Both of my parents had lovely handwriting. They were highly accomplished with beautiful lettering skills they kept for their entire lives. It was not that common for men to have good handwriting so my father’s was particularly impressive. I love to read the notes and letters and photo captions each of them wrote.
Penmanship it was called back in their day. What a lovely word….penmanship!
When I was a girl, we were taught penmanship in school. Writing class was one of my favourite courses and I was very good at it. After we learned the fundamentals of printing in Grade one, we moved right into cursive writing.
Legible handwriting and even more importantly beautiful handwriting was praised and rewarded. We were told good handwriting would ensure us excellent jobs, a better social class and a successful future. Poor handwriting would result in the worst possible outcomes, bad company and very likely jail. The nuns never quibbled with their messaging.
We were taught handwriting with a straight pen and nib. A bottle of ink fit into a small hole in the upper corner of the desk. It was assumed that everyone was right handed. A wooden straight pen, a package of nibs, indelible navy-blue ink and blotting paper were part of the core school supplies we got at the beginning of the year.
Learning to control the pressure on the nib, while scratching words across paper, avoiding any tiny flaws in the paper that could cause your nib to stick and jam up and then spray ink across the stark white paper, and controlling the flow of ink were daunting tasks for little hands. If you pressed too hard on the nib, it would split and cause a wide swathe of ink to flow across the page. Or you would get a ghost as the two sides of the nib mirrored your letters. If you did not press hard enough your letters would only be partially formed or wobbly.
Dipping the pen into the ink and allowing just the right amount of ink to cling to the nib was another challenge and took much practice. Too much ink and you ended up with huge blobs of ink that pooled and ran and spread everywhere and once again spoiled the flawless paper under your hand, obscuring all your efforts in a single moment. No amount of blotting paper would save you. Too little ink and your letters would fade away before you could finish writing a whole word. Words that faded in and out were frowned upon.
One very crucial point was that the ink was indelible. That meant permanent. As in it permanently ruined clothes, books, other books, sweater sleeves…well, pretty much everything in sight and then some. So the hazards of getting the right amount of ink on the nib, and from the bottle to the page and nowhere else was often as challenging or more challenging than learning to write in the first place.
Lined paper helped us write in a straight line and keep our sentences from slowly dribbling down the page or conversely running uphill. Letters had to be round and full with the attending curls and tails and dots and crosses. Little tiny writing was seen as a act of cowardliness, like trying to shrink out of sight or shirk your duties.
Upper case letters – the Capitals – were special and used to begin a sentence, spell out names and otherwise emphasize important words. They were double the size of the lower case letters.
The lower case letters that looped below the line – f and g and j, p, q and y and z – had their own set of rules and needed careful attention to insure the loops were lovely and elongated, not squished though, and not too short, not too long.
We were taught to write the entire word and then go back to dot the i or cross the t. It was imperative to have a sweeping flow from the first letter to the last. And those dots and crosses were treacherous. You usually had to go back into the ink bottle at that point and getting just that touch of ink for the dot or wisp of a cross were tricky and hazardous. You never knew when a nib would betray you and just dump ink everywhere. A blob of ink could wipe out all the lovely flow and sweep…and often did!
We practiced these letters for hours in class and for those of us that really loved hand writing, we practiced endlessly at home. At some point, everyone…well, mostly the girls really…experimented with drawing circles for the dots on i and j. Some drew little hearts instead of dots. Or little stars. But those frivolities were frowned upon by the sober and strict nuns who taught us and anyone sporting those frills was given a good telling off and never awarded any accolades for their handwriting. No no! None of that silliness!
The best reward for us keeners of course was seeing our work displayed on the bulletin board or better yet showcased in the hallway during parent teacher interviews. And getting an A+ on your report card always looked impressive even if it was not in math or science.
It did not take long for us to begin to add more embellishments though. Long sweeping curls at the end of a word. Elaborate capitol letters at the beginning of a sentence. These were permitted in very special cases, to label things or perhaps in creative writing submissions. And really, the bible was full of fanciful lettering so there was always that to fall back on!
Of course our own signatures were endlessly practiced and stylized and designed and redesigned. No one dared criticize your signature replete with so many curls and tails and dots and stylish crosses that it was almost impossible to read. I mean it was your own personal name and you were welcome to pen it as you wished.
The pen, nib and ink stage disappeared very quickly as ballpoint pens came into vogue and even my sisters who were a few years behind me in school were not subjected to the joys and sorrows of ink blotched homework, finicky nibs and ink stained fingers.
But all the efforts put in to carefully forming our letters, joining them together and adding our own flourishes would stay with us for most of our lives. Good penmanship once learned was not forgotten. Today, cursive has all but disappeared and the art of calligraphy is the only place you really see the subtle skills and careful crafting of letters.
Unless you have saved some of those lovely handwritten letters from a bygone era, like the notes my mother and father left behind. Or like me, your love of penmanship never left you!