Succotash at the Studio

The Story of Spencerian Script

For years, it was the way almost all Americans wrote. Whether in a letter, or a business proposal, or a personal diary, Spencerian and written communication were one and the same. Spencerian writing was so far-reaching and pervasive in American culture, it even made its way into the iconic logos of Ford and Coca Cola. How did Spencerian handwriting become one of the most recognizable and important parts of American life?

A Spencerian Story

It was the year 1800, and America was now several decades into its newly declared existence as an independent nation. While the American spirit was still fresh and fueling change, something significant had still been pervading its culture: the way people wrote.

At the time, the standard for all written correspondence in America was English script. A strictly uniform and consistent order of writing, it required stiff muscular and emotional restriction, allowing for almost no individual expression, and very little room for either artistic or personal style. It almost seemed symptomatic of the grievances Americans felt before declaring their independence from Great Britain.

The Birth of Spencerian Writing

Enter a man named Platt Rogers Spencer. Born in a small village 70 miles north of New York City, his hometown of East Fishkill at the time had still not been officially established. Today it’s just a little under a 30 minute drive from Poughkeepsie, its closest city neighbor.

Hopewell Junction
East Fishkill’s friendly little depot at Hopewell Junction

Born at the turn of the century, on November 7th, 1800, Spencer’s time of birth almost seemed symbolic of the changes soon to take over America.

Growing up, even as a young boy, Spencer was fascinated with the dense forests and foliage that surrounded his tiny, sparsely populated village. At the same time, he had been developing another seemingly unrelated passion: a strong fondness for writing. 

 Paper was difficult to obtain at the time, so Spencer looked for anything he could write on, and wrote fervently on what he found. Sand, ice, snow, the fly-leaves of his mother’s Bible, bark from the surrounding trees, he even talked his way into getting permission from a local cobbler to write on the leather in his shop.

By the time he was just 15, Spencer taught his first writing class, and for years after, he immersed himself in the study of penmanship. His early fascination with nature continued to accompany him in his journey, and slowly he began developing a style of handwriting inspired by his love of nature.

The man himself, Mister Platt Rogers Spencer

Spencer narrowed down his admiration for nature to four distinct aspects -  a sense of movement, curvature, variety, and contrast. It was because of these features, he decided, that nature appeared to be beautiful wherever you looked. Spencer strongly believed that God created nature, and that God created people. Logically, he thought, if nature could express itself so beautifully with these four facets, why couldn’t people, another one of God’s creations, express itself in the same way?

He began developing the bones of what would soon become his namesake writing system, and his most memorable accomplishment. Born from the beauty of nature and the human desire for self-expression, the system developed by Spencer was nothing short of revolutionary.

A Writing Revolution

For the first time, instead of being confined to the rigid restrictions of English script - with no variance in letters and size, and no personal expression - writers were now free to explore on paper with a writing system built on motion and contrasting features. Words on paper were no longer just words: they were artistic impressions. Writing was beautiful to look at, and engaging for both the writer and the reader. Writers had a personal style they could impart in their words, that made the writing process all the more attractive. The heavy use of curves allowed ample opportunity for flourishing, opening the door to a whole other world of artistic penmanship. Writers were much more physically at ease, as it required vastly less muscle stiffness compared to English script. But perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Spencerian writing was its ability to make emotion come to life on paper.

It’s all part of what has made Spencerian so enduring, even 150 years later.

Michael Sull is not only an internationally recognized Master Penman, but he also considered the foremost expert on Spencerian script in America. He tells us at The Paper Seahorse why Spencerian was and still is one of the most powerful forms of communication. To him, it all comes down to the roots of human nature.

“People”, he says, “can shout when they're excited. People can jump up and down. They can speak in quiet whispers. Their eyes and their facial expression can show intent, and a certain amount of conviction.”

“Spencer felt that if a person was able to have an alphabet that was based on those characters of nature, then you should be able to create visible language on paper that has so much personal expression, whoever reads it could understand how you felt, what you meant, how much you wanted to emphasize certain points and certain aspects of the language that you write on paper.”

Spencerian script caught like wildfire in America. It resonated with so many Americans because it was not just a rejection of English tradition, but an embrace of the ideals of their nation. Spencerian allowed for expression, for freedom, for individual thought, and it took off almost immediately.

A classic example of Spencerian flourishing, pulling inspiration from nature in true Spencerian fashion

For close to a century, the fever surrounding Spencerian script persisted in every written aspect of American culture. If you were writing a letter, you wrote in Spencerian. If you were corresponding in business, you wrote in Spencerian. Even logos pulled inspiration from the Spencerian system, and some you can recognize today, including the Coca Cola logo, and the logo for Ford cars.

Going Through Changes

One thing that has held true, whether in the 19th century, or today, is that change is always inevitable. The onslaught of advancing technologies took its toll in America, and Spencerian was no exception. By the time typewriters had succeeded handwriting as the de facto form of written communication, in the early to mid 1900s, Spencerian had become obsolete in the mainstream.

We don’t know what new technologies will pave the path forward in the coming years, but there’s one thing we do know: We as human beings will always need to express ourselves. We feel emotion, and have ideas, and want to tell others how we feel about them, and how we feel about ourselves. It’s the reason Spencerian script has still endured through all these years, and continues to fascinate people to this day - because there’s no other form of written communication that speaks to the inner creative spirit quite like Spencerian script.

“When you speak, you can't see the words, and as soon as you stop speaking, no one can hear what you said,” says Michael Sull, paying his tribute to the importance of Spencerian script. “No one can think about what you said because it's pretty much gone. It's disappeared. No one can see body language that isn’t animated anymore, so you kind of lose that.”

“But handwriting, handwriting is forever. It's visible language and all the expression that goes into it. All of the communication and information that goes into it exists forever.”

 

Make your mark with Master Penman Michael Sull this fall! Mister Sull, expert on Spencerian, cursive, calligraphy, and artistic penmanship, is teaching a workshop series in a rare visit to the Southeast US. From November 30th to December 2nd, Michael Sull will be in the Tampa Bay FL area to teach American Cursive HandwritingArtistic SignaturesDecorative Flourishing, and Spencerian Script. You can attend one workshop, or up all four workshops. We encourage those interested to sign up soon, as class sizes are limited! Each offers a singular opportunity to work in an intimate setting with one of the world’s last living master penmen.

Visit www.paperseahorse.com/spencerian for more information. We hope to see you at the end of November!

Fancy Feelings: How Flourishes Give Writing an Artistic and Personal Touch

So much of the joy in handwriting is the personal touch we get to express when putting pen to paper - not just line by line, or word by word, but even down to every letter.

When you see a work of writing made up with pretty frills and decorative swirls, and think “Wow, that looks so fancy!”, the secret ingredient to their lettering is surprisingly simple yet completely essential: the proper use of flourishes.

A Flourished History

Also occasionally referred to as “swashes”, flourishes developed out of the free-flowing nature of calligraphy, with known appearances in writing dating back as far as the 16th century. They reached their greatest creative potential when Spencerian script began its all-encompassing dominance over written correspondence in America. Not that many Americans were complaining back when the transition began in the 1800s.

At that time, English script was the standard for writing, and although it wasn’t the complete opposite of Spencerian, looking back, it was a lot like its strict, no-nonsense cousin: While pleasing to the eye, it was also rigidly uniform and consistent, required stiff muscular restriction, and had little room for freedom of expression or personal touch. In short, it made the writing process a bit dull (and a bit painful!).

When the father and namesake of Spencerian script, Mister Platt Rogers Spencer, was developing his revolutionary new handwriting system, much of his inspiration was pulled from the beauty he saw in nature, and the sense of movement and curvature it exhibited all around him. These characteristics began showing up in his handwriting in the form of flourishes.


Personality on Paper

 

 

 

 

 

Flourishing was the element that took writing on paper from didactic to artful expression. Now, you weren’t just getting your words  on paper - you were adding your own personal touch with every sentence.

Any process, when given the right tools, has the underlying potential to become a fun activity that invokes enjoyment rather than obligation. Writing is no different. Flourishing added a flair to writing that didn’t just alter the experience for the writer, but affected the reader as well.

Writing with flourishes involved the excitement of exploring with pen on paper and adventuring into new forms of decoration. Reading the finished product meant having a personal invitation into the emotions of the writer. You could understand, in a vivid and visual way, what feeling was guiding them as they wrote. Plus, reading with flourishes added the enjoyment reading with aesthetically pleasing decorations on every line.

Practicing the act of flourishing consistently meant writers could eventually craft their own unique styles and tastes, and even discover which individual letters they enjoyed writing over others.

Michael Sull, Master Penman and renowned teacher of calligraphy, cursive, and handwriting, told us his favorite letters all come down to the very nature of flourishes themselves.

“Flourishes”, he says, “are made of curves. When you have curves in a letter, those are opportunities for flourishing. The more curves a letter presents to you, the fancier it can become.”

“So, I like letters like B and E. The letter M is a really good one. There's a few other letters. The letter R, the letter R is just like the letter B except that it has a leg on the bottom right instead of another loop, but that leg can turn into more flourishing. The letter K, but the first letters I mentioned are probably the nicest ones I like. They can be pretty fancy.”

Me, My Pen, and I

Maybe the greatest part of writing flourishes is its strong relationship with thoughtfulness. Writing with flourishes means your present self is occupied with nothing else but the words on your paper. Your mind, feelings, and muscles are focused purely on your pen and its path. Flourishing captures your whole attention to craft beautiful flairs with personality, and this effort doesn’t go unnoticed.

Flourishes leave a powerful impression when intended for someone else. Receiving anything handwritten is flattering for anyone, but when that writing is accompanied with flourishes, the experience gets taken to a whole level. You took the time to not only write on paper, but also artfully constructed it the whole way through. It makes flourishing one of the most impactful gestures a person can do to show others how much they care.

Starting a Flourishing Journey

A great treat when it comes to flourishing is that, rather than learning an entirely new handwriting system, flourishes can instead be incorporated into your current writing practice. Having a base of fundamentals to learn and work from can both simplify the learning process and immerse anyone in the addicting world of flourished writing.

If you are in Florida, or near the Tampa Bay area, a great opportunity is approaching at the end of November into December. The Master Penman himself, Michael Sull, is bringing his practice to South Tampa to teach his expertise in the field of penmanship.

As well as teaching workshops on Spencerian Script, artistic signatures, and cursive handwriting, Mr. Sull will be instructing a immersive workshop focused on Decorative Flourishing. Michael Sull’s flourishing workshops not only arm students with the essential rules of flourishing, but also help students develop their own unique flourishing style. People walk out of his workshops with newfound knowledge of their own personal tastes, and often with a skill set they didn’t realize they were capable of.

Michael Sull brings his unique teaching style all over the world, and rarely to the Southeast. His visit to the Tampa area is a singular opportunity to work one-on-one with one of the foremost experts on Spencerian script.

We encourage you to keep writing, explore your own style on paper, and if you want to expand your abilities with the powerful joy of decorative flourishing, reserve your seat in Michael Sull’s workshop on December 2nd. Stay creative, and we hope to see you in December.

The Paper Seahorse will be bringing Master Penman Michael Sull to the Tampa area for a weekend-long workshop series. From November 30th to December 2nd, Mr. Sull will be teaching intimate, creative classes on handwriting, flourishing, artistic signatures, and Spencerian script. Class sizes will be limited, so those interested are encouraged to sign up early. More details and class descriptions can be found here