retained and integrated what did work.

At first, folks who knew me thought I shouldn't waste my time on this. If I hadn't learned to write “normally” as a child or teenager, no matter how hard I tried, why did I want to spend precious time and effort on it now? But when they saw the results – especially when I helped my father (then age 65 and also a lifelong handwriting washout!) – my family and even my graduate school instructors convinced me that the world needed my services. Starting in 1987, I took on some private students as a sideline to my (then) day job as a school librarian in Brooklyn, New York. Eventually the “sideline” became full time, though I didn't start teaching group classes until 1996 when I began getting calls from hospitals begging me to teach their MDs to write legibly. A few years after 1996, schoolteachers and school administrators started calling me too – and not just about the children. Amazingly often, I've run into teachers who couldn't read their own handwriting – which always makes me wonder how they expected students to read it.

Kate, will be back tomorrow with Part II – "Why Kids Hate Cursive." In the meantime, you can learn more about Kate by visiting her website,

Please feel free to leave your questions and comments for Kate or myself.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tags: Philip Stanhope, Kate Gladstone, handwriting repair, history of handwriting,


L. Diane Wolfe said...

Looking forward to the rest of Kate's answers!

And I am one of those people who cast aside cursive at the first opportunity. When I'm in a hurry, a little comes back, especially S and E. But when not rushed, my printing is really clear and neat. I've had many people comment that I have incredibly neat 'handwriting' even though it's not cursive.

Joanne said...

I've read lately of children's dislike for cursive, and I'm not sure I understand the reason why they dislike it. Is it because they were never trained properly in the first place, maybe? Or would it be a better idea if we learn cursive prior to printing?

Carol Kilgore said...

I never got good grades in handwriting. It's only gotten worse. I print for the most part.

Darcia Helle said...

Jane, this is a great topic. I enjoyed the information on the history of handwriting's ups and downs. Also, I have noticed that cursive isn't in use much anymore. I have an 18-year-old son who hates cursive and refuses to use it unless he needs to sign his name for something. I believe his excuse is that it's outdated (old-fashioned in his mind?). Of course, this is the computer generation. They email and text. They very rarely "write" anything.

Elspeth Futcher said...

My youngest child's handwriting is quite lovely (she's 12). My teenage son's writing is chicken scratch. My teenage daughter's is a bit better, but not much. Mine? It's okay. However, I was taught to write in the English style, so most people assume when they see it that I'm English, which makes for interesting conversation.


Anonymous said...

A handwriting repairwoman. Interesting. I love surfing blogdom. You never know what interesting people you will meet.

Stephen Tremp

Tamika: said...

This will be a great series! Thanks ladies.

My handwriting has certainly declined over the years.

joe doaks-Author said...

I got halfway through your post and you answered my question, using your Dad as an example. So, maybe there's hope for me.

Best Wishes Galen.
Imagineering Fiction Blog

Rowe said...

Thanks Jane and Kate. I found this very interesting to read. As we rely more on keyboards and touch screens, handwriting is being diminished. I hope it does not become obsolete. That would be a bit scary.

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KateGladstone said...

Thanks to every commenter here. Since the handwriting interview series on this blog has been resumed (Part 2 went up yesterday, Part 3 went up today, and Parts 4 and 5 appear tomorrow and Friday), I hope you'll take a few moments to read the rest of the series too.

Elspeth's comment particularly grabbed my attention. Elspeth, you say you were taught to write in "the English style" although you are not from England. A lot of different handwriting styles over the years have been referred to as "the English style" -- though, as far as I can find, this term is only ever used by people in countries outside England. (In the first half of the twentieth century, in fact, there was a minor fad for textbook publishers to call their handwriting style "the English style" -- particlarly among some of the smaller handwriting textbook publishers in the USA, Canada, and some Latin American countries -- whether or not the style they were using actually came from England or had ever been used there.)

This wide and misleading use of "the English style" (as a name for this or that kind of handwriting), of course, has arisen partly because England has *had* a lot of different handwriting styles over the years, and partly (of course) because Americans have long been dissatisfied with the styles and outcomes of the handwriting generally taught in America.

So, when Elspeth says that she learned "English style" handwriting at her school, naturally I wish I could see just what her teachers taught her (under the name of "the English style") and just what it looks like now (since everybody varies his or handwriting, over the years, from what the textbook or the teacher presented).

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