The Writing on the Wall


Bill Lilly was the only one of three 1952 graduates of the Zanerian College of Penmanship to earn a gold seal on his diploma, and he is fairly certain it was the walnut juice ink that made the difference. To make it, walnut hulls are boiled and simmered for hours until they give up a pale brown liquid. Powdered gum arabic stabilizes the ink, and it is aged until ready to use—like a fine wine, it improves with age. The Zanerian, based in Columbus, Ohio, was one of several schools that taught penmanship and ornamental script until the early 1960s, and students wrote out their own diplomas as their final exams. Lilly, now 73, was determined to graduate with honors, so he used a bottle of 30-year-old ink. “I could make my script more delicate-looking,” he says. “The older it gets, the better it looks.”

But even a gold seal from the Zanerian, which Lilly remembers as the Harvard of penmanship schools, was not enough to find him a job anywhere close to Columbus, let alone his hometown of Marion in western Kentucky. “After the first six months [at the college], I was aware that the art form was just about done,” he says. Typewriters were sending master penmen, who once wrote by hand most of the documents used by business and industry, into obsolescence. Jobs in the field, like doing ornamental work on diplomas and certificates, were disappearing. Lilly had what seemed like a promising offer to work with the White House penman, but it paid no more than truck driving. Instead, he put down his pen and spent 20 years as a warehouseman for International Harvester, taking up ornamental penmanship only after retiring.

Today, Lilly teaches penmanship and ornamental script in an adult education course, but he does not indulge in nostalgia for the time when a man could make a living from beautiful handwriting. “I write my letters on a typewriter,” he says. “The typewriter’s fine for that. So is e-mail. It’s quick and easy.” Written, printed, and digital text have found a way to coexist in Bill Lilly’s life. As handwriting, and the thinking surrounding it, adapts to technology, the Cassandra cries of the impending death of penmanship may prove unfounded.

Zaner-Bloser Inc., the company founded by the namesake of the Zanerian, has much at stake in the future of handwriting—it makes the alphabet cards posted above the blackboards of millions of American classrooms. Those gracefully curved letters are still the ideal against which many American students’ handwriting is measured, but over the last 20 years, educators have questioned the weight given to penmanship in the school curriculum. Brad Ritter, a spokesman for the National Education Association, says that while there is no clear consensus, the tide has shifted against copybooks and rote exercises and toward teaching handwriting in tandem with writing stories and essays. Two ideologically opposed forces, however, have created a renewed interest in penmanship, according to Richard Northup, a Zaner-Bloser spokesman.

“We’ve seen this big resurgence in the last five to six years, and we’re thrilled by that,” Northup says. Part of this interest stems from the decision by state education departments to incorporate essay questions into statewide standardized tests. Although the essays are intended as a way to make the tests less dependent on empirical criteria, they have sparked a new interest in penmanship drills—students with poor handwriting score lower on the essays, partly because legible essays are perceived as better, according to a recent study from the University of Maryland. Under pressure to raise test scores, teachers are returning to copybooks and handwriting training. For Zaner-Bloser, that means a “substantial” increase in sales over the last five years. The company is privately held, and Northup declined to release exact sales figures.

Palm devices are usually mentioned in the same breath with e-mail by doomsayers predicting the end of handwriting as we know it, but in fact, Palm’s technology is intimately connected to handwriting.

On the other end of the spectrum is the home-schooling movement. About 1.7 million children, or 3 percent of the school-age population, are schooled at home, and those numbers are growing by about 12 percent a year. Most of them are conservative Christians seeking a more values-based education than the one offered in the public schools. “Families want to teach traditional handwriting to their children,” says Michael Sull, the president of the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting. In response to a request from Vision Forum, a San Antonio-based company that provides conservative home-schooling materials geared toward “family renewal, child discipleship, and Biblical patriarchy,” Sull is creating a line of penmanship copybooks based on the penmanship style of the early 20th century.

Implicit in the Christian home-schooling nostalgia for handwriting is the belief that character somehow inheres in handwriting, or at least in the discipline associated with handwriting drills. It is this emphasis on conformity that has thrown rote handwriting training out of favor in the public schools since the 1960s. But Sull says he is concerned less with character-building than with teaching people to write with both legibility and speed. “I agree that there is a certain amount of conformity, but that’s not a criticism,” he says.”Conformity is important to be legible.” In fact, the Palmer method of penmanship training, the one immortalized in the Zaner-Bloser alphabet, was, at the time of its invention in the 1930s, considered a “modern” adaptation of the more ornate 19th-century Spencerian script, according to Tamara Plakins Thornton’s definitive 1996 book on the subject, Handwriting in America. A.N. Palmer simplified the Spencerian alphabet (named for its inventor, Platt Rogers Spencer, of East Fishkill, New York) and devised a series of “arm movement” drills intended to transform the art of handwriting into a science fit for 20th-century America. Palmer wanted to standardize the way people wrote in the same way that Henry Ford standardized manufacturing. Even today, Zaner-Bloser continues to simplify its alphabet to improve legibility and speed, Northup says.

Palmer was not the only one who understood the benefits of standardization—it is the basis of the proprietary handwriting recognition system, called Graffiti, that is built into the Palm Pilot personal digital assistant. Palm devices are usually mentioned in the same breath with e-mail by doomsayers predicting the end of handwriting as we know it, but in fact, Palm’s technology is intimately connected to handwriting. In order to write an appointment or phone number into a Palm, you use a stylus to write each letter one at a time. The Graffiti alphabet is a further simplification of the standard printed alphabet—each letter, except for X, must be formed with a single stroke. An A, for example, is just an upside-down V. Despite forcing its users to learn this new alphabet, Palm has had no trouble attracting followers—more than 4 million people already own the devices. Other handheld organizers, such as the Pocket PC devices built on a Microsoft operating system, use a handwriting recognition software called Jot, developed by Communications Intelligence Corp. Jot similarly requires a standardized alphabet, although it includes several versions of some letters.

Unlike the Palmer standardization, which was driven by a desire for speed, Palm’s alphabet is a reflection of the limits of the technology. Today’s devices do not have the computing power to recognize more than one distinct character at a time. “The software to do that would be much more complex, and it would increase the cost, size, and weight of the product,” says Jim Cortese, a spokesman for Palm. The future, however, will see less standardization, not more. Eventually, Palm devices will be able to recognize the handwriting of their individual owners. “Handwriting recognition will be very intelligent,” Cortese says. It seems, then, that the impulse to write will persist through this technology, just as it did through the introduction of the printing press, telegraph, typewriter, and personal computer—all of which prompted rounds of hand-wringing over handwriting. Whether the words are written in walnut juice ink or liquid crystal display, “what’s important remains the same,” says Ritter of the NEA. “You have to be able to read what’s written.”

Check out the other stories in the Winter 2001 Voice Education Supplement.

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