This last semester I finished up my last required credits for my major, so I got to fill up the rest of my credits with whatever electives I could find that I hadn’t taken yet. I was so excited when I saw Paleography was offered, the study of ancient writing. It’s learning how to read and write all of those crazy fonts they used in old documents that don’t look like they were written in English. I know that this outs me as a serious nerd (but seriously, I blog about fountain pen ink, so I’m pretty sure you know I’m a nerd already), but I LOVED this class. My professor was amazing, probably the best professor I’ve ever had and I learned an astounding amount about old handwriting. Really, if you ever get a chance to take this class, do it!
For the class we were required to learn how to read and write different scripts in English, as well as scripts in German, Latin, Dutch, Scandinavian, and Norwegian. The main textbook was Reading Early American Handwriting by Kip Sperry, but a lot of the resources were online. I’m still learning, so I stink at writing a lot of the styles, but I had a lot of fun trying to learn them. I get a lot of questions about my handwriting styles so I decided to create this comparison of historical styles from the last 600 years and my current personal styles. I chose to base my scripts off of the historical versions rather than some of the perfect fonts you find used today.
I decided to turn this into a challenge and create all of these scripts with a single pen: a Franklin-Christoph 46 in Autumn Oak that I got earlier this year and freakin’ love (and want in every material possible) and switch out the nibs as necessary to create the necessary line width for each script. I used Sailor Jentle Black ink since it has a lovely wet flow and keeps up with the wetter nibs well.
Nibs I used:
Regalia Writing Labs 1.1 Flex Stub Nib (I think this one was exclusive to pen shows, my friend Matt was very kind and picked this up for me at a show last year)
JoWo Broad Nib
JoWo (Edison branded) Medium Nib
There are four main styles used during this time: Italic, Court Hand, Copperplate Round and Secretary Hand. At the time, there was no u or w letters so documents written during this time period don’t usually have them, and v was frequently used instead. I and j were also interchangeable so you have to figure out which letter the scribe would have used if they wrote it using the current alphabet. Since many scribes did not have a basic knowledge of spelling, most documents from this time period don’t have consistent spelling.
Records were done on paper, vellum and parchment with a sharpened quill and ink made by the individual scribes. If the scribe used too much water in their ink then they faded faster.
Italic script aka Chancery Cursive was developed in 1420’s Italy by Niccolo Niccoli as an easier version of Humanist Minuscule. It has thicker downstrokes and thinner up and side strokes. Uppercase letters had a slight slant to the right. The letters take multiple strokes to create. For this style I used an italic nib because what other nib would you use to write in italics?
Court Hand was used for court records starting in the early 1400’s. This style was largely up to the scribes in each Court, the style varies widely. Since court scribes were not traditionally taught handwriting, they were left to their own devices and created their handwriting based on whoever was the prior scribe.
Secretary Hand was used from the 1500’s to the 1600’s. The letters have the same thick down strokes as Italic script, but the letters are a bit more ornate. The capital letters are fancier than the lowercase letters. This style was frequently used for church and probate records in England, the British colonies, and Western Europe.
Copperplate Round hand was first found during the mid-1600s. It was found in England, but originated in Italy. It is distinguished by thick and thin lines, with a small difference between the two thicknesses. At the time, a more efficient hand writing was needed for commercial writing. This style continued to be used in the Americas in the 1700’s and early 1800’s until the introduction of Spencerian in 1840, with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution being two of the most famous examples.
Most of Europe divided into two main styles for printing, Gothic and Roman, with the Gothic style being more prevalent in Germany and the Roman style in Italy.
Gothic used all 26 letters in our current alphabet, but usually did not distinguish between capital I and J. Some Gothic letters look like they belong to the Roman alphabet but actually meant another letter (Gothic v looks like a Roman w). This was the main script used in Germany until 1941 when Hitler discontinued it. A lot of modern calligraphers use Gothic-style lettering, but most of those are based on Gothic type letterforms for printing rather than Gothic handwriting.
Kurrent, aka Kurrentschrift or Alte deutsche Schriftcan, was used in Germany. The modern version was found starting in 1911 until Hitler discontinued its use along with Gothic in 1941. It can be difficult to read, some of the letters like f, h and s all look very similar and you have to use context to decide which letter was intended.
The first dip steel pens in the United States were patented in 1803 by Bryan Donkin. John Jacob Parker patented the first self-filling fountain pen in 1832. Lewis Edson Waterman created the first modern popular fountain pen in 1884. The 1850s to the 1920s is considered the golden age of penmanship in the United States, Spencerian was the main style and many used dip nibs as well as fountain pens.
Spencerian handwriting was a simpler version of Copperplate Round, developed by Platt Rogers Spencer in 1840. It became the predominant handwriting style in the US, 1850-1925. It has similar thick and thin lines as Copperplate Round does, but in some cases it has more flourishes, giving it a more feathered look. It can be hard to tell Copperplate Round and Spencerian apart, but if necessary, ignore the flourishes and focus on how the letters themselves look. The letters are slightly more connected than Copperplate, which does not always connect letters such as p and o. Michael Sull is an amazing modern calligrapher known for his work in Spencerian.
The Palmer Method was published in Palmer’s Guide to Business Writing by Austin Palmer in 1894. Palmer encouraged writers to use their whole arm rather than just their hand and wrist. It was designed to be a faster alternative to Spencerian writing and became the most popular style in the United States by the 1910’s until the 1960’s. This became the basis for the modern styles children learn in public schools today.
Styles Currently Taught in Elementary School
Public schools in America largely leave the style up to the teacher, the most common styles are Zaner-Bloser and D’Nealian, but some still teach The Palmer Method. I was taught D’Nealian in elementary school (I’m 32), but my husband was taught Zaner-Bloser (he’s 37).
Zaner-Bloser presented their styles in The Zaner Method of Arm Movement Writing in 1904, aimed at elementary school children. There are cursive and print styles, the print is often referred to as the “ball and stick method” of writing. The cursive is loosely based on the Palmer method and carried over a lot of its characteristics including the slight slant to the right, the print is sans-serif, without a slant and very round rather than oval.
D’Nealian was introduced in 1978 by Donald Thurber. The cursive is similar to Zaner-Bloser, with a few small differences. The print slants to the right with a classic oval shape. Letters like u, t, a, I, n, etc. utilize “monkey-tails” which are supposed to make it easier for kids to switch from printing to cursive.
My Personal Styles
Back in 2015 I became interested in calligraphy and wanted to learn how to make my really awful handwriting look at least 10% better than it was. I discovered brush lettering and purchased Random Olive’s Brush Letter Practice Guide. After a ridiculous amount of practice I learned that I wanted to write smaller so I could use the style for regular writing not just titles and posters. After stalking the Goulet Pens YouTube channel in October, I ordered a Noodler’s Ahab and a bottle of Diamine Marine. In the past four years my handwriting has changed frequently, and I now use a few main styles for most of my writing. The pen I’m currently using largely determines which style I’ll use. If I have a flex nib or a brush marker I’ll use flex writing. If I have a round medium or broad nib I’ll use all caps, mixed bag, or italic cursive. Fine or extra fine nibs means I stick to wonky and occasionally use italic cursive.
This style has become my own spin on the brush lettering alphabet I described above. I use this for most of the cursive writing in my ink reviews and on my ink swabs. Some of my favorite pens to use this style with: Waterman 52 1/2, Noodler’s Ahab and dip nib pens.
I use this style for smaller and medium nib sizes when I still want to write in cursive. Some of my favorite pens to use this style with: TWSBI Eco M, Montegrappa Copper Mule F and Pilot Vanishing Point M.
This is just all capitals, nothing fancy. I love using this style with a fat, juicy Sailor zoom nib or a Pelikan M805 broad nib.
I based this handwriting on a sample of handwriting I saw back in 2015 and fell in love with. Most letters are capital with some (mainly vowels) lowercase. The letters have a round feel and look best with a round nib. Some of my favorite pens to use this style with: Pelikan M605 White Transparent M, Pilot Vanishing Point B, and Pilot 823 B.
Similar to Mixed Bag, I use a mix of capital and lowercase letters, with a focus on sharper strokes rather than round. I use this the most with small nib sizes (extra-fine and fine). Some of my favorite pens to use this style with: Lamy 2000 F, TWSBI Eco F, and Montegrappa Copper Mule F.
If you stuck with me through all of that then I’m impressed. What style did you learn as a child, and is it different than how you write today? Let me know in the comments below!
Disclaimer: All photos and opinions are my own. This post does contain an affiliate link, but this post is not sponsored in any way.