6 Writing Wonders—Or Not

23, January 2017

In today's texting-obsessed world, some would argue that our collective handwriting skills are tanking and that penmanship is destined to become a lost art. Au contraire! Although past St. Louisans would surely be baffled by a QWERTY keyboard, we're betting they'd praise the efforts of educators learning how to teach children cursive in response to updated Missouri learning standards. To celebrate the art of putting pen to paper, we've pored through our archival collections to find samples of top-notch (or not) handwriting through the years.

1. Practice Makes Perfect

Scan of page from a penmanship bookPage from an 1840s penmanship book. Missouri History Museum.

Bart Simpson has nothing on this gentleman's handwriting, but at least he got the more entertaining "writing practice" lines.

2. A Penmanship Professor

Scan of penmanship business cardLate-19th-century penmanship business card. Missouri History Museum.

How many people do you know who could benefit from the services of Chauncey D. Newton? 

3. A Certificate for Everything

Scan of a penmanship certificatePenmanship certificate awarded to Lucille M. Taylor, March 1918. Missouri History Museum.

The Zaner Method of Arm Movement Writing seems to be based on a 1904 book by C. P. Zaner, who wrote that "writing should be plain and rapid" and "illegible writing is inexcusable, annoying, and dangerous." 

4. The Good and the Bad

Scanned examples of good and bad handwriting from the mid-1800sLeft: Page from St. Louis County Court Proceedings, 1837. Right: Letter from John McNutt to Maj. J. H. LaMotte, September 1858. Missouri History Museum.

The bulk of the handwriting on the left looks so perfect it could almost be a signature-style computer font—except for the judge's signature itself. It's likely his clerk did all the hard work of documenting the day's court proceedings. As for the letter on the right, as Archivist Dennis puts it, this person's handwriting "leaves much to be desired." Too bad he never met Professor Newton!

5. Crossed Writing Makes for Crossed Eyes

Scanned example of crossed writingCrossed letter from Anne E. Lane to Sarah L. Glasgow, 1863. Missouri History Museum.

In the 19th century, the cost of paper and postage was at a premium, making letter writing an expensive proposition. Thrifty, savvy citizens figured out a way to work the system: crossed writing (also known as cross-hatching). When these letter writers reached the bottom of the page, they'd turn the paper sideways and pick up where they left off. As you can see above, even well-to-do individuals, like the daughters of St. Louis's first mayor, applied this technique.

6. Lindbergh Fan Mail

Scan of child's letter to Charles LindberghLetter from Alex Patterson, of St. Louis, to Charles Lindbergh, May 1927. Missouri History Museum.

A child's cursive letter to his hero AND a drawing of the Spirit of St. Louis crossing the Atlantic? This young St. Louisan is winning the fan-mail game.

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

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