A Bold Claim Against Father Spencer

In the history of American penmanship, no figure has remained so beloved, nor enchanted the minds of penmen more than Platt Rogers Spencer (1800-1864). Celebrated—even worshiped—long after his death, his reputation as an innovator, ultimately earning him the title “the father of American penmanship,” endures today. Of the numerous accounts of Platt Rogers’s life, none would be complete without mention of his humble beginnings, his natural eye for letterform, despite not being able to afford even a single sheet of paper, and his untiring his zeal for the pen. Much of the rest of the story of Spencer’s life centers on his years as a traveling writing master, teaching students the art of penmanship using specimens of his own unique script.

The history of Spencerian Script as it is known today, however, arguably doesn’t begin until the last few decades of Platt Rogers’s life. Indeed, despite having been recognized for his singular efforts as a young man, and later highly regarded as a penman and teacher, he was relatively slow to begin growing the actual commercial empire that impacted the course of American business education in the nineteenth century. By the mid 1850s, however, Spencer was experiencing great commercial success, despite having only published his first work on penmanship in 1848, when he was 48 years old. Through his efforts and the help of his sons, the Spencerian system of penmanship became a standard curriculum at institutions for business education around the country. An avid and well-respected public speaker, it was during this period that he would have had many opportunities to deliver lectures to students, educators, penmen, and the like. One in particular was titled Origin and Progress of the Art of Writing, or Chirography. The lecture is preserved today, included by his sons as an appendix to the posthumous volume, Spencerian Key to Practical Penmanship (1866), so that “many who had heard him deliver it, and were personally acquainted with him, would be glad to recognize it here.” [1] There can be little doubt that it was well received by those who heard it.

Its academic tone notwithstanding, the lecture is full of Spencer-esque charm. Excerpts of poetry appear throughout its pages, some by Spencer himself. Many who were aware of Spencer’s renown as a teacher would have been delighted by these bits of original verse, which were known to have been a unique feature of his tutelage at the Jericho Log Seminary. [2]

To light the school-boy’s head, to guide his hand,
And to teach him what to practice when a man
To give to female taste the symmetry it loves,
Bud, leaf, and flower, for letters, her chaste mind approves. [3]

Others would have certainly been captivated by the romantic origin stories of Spencer’s script, as they heard the oft-told descriptions of “the pebbles displaced by the little waves” and tales of how he devised his letters by “selecting from nature the elliptic curve or form which nature most delights to employ.” This point of the lecture was Spencer’s moment to shine, which he did with characteristic poetic flair, concluding that “the earth with all its beauteous forms, the stars that adorn heaven's broad arch, are the vast fund from which we blend the magic tracings of the pen.” [4]

During the course of the lecture Spencer’s audiences would have also been treated to a rather lengthy exposition on the “divine origin” of writing, its history, and its progress through to the present day. [5] If even the most dedicated of followers had nodded off at this point (and reading it today, we might forgive them,) all ears would have been on Spencer for what he said next: “Having thus spoken of the origin and history of writing, we come now in the course of our remarks to a consideration of Practical Writing.” [6] Everyone in attendance (and none, perhaps, more than Spencer himself) would have been eagerly awaiting what followed: an explanation of the actual mechanics of the revolutionary “Semi-angular Spencerian System of Commercial, Epistolary, and Record Writing” (as it is referred to it in the lecture)—and the key to Platt Rogers’s own exceptional script: “Practical Writing…is the art of forming letters, and combining and arranging them into syllables, words, lines and sentences, by a series of marks or forms, executed by the movement of the whole arm, forearm, hand, and fingers.” [7]

This statement would seem to define what we know as “Spencerian”—a system that found success, according to Michael Sull, because it “exhibited a marked contrast” to older handwriting systems in its use of arm movement to produce letters faster and with more grace. [8] Indeed, the following idea, posed by Sull, is so familiar that it has become a kind of mantra for modern devotees of Spencerian: “While Copperplate was executed rather slowly, with dextrous finger movement, Spencer produced his writing with a free swinging whole-arm movement, using the fingers only to a limited extent with the lowercase letters.” [9]

At this point in the lecture, Spencer addressed what could be considered another hallmark of his system: “Two things are essential to skill in this art: first, a knowledge of the forms and proportions of the letters; second, the power of executing them.” [10] The idea of having an equal command of both the form of a letter and its manner of execution was a recurring theme in nineteenth and early twentieth century penmanship theory. Students were expected to not only train their muscles, through carefully designed exercises, but also train their eye, through the analysis of letterforms. The importance of forming a correct mental image of a letter before learning to write it is emphasized, as would be expected, in the Spencerian Key: “every defect of conception will show a corresponding defect of execution.” [11] Several decades later Charles Paxton Zaner adopted this same concept in his own system of business penmanship. Here it appears, delightfully alliterative, in The Arm Movement Method of Rapid Writing: “Form without freedom is of little value, and freedom without form is folly.” [12]

Most interesting, however, is Zaner’s maxim in Lessons in Ornamental Penmanship (1909) in which he echoed the actual words from Spencer’s lecture. “Two things are essential in the execution of superior penmanship. They are perception and performance. The hand can not well perform that which the mind does not perceive.” [13] We can’t know for sure if Zaner was consciously quoting Spencer here. The idea was certainly not unique at the time. But if Zaner was thinking of anyone, it could very well have been Spencer, considering the way his life, words, and ideas were all but immortalized by his sons well into the 1880s with every Spencerian publication that came after their father’s death.

“Immortal” is not an exaggeration when it comes to Platt Rogers and his legacy. From the time his system of penmanship gained popularity in the United States in the 1850s, few have questioned his authority—even fewer in the last several decades as the calligraphy world has embraced a rediscovery of the so-called “Golden Age of American Penmanship,” and of its beloved patriarch. In the middle of the twentieth century, however, when the Spencerian style had been long out of vogue, and decades before it was accepted into the calligraphic canon, as it were, there were historians of American penmanship such as Ray Nash, who were decidedly cautious in affirming any particularly virtuous reasons for Spencer’s success.

Nash, an important researcher of American copybooks and their authors, (and a bit of a Spencer skeptic) took the great “originator” to task in his book, American Penmanship 1800-1850, over a century after Spencer first delivered the Origin lecture. He observed that Spencer’s remarks about “Practical Writing”—those crucial words about form, proportion, and movement (as well as several successive paragraphs) were not actually written by Spencer at all. According to Nash, the Origin lecture was “largely derived from earlier authors with whole chunks of Foster’s writings lifted verbatim and no credit given.” (emphasis mine.) [14] This is a bold claim, indeed, to call out the Father of American Penmanship for overt plagiarism; it begs for further investigation.

The “Foster” in this instance was Benjamin Franklin Foster (1803-1859), a highly successful teacher of penmanship and a contemporary of Platt Rogers Spencer. Early in his career, Foster, an American, was an exponent of the system of the English writing master Joseph Carstairs, though he later disassociated himself with it. [15] As a writer on penmanship, Foster was extremely prolific, and published and sold his copybooks in England and France, as well as America—an achievement unheard of for American penmanship authors at that time. After putting out a small pamphlet in 1828, Foster published his first proper writing manual two years later, Practical Penmanship being a development of the Carstarian system (1830). [16]

It is this book that contains the passages in question from Spencer’s Origin lecture. Despite making such a strong accusation, Nash directly referenced neither the source nor the specific content of what Spencer lifted from Foster; a little sleuthing, however, reveals the matching paragraphs:

From “Origin and Progress of the Art of Writing, or Chirography, by Platt Rogers Spencer, in Spencerian Key to Practical Penmanship (1866), 167.

Practical Writing…is the art of forming letters, and combining and arranging them into syllables, words, lines and sentences, by a series of marks or forms, executed by the movement of the whole arm, forearm, hand, and fingers.

Two things are essential to skill in this art: first, a knowledge of the forms and proportions of the letters; second, the power of executing them.

Nothing can be more apparent, on the slightest examination of the subject, than that both these requisites are indispensably necessary to good penmanship. If a person be deficient in a just apprehension of the proper forms or imagery of the art, although he may possess the most inimitable freedom and ease, in the use of the pen, his performance will be unsatisfactory, from its want of just proportion and symmetry of parts. If he be lacking in the power of execution, however correct the form of each particular letter may be, there will be no freedom or grace in the general aspect of his writing.

When a man would speak well, he must first conceive clearly the ideas which he desires to express; and if he would write well, he must have distinctly impressed on his mind, the characters which he means to exhibit. To illustrate the second essential of good writing, viz., power of execution, by the same analogy, however just and clear a man’s conceptions may be, if his utterance be labored, slow, and timid, his discourse will be imperfect and unsatisfactory; in like manner, if the letters be well formed, but combined and arranged without ease of gracefulness, the writing will never be thought beautiful or pleasing. 

From Practical Penmanship being a development of the Carstairian system, by Benjamin Franklin Foster (1830), 33-34.

Practical Penmanship is the art of forming letters with a pen, and joining them into words by an uninterrupted series of marks, executed by the combined movements of the arm, hand and fingers.

Two things are essential to skill in this art.

I. A knowledge of the forms and proportions of the Letters.
II. The power of executing these Letters on paper.

It must be apparent, on the slightest examination of the subject, that both the above requisites, are indispensable to make a good penman. If a person be deficient in the first, although he may possess the most inimitable freedom and ease in the use of the pen, his performance will displease and disgust, from its want of just proportion and symmetry of parts. If he is wanting in the second, however correct the form of each particular letter, there will be no freedom or grace in the general aspect of his writing.

When a man would speak well, he must first conceive clearly the idea which he desires to express; and if he would write well, he must have distinctly painted on his mind the characters which he means to put on paper.

And to illustrate the second essential of good writing by the same analogy, however just and clear a man’s conceptions may be, if his utterance be slow and timid, his discourse will be imperfect and unsatisfactory; in like manner if his letters be most nicely formed, but combined without ease or gracefulness, the writing will never be thought beautiful, or even pleasing.

Foster’s book was published in 1830, but Spencer’s lecture is not dated. It appears to only exist in print in the Spencerian Key, which was published in 1866, and in the introduction, the authors only indicate that it was “prepared by Prof. P.R. Spencer some years ago.” [17] How can we know unequivocally that Foster wrote these words first? First, we can infer the date of the lecture based on the timeline of Spencer’s professional life. Though he was active as a teacher of penmanship from the time he was quite young, in the late 1830s Spencer was still teaching as an itinerant instructor in local schools, distributing handwritten copy slips to students for them to study. It wasn’t until 1848, following his first collaborative publishing effort, Spencer & Rice’s system of business penmanship, that he began to garner widespread attention, nearly two decades after Foster came out with Practical Penmanship. In the early 1850s Spencer became involved in the successful chain of Bryant & Stratton business colleges, and in 1852 opened the first Spencerian Commercial College in Pittsburgh, PA. It is reasonable to assume that Spencer’s Origin lecture dates from this time. [18]

There is some direct evidence favoring Foster in the lecture itself, as well. In the course of charting what he sees as the progress of modern writing, Spencer names a number of prominent past and contemporary writing masters and remarks generally on their copybooks. [19] Referencing Ray Nash’s comprehensive bibliography of copybooks in American Penmanship, it is easy to see that the most recent author named by Spencer is Marcus Root, whose earliest publication was in 1842. Thus, it is safe to assume that Spencer’s lecture is no older than that and is therefore the copycat.

This case is certainly a curiosity in light of all that we know—or think we know—about Platt Rogers Spencer as an original, pioneering mind. It also seems strange that Spencer didn’t go to any great length to hide the fact that these were Foster’s words. He clearly made some effort to change the wording of certain phrases while others he left blatantly verbatim. One might ask, why copy these passages? Is there really anything in them so distinctive that Spencer could not have easily written himself? It is unlikely that after the first nine pages the eloquent and prolific Spencer found himself at a loss for words. One could argue, however, that if the words themselves didn’t have much worth to Spencer, then perhaps the theories expressed in them did.

The business of penmanship in the nineteenth century was extremely competitive, and it was normal for authors to claim sole credit for the ideas they published, even though very few of these ideas could truly be ascribed to one person. As Ross Green says in his introduction to William E. Henning’s An Elegant Hand: The Golden Age of American Penmanship and Calligraphy, “In the history of calligraphy, amazing ‘discoveries’ can rarely be attributed to any individual scribe.” [20] Indeed, the evolution of script, like spoken language, could be said to depend more on common practice, than on theory. It is more accurate to say that nineteenth century copybook authors adapted and codified, rather than invented, the script styles and writing techniques that were already in existence.

Such was the case with arm movement writing. I tend to agree with Green that though Platt Rogers Spencer is often erroneously credited with “discovering these special movement techniques,” they had in fact been around for centuries. [21] As a systematized technique, arm movement-based penmanship, which reached its zenith around the turn of the twentieth century with the methods of Palmer, Zaner & Bloser, and others, can be traced back at least as far as as the beginning of the nineteenth century, with James Henry Lewis’s system of shorthand—aptly named The Flying Pen (1806) [22] and Joseph Carstairs’s Lectures on the Art of Writing (1814).

While the respective dates of these publications might seem to obviate any question of attribution of arm movement penmanship, the circumstances surrounding Carstairs and Lewis prove otherwise. Although Carstairs never claimed to have invented the technique of writing with the arm, only that he observed the practice among business penmen of the day [23] (much like A.N. Palmer did in the 1880s,) he did purport to be the pedagogical authority on the subject, and firmly attached his name to his method. Lewis on the other hand, who also reported to have witnessed arm movement in common business practice, maintained that he was the first to invent a system around the technique and that Carstairs plagiarized his work. He passionately (and more than a little dramatically) inveighed against “the schemes of that arch-imposter, Mr. Carstairs” in a series of affidavits that were printed at the opening of his book The Royal Lewisian System of Penmanship from 1816. [24] The simple fact that Carstairs, and not Lewis, is now a household name should make it clear who eventually won the fight, though whether he did for the right reasons is another question—one that so far hasn’t been fully answered; Ross Green relegated the mysterious controversy to a footnote only [25] and Stanley Morison, in American Copybooks: An Outline of their History from Colonial to Modern Times (1951) cautioned that “too much notice should not be taken of the accusation, since Lewis was fond of railing against his colleagues” and left it at that. [26]

Whether or not Carstairs’s originality was genuine, his published work, and the fashion of arm movement writing found their way to America through disciples such as Benjamin Foster, and were eventually adopted, as we have seen, by Platt Rogers Spencer. This pedigree was not unknown to contemporary writers, as this uncredited piece from the Penman’s Art Journal in 1877 shows; here the author suggests that Spencer’s and Carstairs’s movement methods were simply two names for the same thing. 

The second movement is the muscular or fore-arm. By some teachers it is called the Spencerian, by others the Carstairian, being so called after the names of two of its most noted and skillful teachers and advocates; this movement is obtained by resting the fleshy or muscular part of the fore-arm upon the desk, and then by simply contracting or relaxing the muscles of the fore-arm a very rapid, graceful and tireless motion is imparted to the hand and pen; [27]

(It is interesting to note that only a decade or so after this was printed, some writers would begin referring to this very same technique by the name of its newest teacher and advocate, A. N. Palmer!)

Foster “set the stage,” for Spencer, as Ross Green puts it, in other ways as well. In 1827 he opened Foster’s Commercial School in Boston and with it founded one of the first models of the quintessential nineteenth century “business college” and its standard curriculum of penmanship, bookkeeping, and accounting skills. [28] Spencer was, from 1852 onward, heavily involved in promoting the growth of such institutions around the country, but the basic concept of a commercial school would have been fairly well established by that time. Nevertheless, the founding of new schools, as well as the honorable passion behind the effort, have become oft-quoted achievements of the trailblazing Spencer. For example, Michael Sull states in Spencerian Script and Ornamental Penmanship,

It is unfortunate that Spencer is least known for his significant role in establishing the first commercial and business colleges in America. It was his intention to prepare students practically for the business world, with an education that combined artistic discipline—as taught in his writing system—with other skills necessary to enter the commercial community. [29]

While it is easy today to see Foster as having had an undeniable influence on Spencer, he may have been viewed by Spencer as a competitor more than anything else (or at the very least, a convenient source of verbiage...) In any case, Foster’s name is not only omitted from Spencer’s list of contemporary penmen in the Origin lecture, it is, as Ross Green says, “curiously absent” from the well known names mentioned in other Spencerian literature as well. [30]

Just how curious this fact is however, is debatable in light of Spencer’s appropriation of Foster’s words. And while it is not certain whether there was any bad blood between the two men, it is not out of the realm of possibility, considering how critical Foster could be of his fellow penmen and copybook authors. In 1854 he published a book entitled Writing and Writing Masters: the Principles of the Former Developed, and the Fallacies of the Latter Exposed, in which he denounced any penman whom he felt to be guilty of outright quackery. He even seems to have caught on to Carstairs, whose wisdom he once exalted! “The inventor of this marvelous system claims great credit for originality; but these claims, as I shall show, rest on a very sandy foundation.” [31]

According to Ray Nash, Foster’s critical pen once touched the name of a former student of Platt Rogers Spencer, and a highly regarded Spencerian associate, James Lusk, but in a handwritten footnote in Writing and Writing Masters that was later amended before publication to avoid naming names. Prior to the redaction, Foster wrote that he was “credibly informed” that a number of penmanship teachers, including Lusk, were misleadingly displaying specimens of ornamental writing that were not their own work at the entrance to their studios. [32] Assuming the uncensored version was never seen by the public, there is no reason to assume any connection between Foster’s discrediting of Lusk and any possible ill-feeling from Spencer, but it makes for intriguing speculation…

Such quarreling among professional penmen was not unusual during this period and the Spencer family was certainly not immune to it. In fact Platt Rogers Spencer and his sons were entwined in a dispute over alleged plagiarism (à la Carstairs and Lewis) with the penman Alvin R. Dunton and his associates. In this case, however, the debate was not over who originated a technique, but who invented a style of script itself. Dunton accused Spencer of stealing his script because his published specimens in The Duntonian System of Penmanship appeared in 1843, five years before Spencer’s copy slip collaboration with Victor Rice. [33]

Again, the word “inventor” is almost impossible to apply in the case of script style. It is unreasonable to assume that either Dunton or Spencer created their scripts from scratch—in a vacuum, isolated from all outside influence. The most that can be realistically determined about the situation now is, as Morison concludes, that Dunton was likely “an early and independent practitioner of very much the same kind of hand that Spencer made popular, i.e., a flourished, elongated, and heavily shaded script.” [34]

The controversy carried on after Platt Rogers’s death. By then Spencer’s sons were at odds with the firm of Payson, Dunton, and Scribner—the Dunton in this case being Alvin’s brother Seldom Dunton, after Alvin’s relationship with the others dissolved due to an internal dissension. [35] The feud yielded passionately-titled statements from both parties, such as Reply of Payson, Dunton, and Scribner to the Absurd Claims of the Spencerian Authors to Originality and P.R. Spencer defended by his Sons. [36]

If the enduring fame of Spencerian Script is any indication, Spencer was indeed defended—and vindicated—by his sons. They succeeded by shrewdness in business—continuing to publish, as well as expand and improve upon the original system—and by unfettered glorification of Platt Rogers’s name:

Nearly fifty years ago, in the wilds of the Great West, ‘a youth to fortune and to fame unknown,’ but who was conscious of his powers, made the sublime resolution to rescue from its undeserved obscurity the practical Art of Writing. He seems to have been expressly created for the high commission which he was called upon to execute; for his organization was almost femininely fine and subtle, his temperament was strongly poetic, his love for the beautiful, whether in Nature or Art, amounted to an ecstatic passion, and his whole nature was emotional and sympathetic…And so he wrought, patiently and persistently, until at length the representation of his hand were as pure and chaste and beautiful as the peerless conceptions of his mind. [37]

Such romanticization of Spencer’s humble, prodigious youth went hand in hand with the notion that he grew up to become a true originator, which persisted in the public imagination in the decades after his death. This testimony from the Penman’s Art Journal, for example, suggests that the Spencerian system set a new standard for movement writing.

The beautiful forms that constitute the [Spencerian] system, would have become a dead letter practically, had they not been accompanied by the instructions on movement, position and pen-holding. Other inventors have followed him, but the nearer their systems conformed to the Spencerian, the better they were considered. The inventors of all systems have to use his instructions on movement. [38]

It would not be an exaggeration to say that our warm feeling for Platt Rogers Spencer and our pride in a truly American script have been in large part shaped (not impartially) by the direct heirs to his legacy—not only his children, but his students and disciples as well. That is understandable, given the overwhelming success of the Spencerian system, but it is worth listening as well to the voices of the skeptics, like Morison, who was not so quick to laud Spencer with what he thought to be undeserved praise. Morison believed ultimately that Dunton deserved the credit for developing what he called the “American Mercantile Hand,” and that “the Spencerian plagiarism” became the American standard of penmanship simply because of the sheer manpower of Spencer’s loyal and business-savvy brood. [39] And while he stops far short of Morison’s determination of plagiarism on the part of Spencer, Michael Sull does admit (quietly, in a footnote) that the reason “Duntonian” did not become America’s national script could have been simply because his Spencerian competitors were better salesmen: “The caliber of Dunton’s work was actually of a higher artistic nature than Spencer’s. Indeed, one may surmise that to a significant extent, not the actual penmanship style, but rather, the marketing system of each penman is what shaped the destiny of their writing systems.” [40]

Without further research it is not possible to draw any new conclusions here about the respective fates of the Duntonian and Spencerian systems. Both men have left us beautiful and unique scripts, but questions surrounding their origin still remain. Indeed, if this article has encouraged more questions than answers, then I feel it has succeeded. It is not my intent simply to poke a few holes in our current historiography (nor to call out Platt Rogers Spencer for academic dishonesty!) Rather, I hope to encourage a thoughtful debate about the way this period of penmanship history is portrayed in our century. Have we attempted an objective examination of an era or merely celebrated it? Have we allowed our fascination with a perceived “Golden Age” to diminish factual substance? Have we confused storytelling with scholarship?

If these questions, or simply the idea of a few misplaced names and attributions seems irrelevant to the average enthusiast or practitioner of script, then I wish to propose a new perspective: When we share this hobby with others and invite them into our curious world of pens, nibs, and ink, we are literally writing down the history of Spencer, Dunton, Foster, and countless others—the lives they lived and the scripts they penned. We have a responsibility to ensure that the history realistically reflects both what we know—and what we have yet to know.

It is my hope that those of us who are truly “in pursuit of penmanship” might be reminded that there will always be more to the story—a larger picture not yet visible through our current historical lens. My cursory research has not even begun to reveal that picture; it will take widespread dedication to continued scholarship, and more importantly, a willingness to cast doubt and challenge our preconceptions. Without it, we risk perpetuating an overly-simplistic, fossilized narrative rather than a living, breathing, and truly compelling history of American Penmanship.

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