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Notes from the Archives: National Handwriting Day and the Palmer Method

January 23, 2018

It's National Handwriting Day! Did you take a penmanship class in school? Did you ever learn the Palmer Method?

Second Grade Writing lesson at the Samuel Howe School, circa 1923, chool Committee Secretary Reference files, File 20.01, Box 29, Collection 0405.007, Boston City Archives

Boston’s schools taught many different types of penmanship in the 18th and 19th century. For example, in 1897, Boston’s School Committee recorded that students across the City were learning the “Natural System of Vertical Writing,” “Merill’s Vertical Penmanship,” and "Spencerian Penmanship.”

In 1908, the School Committee decided that penmanship classes should be standardized across the district. The committee experimentally implemented the Palmer Method of Business Writing at all East Boston Schools. The experiment was a success. By 1911, all schools in the City taught the Palmer Method.

School Committee Secretary Reference files, File 20.01, Box 29, Collection 0405.007, Boston City Archives

As you can see in this article published by the Christian Science Monitor, the Palmer Method was thought to be “muscular.”  Teachers taught students to write using the muscles in their arms instead of the muscles in their fingers. Students strengthened their muscles and practiced forming uniform letters by doing exercises like the ones below.

Penmanship samples from various Boston Public Schools, circa 1923,  School Committee Secretary Reference files, File 20.01, Box 29, Collection 0405.007, Boston City Archives

The Palmer method was extremely strict.  Teachers not only expected students to produce uniform handwriting, but also expected that the students would hold their arms and fingers in exactly the same way. This posed a particular problem for left-handed students. Teachers typically forced all students to write with their right hand.

Letter from Mrs. P. McPherson to School Committee, April 3, 1918, chool Committee Secretary Reference files, File 20.01, Box 29, Collection 0405.007, Boston City Archives

In 1918, a mother wrote the above letter to the School Committee. She complained that a teacher kept her fourth grade daughter after school and forced her to write with her left hand. She received no sympathy from the committee.

Letter from Assistant Superintendent to Mrs. P. McPherson, April 5, 1918, chool Committee Secretary Reference files, File 20.01, Box 29, Collection 0405.007, Boston City Archives

Rather, the assistant superintendent of schools wrote to her, and stated “it is highly desirable that left-handed writers should be made right-handed.” He instructed the mother to “further the teacher’s efforts, as from long experience, I am convinced that left-handed penmen are at a disadvantage.”

The Palmer Method was used through the 1950s — and in some places, into the 1980s. Did any of you learn the Palmer Method?