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When history and penmanship go hand in hand

Benjamin Bartgis (Photo by Wilson Freeman)
Benjamin Bartgis (Photo by Wilson Freeman)

With computers, tablets and cellphones, handwriting seems as if it’s becoming a lost art. Benjamin Bartgis is helping to keep it alive. Scheduled to appear at the Jane Austen Summer Program, the conservation technician has a particular interest in historical penmanship.

Bartgis,  author of the Napoleonic Tars: 1790-1820 blog, grew up in rural West Virginia and has lived in Annapolis, Md., since attending St. John’s College. The school has a traditional Great Books curriculum that is “a similar education to what a young man would have studied at a college in the Regency period,” Bartgis says.

Can you tell me a little about your profession? My specialty is book conservation, with a focus on 18th-century ledger bindings. In my spare time I teach workshops on the material culture of literacy in the long 18th century, including blankbooks, stationery supplies such as wafer seals and inks, and penmanship.

What made you interested in learning historical penmanship? I became interested in learning historical penmanship after working with a lot of 18th-century court records at my first book conservation internship. I later took a course on early modern English paleography with Dr. Heather Wolfe at the Folger Institute in Washington, D.C., which included a practical day where we could try our hand at writing with quills using iron gall ink, and I became interested in acquiring historic handwriting of my own. Since I reenact the War of 1812, developing a round hand seemed like a logical choice.

How did you learn to write in such a way? I learned to write much in the way that John Locke recommends in his 1693 treatise “Some Thoughts Concerning Education”: "The way to teach [a child] to write without much trouble, is to get a plate graved with the characters of such a hand as you like best… Such a plate being graved, let several sheets of good writing-paper be printed off with red ink, which he has nothing to do but go over with a good pen fill’d with black ink, which will quickly bring his hand to the formation of those characters, being at first shewed where to begin, and how to form every letter. And when he can do that well, he must then exercise on fair paper; and so may easily be brought to write the hand you desire."

I picked a hand that I liked (in this case a journal kept by an ancestor between 1813 and 1819 that had been digitized and put online), made photocopies, and referred to them whenever I wrote, keeping exemplars at my desk at work and in my commonplace book.

Stationery supplies (Courtesy of Benjamin Bartgis)
Stationery supplies (Courtesy of Benjamin Bartgis)

Why do you think it is important to keep the tradition alive? Although I don’t think old-fashioned handwriting is of much practical importance, it’s a beautiful art form and fun and inexpensive skill to learn, like riding a horse or cooking over an open fire. Good penmanship is really satisfying to acquire, and it always makes you stand out. It can also help make reading period documents easier.

Can you tell me a little about penmanship in this time period? Would only the upper-class have known how to write in such a way? How was it taught? Before the 1920s penmanship was taught several years after children learned how to write. While most children in England were given at least a cursory education in reading between ages 4 to 6, writing education didn’t start till about age 9 or 10, when the child had developed the manual dexterity to manipulate a quill pen. Hence there was a disconnect in reading and writing, and upper-class children were far more likely to acquire the ability to write as well as read.

Regardless of class, all children learned the same way: with a quill pen, learning what we would call cursive. The print-to-script method was developed in the early 20th century to allow children to master the art of writing at a younger age: “print” handwriting mirrors “printed” words, not handwritten ones. A child would be given either a handwritten or copperplate-printed exemplar with blank space underneath — much like the ones we all grew up with — and practice copying letters, words, phrases, and form letters over and over again, usually for years before individual expression was allowed. There was an enormous social stigma against having bad handwriting, so people who didn’t have the luxury to develop good handwriting often wouldn’t write except for private books.

Penmanship supplies (Courtesy of Benjamin Bartgis)
Penmanship supplies (Courtesy of Benjamin Bartgis)

What’s the important thing to remember when learning historical penmanship? The most important thing to remember when learning historic penmanship is PRACTICE. Regency people had been practicing their handwriting since they were children and we’re trying to improve decades of bad habits as adults, which makes it a lot harder to make that muscle memory stick. It takes years of regular practice, and you’ll still need to refer to an exemplar every few weeks if your handwriting starts to “drift”. The second-most important thing to remember is to not give up!

What are you looking forward to the most in coming to the Jane Austen Summer Program? I’m most looking forward to the ball. I really like dancing and can’t wait to wear my new linen tailcoat.



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