History & Culture
The efficient writing style once thrived in U.S. businesses and schools, but researchers fret that today’s lack of cursive literacy may have a surprising impact on history—and ourselves.
Published September 14, 2023
• 7 min read
What’s something kids can’t do, but teachers don’t teach? If you answered “cursive,” write a flowing capital letter “A” by hand on your report card. Once a staple of classrooms and correspondence, cursive—a style of handwriting with joined letters and flourishes that put simple print to shame—is on the wane.
Or is it? One look at TikTok or Instagram shows that the art is still very much alive: Think bullet journals, calligraphy demonstrations, and hashtags like #penmanship, #cursive, or even #penlife, all awash with photos of impeccable handwriting in high-end ink.
But how did cursive develop in the first place—and is its future really doomed?
Writing your way up the economic ladder
For centuries, writing was the realm of the highly educated and privileged: Paper was expensive, and special scribes developed ornate handwriting styles to give flair and polish to illuminated manuscripts and official documents. But in the 18th and early 19th centuries, writing became more accessible, leading to the flourishing of penmanship and the invention of faster ways to write. One involved running the letters of a word together—and cursive (based on the Latin verb currere, “to run”) as we now know it began.
“Secretary hand,” the most popular early style of cursive writing common in England between the 15th and 17th centuries, mashed some letters together. Next came “Round Hand,” an elaborate style of calligraphy used primarily in official documents in France and England. As immigration to the British colonies and eventually the United States began in the 18th century, immigrants brought their preferred cursive styles, or “hands,” with them. One of these, Copperplate, grew out of Round Hand and became a favorite of private writing masters who tutored many elite students. Technology helped, too: When the fountain pen began replacing quills in the early 19th century, Copperplate cursive became easier and more accessible to the masses.
As the U.S. educational system developed, new types of cursive writing emerged. One, Spencerian script, was inspired by American landscapes and became a widespread—and uniquely American—school of handwriting. The script was the brainchild of Platt Rogers Spencer, a writing-obsessed New Yorker and writing master who used the types of arcs and lines he witnessed in the natural world—like the shape of pebbles in a stream—to create flowing, organic form of cursive handwriting.
Soon, Spencerian handwriting was all the rage, and was widely taught in American schools and used in U.S. business correspondence. The rise of industry and technology helped cursive spread, says Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, a curator for the history of education collections at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
“More people are being trained for business, and higher education emerge[d]” at the time, she says. “Writing is part of the curriculum at that point.” Students learned Spencerian script from their teachers, through “copy books” filled with examples, and through rote repetition, in keeping with the educational method of the times. A mastery of Spencerian script meant the ability to get a job outside of a factory and became a means of social mobility as newly arrived immigrants, newly enfranchised African Americans, and women entered the workplace.
The popular Palmer Method
Other handwriting systems came and went, but it would take another American, Austin Norman Palmer, to create cursive as we know it today. Palmer watched the quickening pace of U.S. office work, and envisioned a form simplified Spencerian script that would enable the newly created class of clerks, secretaries, and administrative employees to keep up. Invented in the 1880s and enthusiastically embraced by educators, the Palmer Method was designed to automate human hand writing using seated postures, hand positions, and internal reflexes that could produce a quick-to-execute script almost mechanically, much like the newly developed typewriter.
“Pupils who follow absolutely the Palmer Method plan never fail to become good penmen,” Palmer declared in a 1901 manual. Emphasizing “absolute mechanical mastery,” the Palmer Method specified everything from the proper clothing (lightweight sleeves that would let the forearm move) to the proper hand with which to write (right), warning students and teachers alike that without “absolute control” and a grasp of each component motion of cursive, they would fail. With the help of drills, examinations, and even penmanship competitions, the Palmer Method became the dominant form of handwriting well into the 20th century.
So why can’t modern-day students read it? Blame the rise of the typewriter, then the personal computer, both of which contributed to the death of penmanship in business. And point the finger at national educational standards while you’re at it, especially the Common Core State Standards. Adopted in 2009, the initiative brought together 48 states, two territories, and the District of Columbia to devise a set of accepted curriculum standards for K-12 education—standards that do not require most American public-school students to learn cursive.
In a 2016 interview with Education Week, one of the national curriculum standard’s lead writers for English and language arts, Sue Pimentel explained that technology was at the forefront of curriculum experts’ minds as they set the national educational agenda. “We thought that more and more student communications and adult communications are via technology,” Pimentel explained, adding that “sometimes cursive writing takes an enormous amount of instructional time.”
The death and rebirth of cursive
But while more and more communication is done with keyboards, there are experts who are concerned about the modern lack of cursive literacy. Newly minted historians and student archivists don’t necessarily read or write cursive, Schaefer-Jacob notes—and they can be stumped by archival documents written by hand.
“I have seen it firsthand as a historian,” she says. “They can’t decipher certain documents.”
There is some help for those faced with a tangle of confusing handwriting. Pharmacists and doctors are among the last bastions of modern workers expected to be able to read and write in cursive, and they often receive specialized courses in writing well by hand (and deciphering others’ scrawls) during their training. Likewise, historians can take special paleography courses designed to familiarize them with old forms of cursive.
Regardless, a working familiarity with modern cursive gives historians a leg up in the archive, Schaefer-Jacob says—and she and other researchers worry that the past will remain inaccessible without ongoing cursive instruction in schools.
Historians aren’t the only ones advocating for a resurgence of cursive. Occupational therapists and psychiatrists say it helps with the development of hand-eye coordination, cognitive development, and fine motor skills, to name just a few. Handwriting instruction has been linked with academic success, and in one 2007 literature review, researchers wrote that poor handwriting comes with “far-reaching academic and psychosocial consequences.”
Those consequences have created handwriting advocates: interest groups like the National Handwriting Association, calligraphy ambassadors online, and even lawmakers. After states adopted Common Core standards that cut cursive education, legislators in several states responded by insisting cursive is necessary—and mandated cursive education in their states anyway. As of 2023, 21 states require cursive writing to be taught in school, and this year Michigan approved legislation requiring the development of an optional cursive writing curriculum for its public schools. Cursive may be endangered, but it certainly isn’t dead yet—just ask Gillian Goerz, an artist whose series “solving” cursive letters has racked up millions of views on TikTok— and with new media and new resolve to preserve its curlicues and connected letters, it may just live to turn a new page.
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