Much Practice Will Good Penmanship Produce

PenVerses1I haven’t shared any of my penmanship practice for such a long time, I thought I’d do so today.  I’ve had my fill of the moral maxims that are usually recommended for practicing English Round-hand, so I was delighted to find a different sort of text in The Accomplished Tutor or Complete System of Liberal Education by Thomas Hodson (3rd ed, 1806).  Most of the chapter on penmanship is nearly identical to other Young Man’s Companion books- plagiarism and piracy were apparently common in this sort of publication! The “Copies for Round Hand” provided for Round Hand practice stands out, however.  Rather than a collection of wise sayings on vices and virtues, it’s a doggerel verse with advice about penmanship practice! Each verse starts with a different capital letter:

From The Accomplished Tutor by Thomas Hodson (3rd ed, 1806). (Google Books)
From The Accomplished Tutor by Thomas Hodson (3rd ed, 1806). (Google Books)

Changing from a large copy hand to a style suitable for letter-writing was a challenge, so I decided to use these verses to practice writing Round-hand at different sizes. Students who made school pieces for showing off their penmanship often demonstrated their versatility with several different sizes of writing.  I followed their lead and wrote the first couplet on each page quite large, then made each successive couplet smaller.

It took me a little bit to understand what that bracket means connecting the three verses starting with I, J, and K.  The rest of the poem is in couplets, but these three lines make a trio!  I suspect that an earlier version of the poem left out a verse starting with J.  That’s pretty common in the alphabetical exercises I’ve seen, perhaps a holdover from a time when J was just a variant form of I.  Someone decided this poem needed a line about J, so they wrote a line that sort of rhymed with the I and K verses and just stuck it in there.


Without the J verse, the poem would have had an even number of lines because the original writer also left out a line about X.  I can’t blame them, since there’s just no way to write about penmanship with words starting with X! Most other alphabetical exercises resort to names from Greek history: “Xenocrates was learned” or “Xenophon was a great captain as well as a philosopher.”  George Bickham hit upon an odd solution.  He used words that start with Ex- and put a capital X in front of the line: “X, Excess kills more than the sword” and “X Examples sway more than Precepts.”

PenVerses3When I compare these lines to the last time I shared my copy-book hand, I’m happy with my progress!  I can see a lot of room for improvement, however.  Somehow I see many more flaws in the photographs than I did when looking at the pages themselves!


Maxims and minums

I reached a benchmark of sorts in my English Roundhand practice the other day- I used up a whole pad of paper!  I’ve been using a Rhodia graph paper pad, pulling out each perforated sheet to dry as I fill it up with wet, inky writing. That’s 80 sheets of principal strokes, letters, minums, words, and model sentences.  I’ve done a good deal of practice on other papers too, but still there was something especially satisfying about pulling off that last sheet of paper and adding it to the stack of completed pages.


Eighty pages full of penmanship practice!

I used the last 20 pages or so of this pad faster and faster as I worked on minums in earnest and then moved on to real actual words in sentences!  In the Young Clerk’s Assistant, George Bickham helpfully includes moral maxims starting with each letter of the alphabet for the learner to practice.  There’s also a page of sentences which manage to include every letter of the alphabet and a moral message- “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” just isn’t high-minded enough for Bickham!

The Alphabet in Single Copies, from George Bickham’s The Young Clerk’s Assistant. (Google Books)

After I wrote out enough aphorisms to cover the whole alphabet, I felt very much like Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. “Beauty’s a fair but fading flower,” I announced to my husband, “Indolence is an inlet to every vice.” He answered in the best way possible: “You have delighted us long enough.”

If I get bored of the moral maxims in Bickham’s book, there are many alternatives. Other instructional books print alphabetical lists of “copies” for handwriting practice, even if they don’t have Bickham’s engraved plates to model how the writing should look.  John Jenkins’ 1813 Art of Writing has four pages full of “Exercises for Writing in Single Lines,” so students have a choice of sentiments for each letter of the alphabet.  The Young Man’s Best Companion or Self Instructor provides two lofty sentiments for each letter, but also conveniently adds a selection of “Short lines for Text Hand,” similarly righteous.  The first of these, “Abandon whatsoever is ill,” sounds like a first draft of the phrase Michael Hayes copied over and over in his borrowed book: Abandon every sin.  Perhaps Michael’s writing master had a book like one of these, full of alphabetical mottos.

Short Lines for Text Hand from The Young Man’s Best Companion or Self Instructor. (Google Books)

I have a fresh new pad to fill with all these practice texts, and a sheaf of freshly cut quill pens. Someday soon I’ll be ready to write my school piece!

Minums for handwriting practice

Minums copyAs I’ve been practicing English Round-hand, a Regency era handwriting style, I’ve worked on lower case letters, joining letters together, and Capital letters. Just lately I’ve been doing a handwriting exercise that lets me practice all those elements at once!

The exercise comes from a page of George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant titled “Minums in Round-hand and Italian.” What is a minum? In this case, a minum appears to be a nonsense word that includes several forms of a letter, with m in the middle to practice spacing and joining. I haven’t found a reference anywhere else to this kind of minum, but I imagine the word derives from the writing term “minim,”  which refers to the small basic stroke – a dotless i –  that makes up the letters m, n, i, and u in many historical European hands.

In the plate from Bickham’s book, shown below, each minum begins with a capital letter followed by the lower-case form of the same letter, then m and one or two additional lower-case letters. This series allows the learner to practice all the slightly different ways a letter might be formed when it falls at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Take a look at the Round-hand minum for S: the first lower-case letter shows the word-initial form, while the double s at the end shows how the long s is used as well as the word-final form of the letter. Some letters, like d and g, have an extra swooping flourish when they come at the end of the word. Others, like e and p, just have a little additional curl.

Minums, plate 15 of George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant (1787 edition, Google Books)

Comparing this plate with the other Bickham plate I’ve been working with, titled “Learn Round-hand without a Master,”  some of the Capitals are formed quite differently. M and N on this plate are much more like the lower-case versions. It’s another sign that the “Learn Round-hand” plate was inserted into the book at some point after original publication, and possibly engraved by a different person. The Young Clerk’s Assistant seems to have been reprinted many times since its debut in the 1730s, and the 1787 edition digitised on Google Books has some differences from the 1733 edition reprinted by Dover Books.   Variations in letter-forms seem to be the rule rather than the exception among the different writing masters, so I’ve been practicing lots of the different capital letter-forms found in my sources.

I was getting a little frustrated with my capital letters until I started practicing with minums. I like how they work a little more like actual words, so my hand feels the familiar slant and spacing of the lower case letters in between each capital. In most cases, capital letters need to work closely with the lower-case letters following them, so it makes sense to practice them together.  Unlike real words, though, they’re short and have no potentially distracting meaning.  Doing each minum in order gives each letter a thorough “work-out,” too.

Bickham’s plate contrasts “Round-hand” with “Italian” handwriting. “Italian” hand is very similar to Round-hand, but is slightly more sloped (like Italic fonts), uses a narrower downstroke, and less contrast with thicks and thins. Throughout The Young Clerk’s Assistant, Round-hand is associated with young men and Italian with women.  There are two sets of moral maxims with heavily gendered content, one “for the Practice of Youth in the Round-hand” and the other ‘For the Practice of the Ladies in the Italian Hand.”  While ‘youth’ are given the sentence “Fortune’s a fair but fickle mistress,”  ‘the ladies’ are to copy out “Fame once lost can never be regained.”  I should probably follow Bickham’s suggestion and learn the more lady-like Italian style one of these days, so I can express such high-minded sentiments in the most feminine hand! In the meantime, I’ll stick to my nonsense words.

From a scrapbook of engraved plates on handwriting. (Bibliotheque Nationale de France)

Capital, capital!*

Detail of "Formation of the Capitals", plate in John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813.
Detail of “Formation of the Capitals”, plate in John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813.

Lately, I’ve been practicing English Roundhand capitals with my quill pens. After a long time working with lower case letters, it’s fun to let loose a little and swoosh around the page!  John Jenkins, the American writing master, gives a whole new set of “principal strokes” for forming the capital letters, and you can see how much more room for swooping there is compared to the lower case strokes.

Like the lower case letters, Jenkins groups most of the capitals together by shape. For example, P, R, and B all begin with a downward “Body stroke” that curves gracefully back up to the top so that the pen is ready to form the head of each letter.

-Formation of the Capitals, John Jenkins The Art of Writing, 1813.
“Formation of the Capitals” plates 1 and 2, John Jenkins The Art of Writing, 1813.

The system breaks down a bit, though, in trying to get all the capital letters onto two plates.  Somehow O is missing entirely, and there are two versions of the letter V. One, at the bottom right of the image above, is just a lower case v enlarged, while the other is a pointy letter like N, M, and W.

"Formation of the Capitals" plates 3 and 4, John Jenkins, the Art of Writing, 1813.
“Formation of the Capitals” plates 3 and 4, John Jenkins, the Art of Writing, 1813.

Although I find all the curvy strokes really fun to play with, they also make it more difficult to get the letter forms just right.  With so many compound curves and so few parallel angles, it’s hard to get them all arranged proportionally.  Most of the letters are designed to be made in just a few connected strokes, so one is expected to make all those complex curves without lifting  the pen from the page! For a few of the letters I actually traced my models to get the feel for them in my hands and to see what they looked like on my paper.  Getting the size of the flourishy curves at the beginning and ending of the letters right is a challenge, too- too small and they look cramped, but a little too big, and they draw attention away from the important strokes of the letter.

Ugh, it's a start anyway.
Ugh, it’s a start anyway.

For comparison, the capitals from the 1787 edition of George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant have a few stylistic differences but are mostly similar. If Bickham were grouping letters though, he’d put P and R with D rather than with B. Interesting! I think I prefer these more droopy initial flourishes on letters like I and J- they don’t  run the risk of looking like the cross stroke of the T:

Capitals from plate 9b of George Bickham, The Young Clerk's Assistant (1787 edition).
Capitals from plate 9b of George Bickham, The Young Clerk’s Assistant (1787 edition).

*Since I’m a huge fan of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series, whenever I look at the titles of John Jenkin’s plates, all I can think of is Sir William Lucas:




Penmanship Progress Report

PracticePracticeI wasn’t completely idle while I took a break from posting here- I did pick up my pen from time to time and filled the many sheets in the photo above.

Comparing the alphabet below with the last one I posted, I can see I’ve made a little improvement in the slant and the hairlines (Just the things Michael Hayes had trouble imitating!). I’ve gotten a bit better at understanding the “turns,” particularly placing the transition between the thick downstrokes and the thin lines, but there’s a long way to go (I’m already embarassed by the m and n in this picture, and the u, and. . .).


As I’ve handled my quill pens, I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with them and thus better able to pay attention to the details of the strokes rather than struggling to make marks.  In my last penmanship post I wrote that I needed to dip my pen often, sometimes for each stroke within a letter. I’m not sure exactly what’s changed- my speed, the level of ink I keep in my inkwell, the trim of my pen- but I’m now able to write a couple of large letters before dipping my pen again.  It helps me to write much more confidently!

One thing I’ve become incredibly aware of as I use quills is surface tension.  The quill only holds one little droplet of ink at a time, by virtue of the surface tension of the drop and the inside curvature of the quill barrel.  Modern pens are designed around controlling ink flow from a reservoir to the writing point. Quill pens, on the other hand, require the writer to control the flow of that drop of ink to the page using the angle of the pen. The slit in the nib helps to hold the droplet and direct its flow, but it’s not a channel that the ink travels down from a reservoir above, which is how I originally conceptualized it.

SurfaceTension copy

The above picture shows the ink droplet in place, and how the angle of the pen changes how the droplet contacts the page. If you look closely, you can see a glint of reflected light on the drop where it bulges most.  I’ve found that for thin, smooth hairlines, the pen needs to be at a high angle to the page, closer to the picture on the right. This helps the ink flow even though I’m only using a corner of the pen nib (according to Bickham’s instructions for hairlines), and it prevents the droplet from touching the page except at the point of the nib.

The other thing I’ve learned is to mend my pen often.  With much use, the nib tends to splay apart and the left corner, used for those hairlines, turns up and wears to a soft curve. Whenever I find myself struggling to get good crisp hairlines, it’s probably time to trim my nib. I have a new, sharp knife which makes it a pleasure- more on that another time!


Practicing Penmanship: Learning Lower Case Letters


In my quest to learn the handwriting of an Accomplished Young Lady, I’ve found some good model hands and made myself the right kind of pen. How would learner in Jane Austen’s era practice this new skill? In order to find out, I turned to my educational treatises and writing manuals. All these sources are available in full-text online- links are on my Sources page.

The Useful Art

In The Polite Lady, writing is one of the first things the daughter focuses on at school. Her mother writes her an encouraging letter, describing all the benefits that writing has to offer: “Were it not for this art, the knowledge of every person would be confined within the narrow circle of his own experience and observation; but by means of this, we can enjoy the knowledge and discoveries of all those who have lived before us, and in some measure make them our own.”  All of the educational texts I’ve looked at have this sort of sales-pitch for writing. I wonder if modern parents and kindergarten teachers feel the same need to explain how useful writing is, or if this attitude belongs to a world in which literacy is not universal, and writing skills are even scarcer?

The Greatest Care and Deliberation

The practical advice offered by the mother is (as usual) scant, but she does suggest: “When you write never be in a hurry, but proceed with the greatest care and deliberation: always write as well as you can, and then your hand will be still improving; for if you do not, instead of improving, it will, every day, become worse.”  All right- I should take my time and try to keep improving. Something about that last line makes me a little nervous- what if everything I’ve ever learned is, every day, becoming worse? The Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge tells me that: “The young penman ought also to lay it down as a law to draw every stroke, and form every letter, with the greatest deliberation.” These maxims suggest that I should be practising not like a child learning to write for the first time, but like a calligrapher- with care and attention to every mark I make.  No wonder elegant writing was considered a “Polite Accomplishment” (as The Polite Lady calls it)- it’s an art form in itself!

Large Letters

The Young Man’s Best Companion also has more concrete advice for beginners:

In the beginning the learner ought to practise the formation of his letters of a very large size. For in large characters, errors more readily strike the eye, and may consequently be more easily corrected, than in small writing.  In writing on a large scale the proportions of the several parts of a letter amongst themselves, and of the broad and fine strokes of which these parts consist, are the most accurately and easily attended to ; and he who is expert in forming a large character will, with great facility, descend to the formation of others of a middling or small size.

-The Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge, John Dougall, 1815.

I’ve been practicing the formation of my letters at a very large size: my broad strokes are about 1/16 inch wide, and my “n” and “m” are 3/8 inch tall.  That’s precisely the size that John Jenkins recommends for a “common copy hand” in his Art of Writing. The large letters with thick strokes use lots of ink, so I have to dip my quill pen very frequently- often for each stroke. The quill is definitely the right tool to get the fine hairstrokes to curve into thick shades- it’s flexible and responsive, more like a brush than the sorts of pens I’m used to.  But I can see why writing technology moved in other directions. With the quill, every factor affects how the lines look- the slope of the work surface, the angle I hold my quill, the consistency of the ink, the depth of the ink in my inkwell, the texture and composition of the paper, etc.  It makes me appreciate the simplicity of modern roller-ball pens!

Ruling paper

But what about paper? When I was learning cursive in 4th grade, a task I loathed, we were furnished with workbooks that had lots of lines to show how high and how low each letter should extend. Paper in Jane Austen’s era rarely came ruled, so the Young Man’s Best Companion gives instructions for ruling your own paper:

In ruling the paper for writing, the close marks of the wires used in the manufacture of the paper and the open lines running across them, will be of great service : but the beginner should not trust implicitly to this help : he should mark off, with a pair of compasses, on the margin of the paper, a number of points, at regular distances, and through them draw light pencil lines, within which the writing must be confined.  At first compasses and a plain flat ruler are to be employed; because by them the lines are drawn with the greatest accuracy: but when the writer’s eye is more experienced, he may judge of the distance to be left between the lines, without using compasses; and then for expedition’s sake, employ a round ruler, which ought to be perfectly cylindrical, that is of precisely the same thickness in every part of its length.

-The Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge, John Dougall, 1815.

I have a pair of compasses , otherwise known as dividers, and a straight-edge, so I can mark off equal sections of my paper. I’m not ready to switch to a rolling ruler for speed- in fact, I’d never heard of one before!  Here is a picture of two ebony rolling rulers stamped with the sign of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, if you’re curious. I will have to try using a round ruler when my eye is more experienced!

Dividers (also known as compasses) are set to mark off the page in even portions. A piece of blacklead (graphite) in a brass holder draws the lines. The triangle serves as a ruler- it has an ebony edge so dark marks from the pencil lead don't show.
Dividers (also known as compasses) are set to mark off points “at regular distances.” A piece of blacklead (graphite pencil lead) in a brass holder draws the lines. The triangle serves as a ruler- it has an ebony edge so dark marks from the pencil lead don’t show.

I have used the methods described in the Young Man’s Best Companion for some of my English Roundhand practice, but I confess I’ve become impatient. I acquired a graph-paper pad made for calligraphy practice, so that less of my time is spent with the ruler and more on “draw[ing] every stroke, and form[ing] every letter, with the greatest deliberation.”  I also made a guidline for the slant of the letters, which I slip under the page so I can see the angle for each stroke.

The Principal Strokes from John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813
The Principal Strokes from John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813

Strokes and Turns

John Jenkins, the American writing master, recommends a clear series of steps for learning letters. First, master the 6 principal strokes, then practice forming each letter, and only then practice joining letters together.  This series parallels a pair of plates in the 1787 edition of George Bickham’s The Young Clerk’s Assistant.  Although Bickham’s Principal strokes are a bit different from Jenkins’s, the same progression from stroke to individual letters to joined letters is used.

Plate 8b from George Bickham's The Young Clerk's Assistant, 1787 edition.
Plate 8b from George Bickham’s The Young Clerk’s Assistant, 1787 edition.

I like to begin each practice session with Jenkins’s Principal strokes to remind myself of the basics. As I practice , my hand becomes more sure. But it’s also my eye that practices- the more I form the letters, the better my eye can distinguish “the proportions of the several parts of a letter amongst themselves, and of the broad and fine strokes of which these parts consist.”  It took several pages of practice before I could see exactly where in each letter the thin strokes began to flow into the the thick ones, and some pages more before I could get my turns to match.  I was helped by this calligraphy forum thread which discusses how different 18th and 19th century writing masters formed those turns- it was quite literally an eye-opener! This connection between hand and eye makes my handwriting practice feel meditative, especially because I have been copying single letters over and over again.


I just became confident enough to try “joining” letters into pairs, which introduces new challenges- judging the spaces between the letters and placing connecting strokes.  The practice plate from Bickham’s book (above) shows every letter joined to an “m”, which allows me to get lots of practice with the most challenging of the basic letters.


The lower-case “m” requires consistent slant, careful spacing, and elegant “turns” at the top humps and the bottom exit stroke. I must have written hundreds of them, and I still don’t get them quite right every time.  John Jenkins has a much more technical and detailed approach to teaching joins, as you might expect if you’ve taken a look at his book.

Joining & Distance, from John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813.
Joining & Distance, from John Jenkins Art of Writing, 1813.

Each “class” of letter joins the others in their own ways, as Jenkins explains in a dialogue that he expects his pupils to memorize. I’m sure Jenkins would be very disappointed that I don’t memorize his Q&As, nor have I practiced picking up and holding the pen in correct posture for several minutes at a time. He has some very helpful ideas, but I’m so glad he wasn’t my writing teacher!

Next time: Capital Letters and Minums

In Search of a Good Hand

John Jenkins, American Writing Master (with student doodle!)
John Jenkins, American Writing Master (with student doodle!)

The first Accomplishment I want to acquire is writing- an authentic regency writing hand.  After all,  The Polite Lady warns me “But it is not only an useful it is likewise a polite qualification; nor should any one pretend to the character of an accomplished woman who cannot write a distinct and legible hand.”

The handwriting I’ve seen in Jane Austen’s letters and manuscripts, as well as that of her contemporaries, is not always distinct or legible. But each letter usually slants exactly the same way, and there are enough commonalities among very different people that they must have been trained to follow similar models.  How can I find those models? A book titled Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge (There was a stiff competition for ‘Best Companion’, it seems, based on the number of books that use some variation of this title) tells me to carefully copy good examples of handwriting, and that:

In selecting examples for imitation, engraved specimens are to be preferred to written : for the engraver working deliberately and mechanically with his tools, and re touching the plate until his work be to his satisfaction, is able to produce letters, words, and lines, much more regular and uniform in shape and proportion than any which, unless the writer be singularly accomplished indeed, can be executed by the hand and pen.

This seems like good advice, but how am I going to find the right engraved specimens? What do I search for, since my period sources do’t give me specific names? I had heard of “Copperplate” and “Spencerian” handwriting styles, but they belong to the later 19th century. To achieve their graceful thick-and-thin lines, calligraphers use flexible steel nibs that only replaced quill pens in the 1830s or so. I discovered that what is now called English Roundhand, an ancestor of Copperplate handwriting developed in the 17th century, was popular through the early 19th century. It also accords well with my sources, which often mention a “round” hand in contrast to “running” or “Italic” hands.

As for engraved specimens, George Bickham‘s name comes up again and again. In The Universal Penman, he collected fine examples from the best  English writing masters and published them as engraved plates. More relevant to my needs is his slim volume The Young Clerk’s Assistant; or Penmanship made easy, instructive, and Entertaining, first published in 1733. Google Books has a full text of a 1787 edition, It contains examples of round and other hands, and LOTS of “moral maxims” to practice copying.  The title may sound rather masculine, but there are poems and epigrams specifically aimed at young ladies as well as young gentlemen.

 Unfortunately, Google Books’ scan is too washed out to be a good model- it doesn’t capture the fine hairlines that are an essential part of the letter forms. I acquired Dover’s reprint of the 1733 edition, only to find that it doesn’t include my favorite plates titled “To learn round Hand without a Master”, which had large letters both separately and joined. They instructs me to “Write each article on this and the following page forty times over in a Copy-Book ruled with double lines.” Here they are from that washed out scan of the 1787 edition (Click to see a larger):

Bickham-p8 Bickham-p9

Since The Young Man’s Best Companion told me to practice writing each character large and carefully, I felt I needed to look further for models.  I found it in John Jenkins’ Art of Writing, an American manual from 1813. The International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH) hosts high-quality scans of some hard to find writing manuals, and Jenkins’ book is the earliest they have. The paper it’s printed on is russet with age, but the hairlines stand out clearly! I de-colored and cleaned up a few of the plates that show the basic strokes and the small letters:

Jenkins Plates 1Jenkins Plates 2

John Jenkins is a big believer in teaching through “dialogue,” by which he means memorized questions and answers about the theory and practice of writing. I don’t find that very helpful, but I do like his method of presenting the basic pen strokes that form all the letters. The hardest elements for me to get right are the slope of the letters and the delicate hairline curve at the top and bottom of many lines, and his basic strokes emphasize learning those skills.  A close comparison of his letterforms with Bickham’s shows that they are not identical, but they are definitely in the same family.

Jenkins also has the ladies in mind in his volume, as this elegant page shows:

“If you would win a Pen of Gold Learn first of all your Pen to hold” To Write with ease & Elegance / is a most Useful, Polite and / Necessary Accomplishment / For all Young / Gentlemen and Ladies. / By diligence and care Your Writing will be fair
“If you would win a Pen of Gold Learn first of all your Pen to hold”
To Write with ease & Elegance / is a most Useful, Polite and / Necessary Accomplishment / For all Young / Gentlemen and Ladies. / By diligence and care Your Writing will be fair