When asked to recall a memory about a parent, many adults conjure specific aromas of perfume or baking bread, wisps of a favorite piece of music, or the sight of a favorite locale. Paula LaMotte McCutchen, whose parents were born in 1912 and 1914, clearly recalls being fascinated by her parents’ flowing cursive handwriting.
“It was just beautiful, almost like calligraphy,” she says. “When I got a bit older, I asked how they had developed that skill. They told me that they had received handwriting instruction in school all the way through 12th grade. Some years, they worked on handwriting every day. That really struck me.”
Paula remained so fascinated by her parents’ elegant script that, beginning in 1984, she found herself teaching cursive writing to her students at Brennan Elementary School. It turned out she had a gift for sharing the artful skill. “Each year, I would secretly save a piece of each student’s cursive writing from the first day of school,” she says. “On the last day, I’d have them write out that same phrase. When they were finished, we’d compare the two. They were always so proud about how far they’d progressed.”
In 2010, when the school district decided it would no longer teach cursive in the schools, Paula was heartbroken. “Beyond losing such a lovely art form, the children were losing an important learning tool,” she explains. “Over the years, I’d noticed that learning cursive helped students improve skills like thinking, language, and working memory.”
Paula had also discovered that the inability to learn cursive might be a barometer for learning disabilities, such as ADD and dyslexia, or of personality traits such as impatience. “Kids who struggle to learn cursive tend to struggle to learn,” she says. “Sometimes they just needed to practice better habits; other times it was an early indicator that led us to identify a more serious issue, such as not being able to track left to right. It gave us a chance to get them the tutoring they needed before the concern became serious.”
Paula wasn’t alone in her observations. Studies show that learning cursive lights up the same areas of the brain that control hand-eye coordination, which can help with sports, and comprehension, which may improve class participation and, ultimately, boost self-confidence. Learning to form each letter correctly enhances the winning combination of fine motor skill development and self-discipline. “The benefits flow into so many other areas of learning,” says Paula. “It’s such a shame it’s no longer taught.”
Though many educators share Paula’s displeasure at cursive being pulled from the district’s required curriculum — several states have added it back and a number of private teaching methods employ cursive to teach other skills — the argument about whether to teach writing goes back to ancient times. Greek philosopher Socrates famously disavowed learning to write for fear it would impede memory. He also, perhaps presciently, predicted that it would reduce face-to-face interaction. In 1528, when Erasmus declared, “I never saw a hotter argument on so unexciting a subject,” the debate was clearly still under discussion.
Humans have used symbols to record thoughts and observations since about 3100 BC, when the Sumerians created what is considered the world’s first written language. Credit for creating the first alphabet, which assigned symbols to sounds rather than things, though, goes to the Phoenicians, who made the leap sometime between 1850 and 1700 BC. Centuries later, the Greeks made a number of refinements to that early alphabet, notably the addition of vowels and reversal of reading direction to left-to-right. When the Romans came onto the scene, they created the familiar Latin, or Roman, alphabet that remains in use today.
In the early 1400s, an Italian named Niccolo made writing a bit more efficient when he gave letters a right-leaning slant and allowed some to naturally flow together. His font, called Italic, evolved into modern cursive writing. The name actually comes from the font’s ability to speed up the writing process; its root, cursivis, is the Latin term for running or to hasten.
Using the Declaration of Independence as just one example, by the mid-to-late 1700s, cursive writing was being used for the most important of documents; wealthy individuals unable to master penmanship often hired scribes to give their correspondence the elegance required at the time. But it was during the Victorian Era that cursive writing found its golden age.
Handwriting had been added to the curriculum of many school systems and business schools seeking to equip students with what had become a necessary skill. Thanks to the advent of copperplate printing, which made textbooks cheaper to produce, students learned a fairly ornate but standardized form of cursive that came to be known as copperplate. Before long, beautiful handwriting became both an art form and a status symbol, indicating that a person was well-educated and wealthy enough to have the time to perfect the swirls and embellishments that set cursive apart from more pedestrian printing.
It was Platt Rogers Spencer, an Ohio-based educator, who first brought cursive writing to the masses, developing not only a lovely looping script — which was notably used by Coca Cola and Ford for their logos — but a precise process for mastering it that became popular in school systems throughout the country. Called the Spencerian Method, the system was both simple and precise: although it required learning only eight principles to form proper letters, it required specific rules, such as writing at an exact 52 degree angle, and using the motion of the arm, rather than the fingers, to produce the font’s generous curves.
Spencer also advised writers to use a metronome to help them develop a rhythm for their writing, a suggestion that made the method more easily taught in schools. Spencer also created a process by which each letter could be dressed up with shading, outlines, and other embellishments, allowing his script to become as fancy as the writer wanted.
Of course, this being the Victorian era, where reputation and social perfection were paramount, handwriting, like nearly every other aspect of life, was governed by strict rules of protocol. This was particularly true of correspondence, which, at the time, was the primary means of both business and personal communication.
First came the physical requirements, which included weighty white paper and a good quality pen filled with black or blue ink. Since letters had to be perfect, they were written, and rewritten, many times before being placed into an envelope and sent. The physical writing had exacting standards as well. According to The Etiquette of Good Society (1893), “The handwriting should be clear, and yet not too large and bold; it should possess some character and style, but not be adorned or ornamented with fine flourishes and dashes.”
For Victorians, perfection went beyond the visual. Most wanted some kind of assurance that the men and women with whom they chose to associate were of sound moral character as well. The use of graphology provided a popular way to gain a bit of insight at the time. It posits that physical characteristics of a person’s writing — from the firmness of the hand to shape of each letter — reflect their integrity, motives, and personality.
Proponents believed that graphology was so accurate that even if a person tried to disguise his or her handwriting, eventually, habit would take over and traits ranging from ardor and judgment to impulsiveness, courage, and literary taste, would be revealed. Though graphology has its critics, present day law enforcement professionals, employers, and educators use it to determine, among other things, whether writers are under duress. Dr. Helmut Ploog, president of Germany’s Professional Association of Certified Graphologists/Psychologists, has examined the handwriting of luminaries like Ludwig von Beethoven, whose illegibility mirrored his historic impoliteness.
The increase in availability of books during the late 19th century had another benefit as well — an increase in literacy. In the United States, that meant that people from all classes of society were learning not only to read, but to write, creating in turn the need for a script style that was legible, easier to learn than Spencerian, and quick to write.
Enter Austin Norman Palmer, whose Palmer Method, developed in 1888, checked all the boxes and quickly became the go-to for educators. Competing approaches, though, namely Zaner-Bloser, which was developed in 1891 and included lessons for learning print as well as cursive, and D’Nealian, which came along in 1978 and was said to ease the transition from print to cursive, soon overtook Palmer.
Modern society’s first strike against teaching handwriting in schools came in the do-your-own-thing ’60s and ’70s, when educators predicted a reliance on typewriters and computers and reduced emphasis on teaching handwriting. The results were disastrous: in a 1984 article in The New York Times, an expert noted that government and businesses found that they were losing an estimated $200 million annually because of poor handwriting, the Internal Revenue Service couldn’t process tax returns, and the Postal Service couldn’t deliver mail. Stores lost money too because they could not decipher some customers’ orders, and some job seekers didn’t get hired because their applications were unreadable. Before long, handwriting had been added back to the curriculums of many school districts.
As educators continue to debate the importance of teaching cursive to students, ironically, the art of cursive has come full circle through its fancy cousin, calligraphy. Like the talented scribes of history, today’s calligraphers — who use elegant flourishes to transform envelopes and invitations into works of art and initials into unique monograms — are discovering a huge demand for their craft. Though modern calligraphers rely on specially designed pens rather than quills, transforming letters into art takes time, which is perhaps the reason that in today’s world beautiful writing may not be achievable for everyone, but it can still be appreciated by all.