L. M. Kelchner, hand position

A Spiritual Pilgrimage Into Penmanship

Over a year ago I dove into a branch of knowledge and skill that I had ignored most of my life. It’s a shadowy discipline that is scorned by many schools these days. Libraries have discarded the ancient tomes. It’s more obscure than The Kabbelah. It may have fewer apostles than Zoroaster. The Rosicrucians find it too much of a black art to deal with it; even Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code, finds it too obscure to research. It’s so arcane that (gasp) there is not a single LinkedIn group to discuss it! Nevertheless, I decided to delve into that sinister branch of knowledge known to the select as “cursive handwriting,” or, to the alliteratively initiated, “Palmer penmanship.”

On this pilgrimage, I was confronted with questions and obstacles: Is there a place for cursive handwriting in a world of computers, wireless technology, the internet, and instantaneous communications? Is it possible to find the ancient texts that hold the secrets for the proselyte?

There are people who emphatically answer, “YES!” These are not technophobes, Luddites, or hermits living in isolated cabins in rural Wyoming plotting revenge on society. These are people who see a good hand as an essential skill to personalize communications and stand out from the crowd of mailmerged, HTML’d, SEO’d, and instantaneously reproduced digitized communications. These communicators know that a neatly written envelope and letter stands a better chance of being opened and read than that crooked mailing-labeled or glassined business envelope. They know, also, that a well-penned Thank You note can be treasured for years while their digitized compatriots rot in the bottom of the recycle pile.

As a novitiate, I also learned, contrary to all expectations, that good handwriting actually makes it a pleasure to sit down and write an entry into a journal, or to take the time to write a letter, or just practice forming letters during commercials while watching TV. And, when you run out of things to say, traditional writing tutors will also improve your doodles!

Even for the Black (Ink) Arts, there are centers of knowledge. Ancient Egyptians had the Library of Alexandria. Medieval Pilgrims had Santiago de Compostela. The Knights Templar had the Temple of Solomon. Renaissance monks and priests looked to The Vatican. Masons have Washington, DC (according to Dan Brown). Penmanship scholars have IAMPETH.

The Temple of IAMPETH

What is IAMPETH? It is an obscure group of penmen and penwomen (it’s too awkward to say penpersons), who belong to the gloriously and ornately titled: The International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting. The temple to their branch of knowledge is found on their website.

Once you click on the link, you find a website unlike any you have ever seen. To find the tutorials, click on “Lessons” from the small-printed menus at the top of the opening page.

In the following Table of Contents, select “Cursive Handwriting.”

Modern cursive was originally designed for business handwriting before typewriters and computers took over. The cursive style is probably the most adaptable to modern ballpoint and gel pens and pencils. For real calligraphy and older letter styles, you’ll need to purchase the proper pens, nibs and inks to practice. It wouldn’t hurt to own a paper company, too.

The most complete method for cursive handwriting on the IAMPETH site is the PDF file of Palmer’s Penmanship Budget by Austin Norman Palmer, printed in 1919 when he was nearly sixty years old–a summation of his teaching career. The Palmer Method, which is probably the most famous of the handwriting tutors, is no quick-fix method. If you were to begin in a traditional class, you would spend weeks just perfecting drawn circles and lines before working on letters. (If you’re like me, though, you can dive right in to the letters, but expect to practice for a long time.) One of the nice things about this book is the extensive use of handwriting samples by other writers, with alternate, creative letter forms that Palmer, himself, must have admired or, at least, tolerated.

Some Samples of Palmer Handwriting

Some Samples of Palmer Handwriting

If the Palmer Method seems too massive a mountain to scale, a bit simpler, plainer style is found in the Champion Method of Practical Business Writing by Mary L. Champion, which might be a good start before diving into the full Palmer Method.

If you want an alternative, you might also look at A Complete Compendium of Plain Practical Penmanship by Lloyd M. Kelchner (1862-1948).

Of course, you should browse around all the other books and samples in the section, too, including an entire section about left-handed penmanship.

If you want specially designed printed sheets to practice on, go to the Guide Sheets section. Or find practice sheets for young students on Education.com. For more handwriting and notebook paper templates (mainly for younger students), also go to the Donna Young website, which has lots of resources for home schoolers, too.

Another set of links to handwriting resources is on Stutler Resources.

For a more florid (and older) American style, you might want to try your hand at Spencerian Script, and there’s even a separate IAMPETH section for the even more ornate “Spencerian Ladies Hand.”

An Example of Spencerian Ladies' Hand

An Example of Spencerian Ladies’ Hand

Others might like to try their hand at the decorative but highly legible Copperplate/Engrossers Script.

A Sample of Engrosser's Text

A Sample of Engrosser’s Text

Other Handwriting Resources

FreeFactFinder has a beginner’s guide to penmanship, with excerpts from classic tutors.

For a more modern (and more expensive) look at handwriting, the Zaner-Bloser company still leads the charge for modern handwriting teachers with instructional aids. These are methods for teachers and classes, not so much for self-instruction, unfortunately.

Another fascinating site for ornamental penmanship is the Zanerian site.

For a historic look at a few styles of lettering and calligraphy see European Paper’s examples of calligraphic styles, which is part of a series of calligraphy posts.

The European Paper site also has a special blog post with Tips and Resources on Penmanship & Calligraphy

As you venture on your penmanship spiritual quest, you may suddenly have an urge to delve into even more mystical branches of knowledge about pens, paper, notebooks, note-taking, ink and related technology.

Fortunately, there are oodles of websites to learn about these topics, but it can easily grow into an obsession.

And then you may want to practice using those pens and papers in a journal, or start sending letters to people… and all of a sudden you’re networking!

Finally, here are two commercial sites which have extensive blog lists for everything from writing to paper, journaling, ink and creativity:

For more information on finding fine notebooks, see our Frugal Guidance post on Moleskines and their alternatives, and our series of posts on how to break in your Moleskine notebook.

You do not have to eschew your computer and digital technology to be a penman. There are ways to import your handwritten notes, lists, To Do lists, and other ephemera into your computer. In fact, modern cell phones and tablets and their cameras make it a snap to import your notes (and all those Post-Its you had all over your computer monitor) into an organized file system, such as Evernote. But that’s another post for another time.

Bird of Pen Flourishes by H. S. Blanchard

Bird of Flourishes by H. S. Blanchard

This article is a major revision of a post from the original Frugal Guidance blog with added artwork.


Proper Hand Position artwork by L. M. Kelchner, in A Complete Compendium of Plain Practical Penmanship, 1901

Sample of Palmer-style handwriting from Palmer’s Penmanship Budget, 1919, courtesy of the IAMPETH.com website.

The Sample of Spencerian Ladies’ Hand (undated and uncredited) is courtesy of IAMPETH website.

The sample of Engrosser’s style is by Lester L. Fields, from a certificate of 1923, courtesy of the IAMPETH.com website.

The Bird of Pen Flourishes is by H. S. Blanchard from an undated art sample, courtesy of the IAMPETH.com website.

Frugal guidance 2