Is penmanship being written off?

Handwriting penmanship writing alphabet letters pencil

Generations of school kids learned penmanship; whether future generations will learn to write their ABC's by hand at ALL, however, is very much in doubt. Our Cover Story is reported now by Tracy Smith:

"Letter R! Letter R! R-r-r … Today, we're going to introduce how to make the letter R."

Remember this? If it's been a while since you felt the excitement (or the pain) of putting pen to paper, spend a few moments with Krista Walther's kindergarten class in Upper Arlington, Ohio.

"This is not something that you can leave out - you have to teach these fundamental letter formations, or else the kids are really going to struggle," she said.

"You can see so much meaning and passion in their penmanship. You know, even if it's, you know, all in capitals and a mix, it makes you smile."

Handwriting is still an essential skill for kids. But in the world beyond school - the one filled with computers and cell phones and you-name-it - we're losing our grip on penmanship.

It's not that we're not writing. We send 294 billion e-mails, and nearly five billion text messages EVERY DAY.

But for adults, the tactile, personal art of handwriting has pretty much been reduced to shopping lists and credit card signatures.

Tamara Plakins Thornton, a history professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo says that's an old story. "That goes back to the typewriter, actually. It doesn't go back to the computer. We haven't used handwriting the way we used to use handwriting for well over 100 years."

Thornton is the author of a cultural history of handwriting in America

She said handwriting was an issue even in the time of the pilgrims.

"First, you have to recognize that not everybody could write," Thornton said. "And then even more strangely, there were people who could read but not write. The two skills were taught separately and understood to have separate purposes."

In the 1700s and 1800sm, if your handwriting was good enough, you could actually make it a career.

"There were professional penmen - professional writing masters who would produce penmanship tour de forces as a kind of calling card: 'This is what I can do,'" she said.

Platt Rogers Spencer was the first American penman to create a national model for handwriting - and it was a fancy one.

"Spencerian was very fussy and time consuming. You had to get the shading just write," said Thornton. "So, it was slow."

We know Spencerian today as the script used in the Coca-Cola logo. But that's about all.

Because the arrival of the typewriter in the late 19th century presented enormous competition for handwriting, a new man took up the challenge: A.N. Palmer.

Thornton called him "the penmanship emperor of the 20th century."

Palmer said . . . speed it up.

Thornton said Palmer's creed was, "We have to have a modern 20th century script for modern 20th century business conditions - fast, efficient. That way we can keep up with the typewriter."

The Palmer method, like the Spencerian method, is big on physical discipline. It's big on drill work - regimentation that Palmer believed would do more than just create good handwriting, it could make model citizens.

"Penmanship could reform delinquents," explained Thornton. "Penmanship could assimilate immigrants. Penmanship could do just about everything except cure acne."

Moreover, handwriting was seen not just as the product of good habits, but of your character itself.

And that gave rise to graphology - handwriting analysis.

It was all the rage, particularly in the early 1900s. There were even graphology columns in magazines, to which readers could submit their handwriting to find out their true self.

One example read: "I can see great deal of narrow mindedness, some priggishness, considerable self satisfaction…"

And get this: before the 1920s, students weren't taught to write in print. They ONLY learned cursive.

So, Abraham Lincoln never printed? "He would not have printed," said Thornton.