The Itinerate Penman

The Dying Art of Penmanship

It’s ironic really, that I’m typing an story about the dying art of penmanship. I had thought of handwriting it out on paper, scanning and posting here. My handwriting sucks and I’m too lazy. Plus, handwriting isn’t the same as penmanship. The pursuit of efficiency, is a small theme of this story. So how did I end up in a room listening to a man talk about penmanship? Well, it started with my curiosity of pens.

Pens out for ink writing tests at the San Francisco Pen Show

Through Instagram, I had heard of the San Francisco Pen Show, a gathering of collectors and enthusiasts of pens happening in Redwood City, CA. All kinds of pens, old, new, fountain, roller ball and ball point, you name it.

I am not a pen collector, but I do enjoy using them. I love taking notes, lots of notes, with pens. So with my Saturday free I decided it would be an interesting event to attend.

A few hours in and I am sitting in a small poorly decorated conference room at the Sofitel Hotel in Redwood City, CA. There are 7 people present, all listening to a man in Truman Capote style spectacles, bow-tie and checkered shirt, talk about the history of penmanship. Not handwriting. Penmanship. I’m frantically taking notes — with a limited edition brass pen , #105 of 186— which I had just purchased from one of the many dealers at the show for an amount I’m too embarrassed to say.

“The English style of cursive is stodgy and upright.” says Michael Sull our guest speaker. Just 15 minutes prior, I had learned that John Jenkins had come up with a way to write most of the alphabet with just seven strokes in hopes of making elegant handwriting plain and easy. This lead the way to everyone learning the same method of penmanship, and thus English Script was born. Mr. Sull goes on to say “But along comes Platt R. Spencer, who was inspired by nature to come up with an even faster more American style and so was born the Spencerian method of penmanship.” Fascinating.

Platt R. Spencer, creator of Spencerian penmanship

As it turns out, being good at penmanship meant good paying work. There were even colleges solely for learning the art of penmanship. Mr. Sull explains that Charles Paxton Zaner started the Zanerian College of Penmanship, where he taught a more streamlined Spencerian method that adapted to the real world and more practical for modern business documents and communication. This was 1888. People in the field were called “Itinerate Penman”, and it paid well.

Michael Sull, Master Penman

Mr. Sull went on to explain how penmanship college taught the complexities of cognitive and fine motor skills, pattern recognition, symbol assessment, even planning. This was the difference between knowing how to handwrite versus penmanship.

During the talk, I learn that Mr. Sull is one of the last true “Master Penmen” who is linked to the great Paul O’Hara, who graduated from Zaner College in 1909 under the tutelage of another master, Mr. Charles Paxton Zaner himself.

I raise my hand to ask the only question so far in the room: “What qualified you to be considered a Master Penman upon graduation?” He looks at me and states as a matter of fact: “We had to pen our own diplomas.” He goes on to explain that you were given a level of passing based on how well you penned your diploma, with the highest level being awarded “Master”, a title only given by another Master.

“It’s a dying art.” says Mr. Sull with a big sigh. In the need of efficiency, just as Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Zaner had sought in their methods to make penmanship better, the typewriter had reached a somewhat standardized design in 1910 and began to be a useful tool in the office. And as a result, over time, the Itinerate Penman would slowly be replaced by it’s efficiency.

The Nibsmith, Dan Smith repairing a nib at the San Francisco Pen Show

It’s been almost and hour and Mr. Sull winds down. He ends his talk by asking us if we know who wrote the Declaration of Independence. “Thomas Jefferson!” we all say in unison. “Wrong!” he fires back. Certainly Thomas Jefferson had authored the original draft with input from Franklin and Adams, but the final version, the so called “engrossed” version was penned in cursive by Timothy Matlack, considered a Master Penman, for $30 dollars. Ironically, he used English Roundhand script, more modernly known as Copperplate.

Spencerian Writing

I walk over to Mr. Sull and ask him if he could show me an example of his penmanship. “I’d be happy to.” he says, “I’ll pen your name.” We head down to the show floor, more like a large ballroom, with pen collectors and dealers scattered about and finally to his table where there are a group of about 6 people waiting for him. He’s like a rockstar here. He sits down and pulls out a sheet of paper, ink, a pen holder with a nib that sits just off to the side, and matches. He lights the match and places it underneath the nib, blows it out, then dips the nib in the ink — apparently it helps make the ink stick. He begins to write.

It’s not company ink.

As he slowly flows across the paper, there is no pause, just fluid motion as he presses and relieves the nib to create a variant of curves and lines. It’s beautiful to watch, the way he glides across the paper as my name slowly emerges.

For someone who remains the last link to the Master Penmen of a dying art, he doesn’t seem too concerned. He regularly teaches across the country and there are still a few Master Penmen who practice the art, a new generation of people who still make a living from their craft.

“Now wait till the ink dries before you tuck that away in your bag.” he says. I hold the piece of paper with two hands. I thank him for his time and walk the show floor looking at hundreds of various pens, even purchasing yet another one — a fountain pen, made out of machined copper and filled with Sailor’s Ink, the blackest of inks.

My name, in Spencerian Script. (Notice the dot over the “i”, like an ink drop)