Penmanship: More Than Just Pretty Writing

There is nothing much I like more than searching through antique stores and flea markets for interesting relics of our past. I don’t usually buy much, but I do find myself attracted to strange bits of history in the form of paper ephemera. This includes old magazines, postcards, advertisements, letters, sheet music, greeting cards and the like. I often love the graphic design elements they include and what these bits and pieces of day-to-day life reflect about the times in which they were created.

Old paper ephemera can create a variety of responses in me—everything from joy, to amusement, to horror. These remnants of the past can, on the one hand, reflect the sweetness of simpler times, yet, on the other, show us at our worst. It doesn’t take much effort to notice the very biased, racist, and misogynistic content of old print media. Sometimes, it can seriously shock me. Recently, for example, I came across a magazine from 1937, which extoled the design sense of Adolph Hitler, and shared images from inside the home he had personally decorated. It was interesting that at the same time, this specific article did seem to project a sense of unease about his growing personal ambition and influence in Germany. To me, it is fascinating to see how our views can change on a dime. Only a few years later, he would be deemed a menace and a monster. No one would dare discuss his design skills after 1939, when he invaded Poland and started World War II.  

On the flip side, sometimes I find things that I think are very charming and positive. They reflect a time when there was perhaps more emphasis on personal ethics, kind manners, and considerate behaviors—the things that make society run a bit more smoothly and with greater ease and enjoyment.

During a recent search through a pile of old paper materials in the corner of an antique store basement, I found a very old (1884) book of penmanship exercises. This book was in remarkable condition, the ink not yet completely faded or hard to read. I was intrigued, so opened it up to have a closer look.

Inside the cover of the “Curtiss System Penmanship Course workbook, the owner, a Miss Edith Carll, had diligently filled in her lessons. Each page of the lesson book was topped by a saying, written in cursive. The students were expected to replicate the handwriting and the saying perfectly. Each saying had to be rewritten 18 times.

Here are some examples of the sayings in this old course book:

  • Dare to do your duty; let nothing hinder.
  • Better to be alone than in bad company.
  • Confidence is the companion of success.
  • Forget and forgive the faults of others.
  • Misfortunes make men more thoughtful.
  • No person was ever born wise or learned.
  • One hour a day is worth two tomorrow.
  • Suspicion is a poison to true friendship.
  • Truth and roses have thorns about them.

While requiring students to do their cursive lessons in this regimented manner might seem archaic (you should see the teacher’s instructions that accompany these lessons!), old school educators were in step with today’s research on the positive effects that learning cursive has on our brains. Writing by hand stimulates the brain in unique ways and encourages the retention of information in a more effective manner than typing on a keyboard.

According to, there are other benefits of learning to write cursive[1]:

1. A child may become a better speller.
Researchers found that elementary students who learn cursive are usually better spellers.

2. A child will likely be able to form words more easily.

Cursive encourages kids to visualize each letter as one united word, which makes it easier for children to remember — or memorize — the word they’re forming and writing. Researchers also note that kids are less likely to write letters backwards when writing in cursive.

3. A child could become a better writer overall.

Kids that write in cursive don’t just form words more easily, they also write better sentences.

In addition to the value of learning cursive writing, I like the idea of repetition in a lesson. As students are perfecting their cursive, they are also learning important concepts regarding personal behavior, self-mastery, and how to treat others. In these troubled times, these seem valuable to learn and think about on their own.

Many people are not being taught cursive in our schools anymore and this is truly a shame. We are robbing our students of the ability to learn more effectively, and to write better. We are even cheating them from the wonder of reading the letters that their loved ones and friends might send them. Finally, one wonders how we will be able to decipher historic documents and letters without these skills in future decades.

Let’s do what we can to support school districts in insisting that their students learn these basic handwriting skills. The benefits are enormous and, in some ways, incalculable. High-tech solutions are not always the answer. We need to know when one results in superior outcomes for students, and when it does not. Flexibility in application seems to be key.

[1]Here’s How Cursive Writing Practice Benefits Literacy, Scholastic, May 5, 2020. Retrieved on March 18, 2023, from