Words are an essential means of communication, yet how we put them down in writing has been continuously shaped over time by technologies, cultural and business needs, and education. Once a universal skill taught in the school classroom, handwriting fell out of favor with the introduction of technologies designed to make communication more efficient. Recent debates about the value of teaching students to write in cursive inspired us to explore the evolution of handwriting instruction in the classroom by taking a look at some objects from our education collection.
Early Penmanship: From Quill to Slate Pencil to Ink Pen
Platt Rogers Spencer developed one of the earliest systematized approaches to teaching handwriting in the 1840s. The Spencerian method of penmanship was based on fluid movements observed in nature and was widely taught in schools beginning in 1850. It allowed for personalization and embellishment, replacing the tight, stiff English Copperplate script, also known as round hand, which was popular at the time. Round hand had originated in Europe and was nicknamed Copperplate after the copybooks from which students learned to write, which were printed using etched copper plates. Designed for use with a quill pen, round hand is the style of writing used in the body of the Declaration of Independence.
In the late 1800s, noting that businesspeople such as accountants and bookkeepers needed to document large amounts of material as efficiently as possible, Austin Norman Palmer developed a new system of penmanship. The Palmer Method streamlined the flourishes of the Spencerian Method, creating a simpler and faster system of writing. First introduced through his 1894 book Palmer’s Guide to Business Writing, the Palmer Method was originally designed for use in business colleges. As it gained popularity, it was widely adopted by public school systems.
The development of the Spencerian and Palmer methods also reflects the introduction of different types of writing implements to the classroom. Around the same time that Spencerian penmanship was introduced to schools, quills were being abandoned in favor of slate tablets and slate pencils. These slates could be erased and reused without wasting precious paper. Likewise, the Palmer Method became popular as paper was becoming more affordable, and students eventually began switching from slates to composition books used with fountain pens or graphite pencils.
The Typewriter Ushers in the Age of Technological Advancement
By the beginning of the 1900s, typewriters had grown in popularity, and they began showing up in classrooms in the 1930s. Computers eventually replaced typewriters, entering classrooms in the late 1980s. As these technological advancements were introduced, educators identified typing and keyboarding as essential skills for students and integrated them into school curricula alongside handwriting instruction.
By the mid-1990s, emails became a major form of communication, followed by texting in the early 2000s. Schools began to place even greater emphasis on computer literacy, and students began taking notes and taking tests directly on laptops and conducting research online. When the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were introduced in 2010, they did not require U.S. students to be proficient in handwriting or cursive writing, leading many schools to remove handwriting instruction from their curriculum altogether.
However, despite its absence from the CCSS, handwriting is beginning to make a comeback in many schools. At least 14 states have now passed legislation requiring that cursive writing be taught in school, with legislation pending in other states. Advocates argue that it is an essential skill that helps with the development of fine motor skills, especially for those with dysgraphia, a nervous system disorder affecting fine motor skills, who find it a struggle to constantly pick up a pen when printing.
While experts are somewhat split on whether handwriting contributes to brain development, several studies—such as a 2012 examination of the effects of handwriting experience on functional brain development published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education—have shown that writing letters by hand activates areas of the brain that are not engaged by simply typing or tracing letters. We at the National Museum of American History can personally attest that it is an essential skill for future historians called upon to decipher and interpret primary source materials like letters, diaries, and public documents.
Beth Gottschling Huber completed a curatorial internship in the Division of Culture and Community Life in the fall of 2019 with Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, curator of the history of education collections. She holds an MA in International Development from American University and an MA in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University.