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The Golden Age of
Ornamental Penmanship

The "Golden Age of Ornamental Penmanship", from 1850 to 1925, was a unique period in American calligraphic history. Beautiful penmanship was the rule of the day, and the flexible pointed pen was king.

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Taken with permission from "Spencerian Writing and Ornamental Penmanship, Volume I", by Michael R. Sull

Platt Rogers Spencer (1800-1864)

Platt Rogers SpencerPlatt R. Spencer, often called the Father of American Writing, was a man whose fame can be attributed to the rare combination of qualities he possessed, and the particular timing of his life relative to American history. He was born on November 7, 1800 on a farm in the hills of East Fishkill, New York. The youngest of eleven children, Platt was enamored by nature and found delight in the scenic hills, glens and valleys of the countryside. Natural beauty captivated him, and the gentle ovals and elliptical shapes found in nature became the models for the oval letter forms he developed.

In the 1830's, Spencer traveled to local common schools to teach penmanship, and started a school of his own. By the end of the decade, Spencer found more and more students willing to come to his writing school in search of his unique educational program. For over ten years he taught his penmanship by giving small slips of paper bearing his writing to his students. He would fill a whole sheet of paper with lines of writing, and then cut the individual lines apart. Once this was done, Spencer would place these narrow slips into a linen pouch, and give them to his students as exemplars of writing for study.

The Spencerian System of Writing

Spencerian lowercaseThe Spencerian System of Writing was a significant change from the handwriting styles of the day.  Writing models were from England, and were engraved by means of copper plates.  The forms, however, were based on circular shapes, made laboriously with disconnected strokes, and hence, the style was slow and difficult to learn.

Spencerian CapitalsBy contrast, Spencer's system encouraged the more natural tendencies of the hand and arm muscles toward elliptical shapes and rapid, fluid lines.  They were easier to produce than circular forms, and far more graceful as well.

As years went by, his style of writing became more widely accepted than any other writing system, and in the 1850's became the standard writing system taught throughout America.

The Golden Age

In the years following the death of Platt Rogers Spencer, a number of his students continued their mentor's efforts in promoting the Spencerian System of Writing, and skilled penmen were in great demand.

Several of the penmen soon established writing schools of their own. George Gaskell, one of the most prominent, founded a school on penmanship, and published a comprehensive book entitled Gaskell's Compendium of Penmanship. These first generation students of Platt Rogers Spencer not only perpetuated his legacy, but further developed the forms of Spencerian Script into a beautifully flourished style of writing called "Ornamental Penmanship".

Ornamental PenmanshipDuring the closing decades of the nineteenth century, great interest was taken in artistic writing, and the most highly skilled individuals of the era surfaced from the ranks. Men whose names today are acknowledged as the great masters, such as Henry Flickinger, William E. Dennis, Charles Paxton Zaner, Elmer Ward Bloser, A.D. Taylor, C.C. Canan, Edward Mills, Lloyd Kelchner, Francis B. Courtney, A.N. Palmer, Louis Madarasz, Fielding Schofield, Willis Baird, Charlton V. Howe, Clinton H. Clark, Frederick Tamblyn, John Williams, Silas Packard, H.P. Behrensmeyer and Harry Blanchard, among many others. They influenced thousands of aspiring penmen, and set the standards for the very best that writing and the penman's art could be.

Studio Engrossing

Studio EngrossingBy definition, Engrossing is an art form where a body of text, usually congratulatory or memorializing in content, is designed and ornamented with elaborate border treatments and decorative words and letters. Engrossers tended to be a combination of master penmen, illustrator and designer.

William E. Dennis, who became known as "America's Dean of Engrossing", was the true epitome of the most skilled artist in all fields of penmanship. Partnered with Willis A. Baird, their combined efforts produced some of the most magnificent art pieces of the Golden Age.

The End of an Era

In many ways, the Golden Age of Ornamental Penmanship quietly died away into America's history books. The days of the itinerant penman were over, and the industrial wheels of progress began turning faster and faster. Typewriters, as well as other forms of mechanized/electronic communication, found their way into every business office on the continent.

Correspondence courses in penmanship continued for a few decades, but it was almost as if a "quietness" had swept over the land with regard to penmanship. Fountain pens and then ball point pens became popular around World War II, and the "new" industrial revolution brought about an era that was far different from the days of Spencer, Madarasz, and Dennis.

The days of practicing oval exercises upon a blackboard are gone now, as are the common school inkwell and pen. But we should know about the penmen of the past - about who they were, what they did, and more significantly, what they have left for us - the new stewards of penmanship. The penmen and their times are part of our heritage. This, we should remember.

-- Michael R. Sull

Click the images below for biographical information on
these Master Penmen from the past.

Joseph J. Bailey
Joseph J. Bailey
1879-1970
Willis A. Baird
Willis A. Baird
1882-1954
Henry P. Behrensmeyer
Henry P. Behrensmeyer
1868-1948
Elmer Ward Bloser
Elmer Ward Bloser
1865-1929
Edwin L. Brown
Edwin L. Brown
1869-1958
Clinton C. Canan
Clinton C. Canan
1873-1904
Mary L. Champion
Mary L. Champion
Clinton H. Clark
Clinton H. Clark
1864-1937
Francis B. Courtney
Francis B. Courtney
1867-1952
William E. Dennis
William E. Dennis
1860-1924
Henry W. Flickinger
Henry W. Flickinger
1845-1925
G.A. Gaskell
G.A. Gaskell
1845-1886
Charleton V. Howe
Charleton V. Howe
1870-1952
Lloyd M. Kelchner
Lloyd M. Kelchner
1862-1948
Earl A. Lupfer
Earl A. Lupfer
1890-1974
Louis Madarasz
Louis Madarasz
1860-1910
Edward C. Mills
Edward C. Mills
1872-1962
Austin Norman Palmer
Austin Norman Palmer
1860-1927
Fielding Schofield
Fielding Schofield
1845-1924
Lyman P. Spencer
Lyman P. Spencer
1840-1915
Sara L. Spencer
Sara L. Spencer
1832-1923
Frederick W. Tamblyn
Frederick W. Tamblyn
1870-1947
Albert D. Taylor
Albert D. Taylor
1863-1898
Charles Paxton Zaner
Charles Paxton Zaner
1864-1918

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