Penmanship a.k.a. Handwriting

There was a time, many years ago, when penmanship was taught to elementary school children. It was part of the Three Rs – Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic. Young children are still taught to make joined letters in second, third, and fourth grades, but the prevailing theory of learning today preaches that what the children write is more important than how they do it. For teachers to interrupt the flow of a child’s ideas with technical advice is considered a mistake. Gone is the theory that precise penmanship indicates not just literacy, but refinement and social grace.
When I went to school the P.O. Peterson System of penmanship was practiced. Hours were spent on smoothing out circles and loops, slanting the letters just so, and always “Keeping Between the Lines.” We were encouraged by the daily announcement of “Round, round, ready write.” The writing class was first instructed how to slant the paper just so on the desk and then the proper way to hold the pencil. With the tips of the fingers resting on the writing surface the whole arm was used to form each letter. All the left-handed children were forced to write right-handed because the left hand is much more likely to accidentally rest on newly written surface causing smudging. Each letter had its own idiosyncrasies with the capital F and G being the hardest to master. Those students who followed the rules of penmanship eventually were awarded a Handwriting Certificate signed by Mr. Peterson.
Since the mid-twentieth century the business world has been dominated first by typewriters and then computers, diminishing the need for clerks and other office personnel to write neatly. Today executives dictate, while society women, who formerly carried on a copious correspondence of invitations and thank-you notes, use the phone. Friends correspond via e-mail, cell phone, or the modern day Blackberry. Just about every government form has little squares where the applicant is instructed to “print” each letter of your name and address. So why bother with penmanship? Well, have you ever tried to read a medical doctor’s prescription? Pity the poor post office workers who have to make out thousands of different combinations of forming letters and numbers.
This brings us back to Percy Orlando and Elizabeth Zelma Peterson, the brother and sister team from California, Pennsylvania. Graduating from Cal U in 1900, Percy launched his first business college in Greensburg and by 1908 he was franchising colleges in Scottsdale, New Castle and Punxatawny. Miss Elizabeth Peterson, ’01 was in charge of the shorthand and typewriting departments of the Peterson Business College. In an era when women were rarely given credit for business enterprises, Elizabeth was clearly ahead of her time.
The Petersons realized the need for teaching a “legible” hand at their business colleges. Again, being ahead of their time, the Petersons trained teachers to use a disciplined training model that integrated coordination of cognitive, auditory and motor functions. Their business prospered to the point of sending out a fleet of 40 cars with drivers to train teachers throughout the Mid-Atlantic States. Children in schools today continue to be trained in handwriting using the P.O. Peterson method thanks to the family-run business which is still located in Greensburg today and run by Charles “Chick” Trafford and Ed Bunting.
Did you ever wonder why Thomas Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration of Independence? Was it his ability of expression or was it his penmanship?