Did You Know?
Not reading cursive isn’t a new problem.
As far back as the seventeenth century, there were many people who could read print, but could not read “written hand” (as the saying was). The topic comes up frequently in the legal documents, educational writings, and realistic fiction of the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. throughout the English-speaking countries.
Just one example, out of many, is a literary one — from British author John Dryden in 1663, in his first play The Wild Gallant (Act 3, Scene 2). The title character (Loveby) is upset about a knight (Sir Timorous) who is standing close enough to look over Loveby’s shoulder while Loveby is writing a letter to a woman — but then Loveby remembers that he doesn’t have to worry how close Timorous is standing, because Timorous “cannot read written hand.” Later in the same scene, the woman (Isabel) shows the letter to Timorous, who tries to read it (laboriously spelling out the letters one by one), but he gives up after the first two words and asks Isabel to read the letter to him: “Pray, madam, read it; this written hand is such a damned pedantic thing, I could never away with it.” ( = “I could never manage it”)
“Written hand” itself existed in numerous styles, even within the same textbook. Usually, a textbook would teach four, five, six, or even more styles of cursive writing, because there were actually rules which assigned different handwriting styles to different purposes … or even to different people.
For example, note this title-page from a very popular cursive textbook of the eighteenth century, Penmanship Exemplified:
The styles in Penmanship Exemplified were actually just a few of the styles that were used at the time, because this textbook was actually one of the simpler books. There were other textbooks which presented even more styles and which were equally specific (or sometimes even more specific) about exactly who ought to learn and use a particular style, and for exactly what purposes it should be used.
When you looked at the Penmanship Exemplified title page, did you notice that the author actually specified a particular style as being the one for women to use? In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most handwriting teachers and other literate people believed that different types of handwriting should be taught to female students and male students. Boys and men were expected to learn and use a somewhat less decorative style than girls and women. This was partly because most handwriting teachers (and most other people) believed that only men should use handwriting as a practical tool for business. Women were assumed to be unbusinesslike, un-serious, and to properly be concerned with ornament and décor.
Although some handwriting teachers and book publishers realized that it was not necessary to divide handwriting instruction in this way, their view was not yet universal. Most people believed that women and girls needed handwriting mainly for such purposes as creating artwork and writing letters to friends. It was common for schools to have separate handwriting classes for boys and girls (if the community could afford it), and even to teach different styles to boys and girls who were sitting in the same classroom (by using different books, or different parts of the same book).
In fact, one nineteenth-century American handwriting teacher actually color-coded his handwriting textbooks by gender:
“In 1845[,] writing master James French issued two copybooks, a Gentlemen’s Writing Book, bound in blue, and a Ladies’ Writing Book, bound in pink. In the former, French’s male students practiced their mercantile running hand … while their female counterparts rehearsed the ladies’ epistolary …”
Source: Handwriting in America: A Cultural History by historian Tamara Plakins Thornton, 1998, pages 42-71. (The quotation about James French and his color-coded copybooks is from page 43.)
You may also enjoy reading this piece on historical research into the handwritings of early American women, which includes many samples by famous and not-so-famous women.
(What handwriting heritage, I wonder, will today’s generation leave for the future? The answer is — literally — in our own hands.)