History of Handwriting


History of Handwriting: the development of handwriting
and the modern alphabet

How did handwriting develop? It evolved over a few thousand years, changing and adapting to new cultures and new technologies. Here’s a brief history.

In the beginning….

Before there was writing, there was only verbal communication, with cultural norms, rituals and stories passed on orally from one generation to the next. As language and cultures evolved, so did the need for communication. Simple drawings became pictographs, and pictographs became standardized within each culture.

What is writing?

Writing is a codified system of standard symbols: the repetition of agreed-upon simple shapes to represent ideas. Recognizable systems of writing developed in 3 major cultures within 1200 years of each other. Sumerian cuneiform developed around 3000 BC, Egyptian hieroglyphs around 2800 BC, and the precursor to Kanji Chinese around 1800 BC. The development of writing allowed cultures to record events, history, laws; theories in math, science, medicine; create literature and more.

Simple pictographs were used to represent people, places and things. As the needs for communication expanded, different pictographs were combined to represent ideas, and required knowledge to interpret the new symbols. These became ideographs: abstract symbols that evolved beyond the original drawings.

Sumerian innovations

Sumerian scribes used to write on long, vertical tablets of wet clay, from top to bottom, right to left. Right-handed scribes had problems, since they would sometimes smudge the symbols as they wrote. They started turning the tablets sideways, and started writing right to left, then top to bottom. Ideographs were also turned sideways as they were written, and became more abstract in appearance. Also, the introduction of a triangular-tipped stylus increased the abstract look of the symbols.

Ideographs were combined to sound out longer words, such as wind + doe = window. These later developed into phonograms: the first phonetic sound of each symbol in a group was pronounced, and together the sounds produced a word, such as dog + eagle + lake = deal. Phonograms required a person to decipher the writing in order to understand the meaning.

Egyptians innovations

Around 2400 BC, the Egyptians started using papyrus and reed brushes for writing. Ink flowed more smoothly on papyrus, and allowed scribes to write more quickly, which made symbols less angular and more rounded in appearance.

Hieroglyphs were simplified about 1500 BC, and became known as hieratic script (priestly writing). This was used almost exclusively for religious writing, but was later used for commerce. The script was simplified again around 500 BC, and became more widely used. This was called demotic script (script of the people).

The Phoenician alphabet

The ancient Phoenician alphabet also developed around 1500 BC. It comprised 22 phonetically-based symbols and was widely used. By 800 BC, it had spread to Greece, and under the rule of Alexander the Great, it further spread to Egypt, Persia, and India.

The Roman Empire

The Roman Empire rose to power in the 2nd century BC, and by 146 BC had conquered Greece. The Romans adopted many aspects of Greek culture, including the alphabet. This 23-letter alphabet spread across Europe as far as England, and also into Northern Africa and the Persian Gulf. Inscriptions in capital letters were carved on structures all over the empire.

The hand-written counterpart to the carved capitals was called Capitalis Quadrata. These were later transformed into Rustica Capitals, which were very condensed in width, so that more text could fit onto parchment and papyrus, which were still expensive materials.

By 400 AD, an everyday Roman script had developed for transactions, bookkeeping and correspondence. Written letter forms were much more informal in shape, compared to the structured capitals. Letters began to flow together to save time and space on parchment. This was the earliest sign of lowercase letter forms, with ascenders, descenders and ligatures between the letters.

Christianity and Celtic writing

By now, Christianity was the official religion throughout the empire, and Bibles were copied and distributed to the extent allowed by the limitations of producing each one by hand. St. Patrick brought a Bible with him to Ireland, and the Irish began producing their own elaborately designed Bibles.

The Celtic style of lettering involved writing the letters within 1-inch square guides, and were known as uncials. Around 600 AD, smaller half-uncials appeared, which closely resembled our modern lowercase letters. The letters were very rounded in style, and ascenders and descenders were extended on the lowercase letters. Also, word spacing was increased to improve readability.

Charlemagne standardizes writing

In the late 700′s AD, the ruler Charlemagne controlled most of Europe, and appointed an English monk to oversee standardized lettering practices for copying texts. Large uncials were used at the beginning of sentences, and lowercase letters were now a uniform part of the Roman alphabet.

This style developed into Romanesque hand, and later into the Gothic style in Germany, around 900 AD. Gothic lettering was very thick, angular, and tightly set between letters and words, to save space. The dot on the lowercase i was added to distinguish it from similar strokes in the m, n and u.

Lettering styles continued to develop. There was a common script style in use for practical purposes, and a more precise, artistic hand lettering was used for important texts and books, with great care taken to write each letter.

In the 10th century, the letter u was created separately from the v, whereas previously the v was used for both sounds (such as sirivs instead of sirius). The w was created in the 12th century to accommodate more European languages, where the v would not serve. The j evolved from a modified i in the 15th century. This brought the Roman alphabet to 26 letters total.

From writing to mechanical printing, and back to writing

When Gutenberg created his movable type press in the mid-1400′s, he modeled his letters upon the style of the scribes at the time. The technology advanced, and more upright letters were designed for printing. Several others designed similar upright, or Roman style, type faces, but in the late 1500′s, Robert Granjon designed type faces that more closely resembled script writing, and these became quite popular.

The development of copperplate engraving allowed for the use of very delicate type faces with many flourishes and curliques in the script-like letters, which greatly influenced handwriting. Handwriting masters began to grow in number, to produce beautifully written documents. Elegant handwriting became a sign of social status.

The institution of penmanship

By the mid-1700′s, there were special schools established to teach handwriting techniques, or penmanship. Master penmen were employed to copy official documents such as land deeds, birth and marriage certificates, military commissions, and other legal documents. Timothy Matlack was commissioned to write the final copy of the Declaration of Independence, and Jacob Shallus penned the final copy of the Constitution of the United States of America.

In the late 1800′s, Charles Zaner founded the Zanerian College of Penmanship, and later sold part interest to Elmer Bloser. Together, they founded the Zaner-Bloser Company, and created materials to be used in teaching good penmanship as part of a general education. In 1904, they published the Zaner Method of Arm Movement, developed especially for elementary-aged children. The Zaner-Bloser style is one of the main styles of handwriting taught to children in the U.S. to this day.

A newer method of teaching penmanship was developed in the mid-1970′s by Donald Neal Thurber, called D’Nealian style. It uses slanted letters to teach printing, in order for children to transition more easily to cursive writing. This has also become a popular method taught in U.S. schools.