“Calligraphy: It’s Not Just for Bibles Any More” Will Inspire You to Practice Your Penmanship

Two local lettering artists were at the Martin de Porres Center yesterday to mark the opening of “Calligraphy: It’s Not Just for Bibles Any More,” an exhibition of their work that will be on display at the Center through April 30.

Sandy Schaadt of Westerville and Carol Kimball of Gahanna have been producing calligraphic works of art for decades. Sandy became interested in calligraphy as a student, when she learned about the Zaner-Bloser method of handwriting instruction; Carol took up the craft when her husband started law school. Today, both create beautiful hand-lettered creations that are inspired by favorite poems, quotes and Bible verses.

Carol and Sandy shared some interesting information as they talked with us during yesterday’s opening reception. To explain what Japanese sumi ink was, Sandy described how she grinds a solid stick that is a compressed mixture of vegetable soot and glue on a special stone, combining it with water to produce liquid ink. Carol shared how she extends her creativity to the matboards she incorporates into her work, whether using them as the medium on which to hand-letter a Charles Dickens quote about nature to complement a photograph she took of shrubs at her home, or hand-cutting an image of a rose to illustrate her calligraphed version of Robert Burns’ “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose.” My favorite piece in the exhibition was one that Carol created by using a pointed pen to write a Shakespearean sonnet in engrosser’s script on slim strips of paper and tacking the strips together to form a unique fan.

Seeing these inspiring works of art reminded me how much I love beautiful handwriting. My great-grandfather and my great-great uncle wrote in an elegant Spencerian hand, while my mother, grandmother and two of my aunts have equally attractive handwriting. Two of my favorite examples of cursive script worth emulating are the hands of artist and author Susan Branch and Phil Webber, professor emeritus of German and linguistics at Central College.

I’ve also read some great books about handwriting, including Handwriting in America: A Cultural History, by Tamara Plakins Thornton (Yale University Press, 1998) and Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, by Kitty Burns Florey (Melville House, 2009). Anne Berman’s “Learning Penmanship,” an article from pages 166 to 172 in the November 1998 issue of Martha Stewart Living, is another fine resource.  The article includes a helpful practice sheet for writing in a cursive italic, based on a style developed during the Renaissance and adapted for modern writers by handwriting specialist Inga Dubay.

“Calligraphy: It’s Not Just for Bibles Any More” also reminded me of how superior penmanship once indicated a person’s intelligence and social status.

During the 19th century, Americans were passionate about penmanship. Many people used a style of handwriting called “copperplate” for business records and official documents. Invented in 16th century England, copperplate was an alternative to the slow process of calligraphy, where the writer lifts the pen off the paper each time a letter is drawn. Copperplate was the answer for producing handwritten documents quickly and efficiently.

The name “copperplate” comes from the copper engravings which were used to print writing manuals, or copybooks. Referring to examples of how letters were to be formed, Americans practiced making letters so they could become proficient in writing in styles like “Italian Hand” and “Round Hand.” Eventually, many styles of copperplate script were developed. Some were simple; others were ornate, with plenty of loops and flourishes.

Official business documents were handwritten, so office clerks and others working in a business environment needed to be able to write quickly, legibly and without getting tired. Using steel-nibbed pens and bottles of ink, students practiced making hundreds of ovals and straight lines called “push-pulls.” Some of those swirling lines and curves even turned into horses, eagles, lions and birds, known as “flourishes.” You can see some wonderful examples in “With a Flourish,” an article by Jill Gerston which you can find on pages 116 to 123 in the February 2009 issue of Martha Stewart Living.

Victorians were so disciplined that they turned handwriting into a physical endeavor, learning how to sit properly at a desk and how to hold their pen while practicing their penmanship. What resulted was a flowing, graceful script that characterizes the letters found in archival manuscript collections today. 

Traveling teachers and writing masters also taught courses in handwriting. One of the most successful penmanship teachers was Platt Rogers Spencer, whose Spencerian copybooks were used in schools by 1859 to teach students proper handwriting.

Master Penman Charles Paxton Zaner learned penmanship in Oberlin, Ohio, then worked as a penman at two different business colleges before opening his own school, the Zanerian College of Penmanship, in 1888. Zaner adapted the Spencerian handwriting method to create a style that was more practical for business documents and personal letters. When Elmer Ward Bloser, another skilled penman, became Zaner’s partner, the Zaner-Bloser Company was founded in 1895. Zaner-Bloser offered penmanship courses, published handwriting manuals, and sold supplies to help elementary schoolchildren learn how to write using this method. In 1972, Zaner-Bloser became a subsidiary of Highlights for Children, located here in Columbus.

Michael Sull, Master Penman for Zaner-Bloser, is the founder of the “Spencerian Saga,” a week-long workshop on Spencerian script and ornamental penmanship. Every autumn, students and practitioners of Spencerian script gather in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio (Platt Spencer’s hometown), to learn or perfect their skills in Spencerian script, ornamental penmanship, signature writing, engrossing and flourishing. Participants also study original penmanship specimens that were written by 19th century master penmen. They also take a field trip to the Evergreen Cemetery, where Spencer is buried, to make a rubbing of Spencer’s memorial stone, on which his name is carved in beautiful penmanship. For more information about Mr. Sull’s handwriting system, the Spencerian Saga, and his books (Spencerian Script and Ornamental Penmanship, Learning to Write Spencerian Script, and American Cursive Handwriting), click here.

A distinctive form of handwriting was also promoted as a beneficial skill for librarians to acquire during the early years of the 20th century. According to Thomas Graham Lee’s Library Hand: A Lost Art (The Porcupine Quill Press, 1977), in 1887, Melvil Dewey — founder of the decimal classification system still used in libraries today — thought there would be great advantages in having librarians use a uniform, legible style of handwriting when entering information in acquisition ledgers and completing catalog cards. Dewey organized and conducted a week-long study in which a dozen catalogers and librarians examined hundreds of written catalog cards. What resulted was an “approved library hand” in which letters and figures were unform in size, slant, spacing and blackness of lines. It was taught in library schools and used in libraries for writing catalog cards and call numbers on book spines until the advent of the typewriter and the computer diminished its popularity.

To schedule an appointment to see “Calligraphy: It’s Not Just for Bibles Any More,” call the Martin de Porres Center at 614-416-1910. In the meantime, I think I’ll start teaching myself Library Hand and Spencerian script.

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2 Responses to “Calligraphy: It’s Not Just for Bibles Any More” Will Inspire You to Practice Your Penmanship

  1. Cindy Spikowski says:

    What an interesting article! I still have my Zaner-Bloser handwriting book, “Finding New Ways Recorder,” Copyright, 1948, 1959 Edition. In the preview, the author, Frank N. Freeman, Ph D says, “Is handwriting not a tool of civilized living?”

  2. david schell says:

    Where did you get the zaner/bloser book , please ? I tried to find the film made by freeman of zaner handwriting but no luck . david schell

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