Writing a Running Hand

RunningHand1 copyLast week I shared some 18th century letter-writing advice aimed at ladies which told me that I needed to “learn to write a fluent and ready hand.” I’ve been practicing English Round-hand from copy-books like George Bickham’s The Young Clerk’s Assistant, but that “large copy-hand” is less useful for familiar letters.  So what model should I follow to write more fluently?  I looked to George Bickham, 18th century penman and engraver, and he came through for me again.

Bickham’s most famous work, The Universal Penman, includes not only many spectacular examples of the penman’s art, but also a plate of “Specimens of the Running Hand,” a more flexible, fluid handwriting style that is closely related to Roundhand.   The Universal Penman isn’t available in its entirety online, but a fine paperback reprint is available from Dover (Google Books Preview). The plate I’m working from is numbered 163 in the Dover edition, and was first published in 1739.  Let’s look at how this hand runs!

RunningLowerCase copy

First, my rendition of the lower case letters. Note how many variations Bickham includes! If you look at his models for Roundhand, just a few letters there have variable forms.  In the running hand, most of the letters have options.  This suggests to me that even though Bickham has made a copy-book plate of this running hand, it’s a more dynamic, less rigid style than Roundhand. Different writers can choose different forms for different purposes.  Just look at the three different forms of “r” in the second line!

RunningHand2 copy

Another feature I noticed while preparing this sample was how easily each letter flowed into the next. To get the precise turns and hairlines of Roundhand, I often lift my pen off the paper. The ‘joins’ between some of the Roundhand letters seem a little artificial, like I’m drawing in a connection that doesn’t flow naturally from the writing.  Running hand, however, prioritizes forward motion and more natural connections.  The q, for example, stops dead in Roundhand, but runs ahead to the next letter in this style. The loops in the uprights (like the Ls and Bs in ‘legible’) similarly help the line flow rather than being constrained in sharp angled lines. And although Bickham’s Running hand specimens still have a lovely contrast between thicker downstrokes and thin hairlines, the difference in width is much smaller than in Roundhand. That means a smaller cut of the nib and a lot less careful rolling of the nib when writing.  Nonetheless, Running hand still feels like it belongs to the Roundhand family- the slant is the same, the heavy strokes and hair-strokes are in the same places.

RunningCapitals2 copy

Capital letters also show a lot more variation in Running hand.  I enjoy how flamboyant some of them are, but most of them prioritize that sense of forward motion.  Some of these different capital forms may have special uses in business, since Running hand was often used for writing statements of debt, credit, and other  transactions of money. In fact, a 1799 copy-book I found recently refers to Running-hand as “Currency”!  Where the Roundhand alphabets are followed by moral maxims for practice, the Running-hand plates have phrases like “Borrowed at 4 1/2 Per Cent from Mr. John Connor £512” and “Sold Joseph Champion 2701 Pounds Maryland Tobacco.”

The Academical Instructor- Currency

That copybook, titled The Academical Instructor, is a bit of a puzzle. Although its author is proudly designated as “Duncan Smith of London” and all of the text is in English, the book was printed in Nürnberg in Germany.  The Google Books scan comes from the Bavarian State Library, and not a lot of other libraries seem to hold copies (according to WorldCat).  This is unfortunate for many reasons, one of them being that the Google Books scan is of terrible quality.  I was overjoyed to discover a new copy-book from right in the middle of my chosen time-period, but my joy diminished significantly when I saw how low-res this scan is. 

George Bickham says that “a legible and free Running hand is indispensibly Necessary in all Manner of Business,” but its fluid lines should also speed my letter-writing. All this business-talk did worry me a little – maybe Running hand isn’t lady-like? So I turned back to The Polite Lady for reassurance.   Her advice was to learn Round-hand first, as I have done, “for when you are a mistress of that, you may, with great ease, learn either a neat running, or Italian hand; but if you begin with the latter, you never can arrive at any degree of perfection in the former.”  A neat running hand it is!


6 thoughts on “Writing a Running Hand

  1. I’m curious, 19th century books seem to have a general assumption that looking at a sample of handwriting, the reader can tell at a glance if the writer is masculine or feminine. For example, this, from the 1880s:

    Do you think this is just silliness? Is it just that, as today, certain handwriting styles were “girly” (the Regency equivalent of writing very very round letters and dotting your ‘i’s with hearts)? If not, what is the difference?

    Thank you!


  2. What a great quotation! In the 18th century too, “Italian hand” is associated with femininity. In Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant, the Roundhand maxims are “for the practice of Youth” while Italian hand maxims are “for the Practice of the Ladies.” Even the maxims themselves have a gendered slant- “Health is life’s choicest blessing” versus “Humility adds charms to Beauty.” However, there seems to be no problem with women learning Roundhand or Running hand, even if they do have masculine associations. But it’s possible women felt some pressure to make their personal, every-day handwriting appear more “lady-like” than these models. Certainly Jane Austen suggests that one can recognize a “lady’s fair, flowing hand” at a glance (Pride and Prejudice ch.21).

    As I wrote about last week, the common stereotype for women’s letters has less to do with their hand-writing and more with their poor spelling and “want of sense”! So I think the equivalent of ‘girly’ hand-writing with heart-dotted Is would probably be a badly-spelled letter in “Italian” hand!


  3. I’ve been looking into learning English Roundhand as well as running hand and salute you for all of the work you have put into this which I intend to leverage! Have you tried using an modern italic or stub nib fountain pen to write these forms? This would make it more convenient to write than a quill and seemingly be less fussy than using a flex nib as is commonly used for Copperplate these days.

    Besides your blog the only other resource I have found is on writing Roundhand with an edged nib instead of a flex nib is a thread on Fountain Pen Network that I’ve linked below. This is a discussion by modern calligraphers used to flexible nibs who have difficulty writing with an edged nib on its corner, so I’m curious what your experience would be. My concern is that it sounds like the metal fountain pen nib may run out of ink more quickly than a quill when the nib is on its edge for fine hairlines.



  4. I am looking into learning English Roundhand as well as running hand and appreciate all your work, which I intend to leverage! Have you ever tried to write in these forms with a modern italic or stub nib fountain pen? It seems like a fountain pen would provide more convenience than a quill and your technique would be less fussy than the modern way of writing Copperplate with a flex nib. Since modern pens are not designed for this I’m curious if they would write well when using the edge of the nib for fine hairlines.


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