The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Penmanship and Copy Books

In a collection rich in manuscript material like that at the MHS, it's easy to fixate on centuries-old handwriting, whether for admiration of delicate script or frustration at illegible penmanship. I’ve overheard a fair balance of researchers lamenting the eyestrain caused by hours of squinting at spidery letterforms, and those who voice their appreciation for such intricate, time-consuming writing and the character it gives to the writer. Penmanship has an element of individuality, even when students were taught the importance of identical script or the “science” of manually forming words on a page through instruction books like Penmanship Explained, or, The Principles of Writing Reduced to an Exact Science by S.A. Potter.

Today, many of us rely on electronic means of forming words, efficiently typed out and spell-checked. Instead of putting pen to page, we often put fingertips to keyboard. I sometimes wonder if we would be able to decipher difficult handwriting more easily if we spent more time writing by hand as well. Though, if all writers had followed Potter's exact science of penmanship, maybe we would have no trouble at all!

In an effort to learn more about the history of penmanship, I decided to see what resources I could find in the MHS collection. In the online catalog ABIGAIL I found a variety of results for penmanship instruction books and advertisements, broadsides for ink powder and writing instruments, and a few personal copy books in family manuscript collections. One manuscript item (manuscript fittingly meaning “hand” and “to write”) that I found particularly interesting was Tristram Little’s copy book. Tristram Little of Newburyport, Maine was born in December 1784, making him fifteen years of age at the time of this book’s use beginning in early 1800.

Copy books often provided written lines and blank spaces for a student to copy the text. In the case of Little’s book, there are no printed lines to copy, which indicates he must have copied from a separate volume. On one delicately lettered leaf, Little has copied from a cover or title page, “Round Text Copies, Written for the Use of Schools and Academys by D. S…Engraved by J. Ellis.” Perhaps this is from Bowles's elegant set of round hand copies, round text copies and comprised in a set. Performed for the use of schools & Academies by D. Smith, written by I. Trinder of Northampton, or a similar copy book circulated by this publisher.

Some penmanship books are literally by-the-book, with lines written directly from a published original. Others are strewn with more personal touches. The pages of Tristram Little’s penmanship practice book mostly contain repeated lines of proverbial advice. Some are of general instruction, “Beware of idleness & sloth”, “Quarrel not at play,” and some loftier lines: “Rouze up your Genius & exalt your mind” and “Honor attends virtuous actions.” Tristram’s personal touches include original poems, one an illustrated epitaph titled “On the death of General Washington,” complete with tombstone frame. He notes on the top of the page, “He died…December 15th 1799” – which is actually one day off, the correct date being December 14.

The poem reads:

Ah! while we gather round your urn,

Joins your blest bands great Wasington [sic],

Hark to that knell, a NATION sighs,

Waft his PURE SPIRIT to the skies.


Newbury Port

The bells were then tolling.


On a previous page, Little recorded an ode to the “glorious George Wasington [sic],” asking, “What mortal praise can equal thy great claim?” Clearly, Little had a great regard for George Washington’s reputation. This common copy book offers an insight into the mind of a teenager growing up in America’s early years, looking up to his nation’s leader and lamenting his loss. Other pages include lists of personal names and cities (Newburyport and Philadelphia). Little’s embellished pages, glorifying poems, and ornate illustrations add another level of character to his already unique handwriting, as we might consider it today.

Tristram Little’s copy book is just one example of penmanship study and practice in the MHS collection. You can find other penmanship practice books and copy books for arithmetic exercises, many as part of family manuscript collections. If you would like to explore this topic further, visit the library and enjoy these personal copy books – or fascinating handwriting throughout the collection – in person.


permalink | Published: Monday, 7 December, 2015, 12:00 AM


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