The Development of Cursive Writing

Cursive writing was developed to save time. It is much faster to write in the easy, flowing manner of cursive where the pen only leaves the paper between words rather than after or even during each letter. In fact, National Handwriting Day is celebrated each January 23rd in honor of John Hancock, well known for his clear signature on the Declaration of Independence.

Writing started with printing and was naturally greatly affected by the tools available to record the information the writer wished to transmit. About 3,000 BC, the Sumerians introduced one of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform, which relied on a wedge-shaped stylus pressed into moist clay or wax. Around 2,400 BC, the Egyptians began using papyrus and reed brushes for writing. Until 400AD, the Romans used all capital letters in a style called capitalis quadrata (square capitals). This lettering system worked very well in the great stone edifices the Romans erected. To save parchment, it was later condensed into capitalis rustica, a curvier, smaller script.

In the 700's, Charlemagne hired an English monk, Alcuin of York, to develop a script by which the recordkeeping of his kingdom could be standardized. The resulting Carolingian minuscule script introduced the ideas of upper- and lowercase letters, punctuation, and spaces between words. Writing was a specialized skill primarily executed by monks in monasteries as a way of earning income for the order. Some monasteries became famous for the works produced in their scriptoriums. An example is the Book of Kells, a beautifully illuminated book of the four Gospels, which was produced by the Columban monastery on the island of Iona off the coast of Ireland.

Niccolo Niccoli, an Italian living in the 1400's, is credited with giving a distinct slant to a form of Carolingian script. It featured linkages between some letters in addition to the slant. This precursor to cursive was labeled "italic" after Italy.

Cursive writing which features linkages between all the letters in a word and flowing letter shapes which allow the pen to move easily and continuously is much more efficient and the time saved was important to business and governments. Cursive started with professional scribes or "embossers" as they were called in the 18th century.

Oddly enough, widespread penmanship was given a big boost by the development of copperplate engraving which enabled the production of copybooks. Penmanship manuals could then be printed in large number and used to teach people how to write. The spread of literacy, which was originally limited to monks and a few highly trained laypeople, was suddenly possible. Mandatory education, along with the inexpensive copybooks which could be purchased nationwide, advanced literacy tremendously.

There are several cursive scripts which were widely taught in schools throughout the United States. The first wide-spread cursive penmanship instruction was the Spencerian handwriting system named after Platt Rogers Spencer who established a chain of business schools in the mid-1800s. His recommended looping script can still be seen in the Coca-Cola logo. In the early 1900s Austin Norman Palmer introduced a "plain and rapid style" of cursive writing. By 1912, a million copies of the Palmer textbook had been sold. Later cursive manuals included styles propagated by Zaner-Bloser and the rival D'Nealian method.

With the increased use of computers, typing has become the dominant mode of recording information and typed scripts are block letter forms rather than cursive. As school curriculums change to meet the demand for future employees who are computer savvy, cursive writing is being taught less and less.

However, if one needs to read documents produced in earlier time periods, one needs to be able to decipher cursive writing. Particularly if one researches historical documents for any reason, being able to read cursive writing is essential. Transcriptions of these documents frequently contain errors and being able to read the original is a useful skill.

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