Your Cart is Empty

Adventures in American Penmanship: Why Spencerian Calligraphy is Important

by Tona Bell January 05, 2018 3 min read

1 Comment

Adventures in American Penmanship: Why Spencerian Calligraphy is Important

In February 2018, The Paper Seahorse brings master penman Michael Sull to Tampa for four intensive workshops on handwriting, Introduction to Spencerian Script, Off-Hand Flourishing, and Ornamental Penmanship (Advanced Spencerian).

The workshops are arranged in order of increasing complexity and advanced practice, starting with American Cursive, a 3-hour workshop designed to help attendees improve their everyday handwriting skills. Beginning Spencerian is an introduction to the 19th century script used in official correspondence prior to the widespread use of the typewriter and the de-facto American standard writing style from about 1850 to 1925.

Off-Hand Flourishing is all about the special embellishments in and around Spencerian script that made official documents and certificates so elegant, like cartouches, scrolls, quills, title flourishing, and bird designs.

The last and most advanced workshop is Ornamental Penmanship, a follow-up to Beginning Spencerian. Attendees will learn to transform the script into works of fanciful, old-world art, using techniques like spiraled curves, emphatic capitalization, and negative space enhancement.

What is Spencerian Script?

Before the laptop, word-processor, and typewriter, there was Spencerian handwriting. From 1850 on, it was the default for official documents, correspondence, and legal certificates. Uniquely American, it was developed to standardize the style of script used across the growing country when the national population was only 17 million.

Spencerian was at the time and is still today cherished for its improved speed and efficiency and precise slanted style of liquid shapes, meant to mimic nature and be pleasing to the eye.

Two notable corporate logos remain today in the classic Spencerian style: Coca-Cola, and Ford Motor Company.

Why Spencerian Matters

As the first widely adopted American script style and a departure from those developed in Europe, Spencerian is part of our national identity. It’s an art form that requires practice, broad cognitive function, not unlike playing a musical instrument. It is wholly analog, in-the-present creation that many people now crave in our modern, instant-gratification world.

  • Beautiful, unique, and a skill to be built upon
  • Impressive as a hobby, party trick, and increasingly in-demand skill for signage design, wedding invitations, and other creative realms
  • A way to unplug, focus, use your hands, and express yourself creatively

Calligraphy vs. Handwriting

What differentiates calligraphy from “fancy” handwriting? Calligraphy incorporates special writing tools such as broad tips and brushes, and elevates handwriting to an art form. Calligrapher Katharine Scarfe Beckett expands on the definition of calligraphy in What is Calligraphy?


As technology rushes toward VR, AI, and the complete digitization of our lives, reverting back to “analog” methods presents a bevy of proven benefits. 

Many school curriculums have dropped handwriting and cursive instruction in favor of developing digital competencies, but handwriting will always be more authentic (a “signature”) and intentional (less editing ability) than typing on a keyboard or tapping on a screen.

Psychological studies have also linked handwriting to the positive development of fine motor skills. In learning to handwrite, the brain must locate each stroke relative to other stokes, learn and remember appropriate size, slant, and feature detail of each letter, and develop categorization skills. Cursive writing is even more valuable because it is more demanding than simple printing. Cursive is also faster and more likely to engage students to develop a personal style and ownership of their skill.

From Master Penman Michael Sull: "Handwriting is the intimate expression of emotions, wishes and dreams made visible on paper. Through this personal medium we have the privilege of sharing our humanity with everyone, or with no one at all. It is an intensely private occupation that can never be exactly duplicated, yet always reveals a glimpse of the writer’s soul.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85bqT904VWA (Why write? Penmanship for the 21st Century | Jake Weidmann | TEDxMileHigh)

Michael Sull

Michael Sull (born 1949) is an IAMPETH master penman and author living in Mission, Kansas, United States. An expert on penmanship, he was Ronald Reagan's calligrapher after his Presidency and is known worldwide for his skill and teaching ability. He regularly teaches handwriting, calligraphy, and engrossing programs throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.

Considered America’s foremost living Spencerian penman, he is author of Spencerian Script and Ornamental Penmanship, Learning to Write Spencerian Script, and American Cursive Handwriting, and publishes various other educational materials focusing on pen writing. He also manufactures period style oblique dip pen equipment for use by penmen today. —Wikipedia




1 Response

Valerie vanorden
Valerie vanorden

March 20, 2024

As much as I have enjoyed a flourishing love affair w Spencerian penmanship from 2011-2021 or 22, I now seek a hand tht the children of this present generation can read. Love Spencerian.

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.

Also in Succotash at the Studio

Using Creativity to Let Go of Digital Distractions
Using Creativity to Let Go of Digital Distractions

by Tona Bell November 28, 2023 1 min read

Read More
the new paradigm
the new paradigm

by Tona Bell July 01, 2023 7 min read 1 Comment

Read More
The Paper Seahorse I Love Cursive Contest: 2023
The Paper Seahorse I Love Cursive Contest: 2023

by Tona Bell January 23, 2023 4 min read 4 Comments

Read More