The American Hand

The American Hand
© Calvet M. Hahn 1981

A. Early Settlers used the Elizabethian Hand.

The early settlers at Plymouth and Jamestown and in the ‘Summer Islands’ (Bermuda) used the late Elizabethan European handwriting they brought with them as modified by the Italian hand just being introduced during Elizabeth’s reign. This was a modification of the Gothic hand with which Shakespere and his contemporaries wrote. Anexample of such handwriting in 1596 from the Barry Jay collection was illustrated in the March 1976 Philatelic Journal of Great Britain. As no postal sevice yet existed in America, this hand is only found on letters to or from Europe that entered the mails in Europe or on non-postal American letters and documents.

B. The Restoration Hand

The earliest posted letter in the American restoration era handwriting is that written by New York Governor Francis Lovelace establishing the intercolonial postal system in January 1673. It is addressed to William Bradford, the Connecticut governor, and was carried by Manor Lord John Archer, who blazed the ‘old post road’ from Wall Street up Broadway to Harlem, across Kingsbridge and along the Connecticut shore to New Haven and then north to Hartford.

C. Early ‘Round Hand’ example from the Queen Anne Period.

The ’round hand’ style that dominated England and the colonies for a century and a half was actually adapted from the Italian hand referred to by Shakespere as the ‘Roman hand’. This 1712 letter shows the typical letter separation, curved ‘d’ letter, the doubled lower stroke of the ‘y’, the jag at the beginning of ‘7’ the serif of ‘1’ and the curl of ‘2’. The Bristol Packet letters of 1710-13 all have this hand as do many of the early colonial handstamped and manuscript letters. By this time, the rounded top ‘a’ has begun to develop a notch, characteristic of the ’round hand’. Note the shift in ‘h’ from that in Lovelace’s letter. A second letter from William Pitkin (1664-1723), Chief Justice of Connecticut) dated at Hartford, CT August 4, 1717 discussed legal and financial matters represents someone educated during the Restoration.

D. Mid-1700 Round Hand

This ledger page from the Philadelphia post office accounts found in the Franklin Institute shows the evolution of the round hand style. The ‘h’ is beginng to resemble a more modern loop at top, the ‘7’ is distinctly marked with a down stroke or circle at the top, while the ‘9’ has a wide round top and a curved bottom. the ‘p’ is losing its bottom angularity and the ‘g’ is developing a loop. A second letter is from the Schenectady Schaemhorn correspondence. This letter written in New York Nov-ember 21, 1755 went north by Hudson river boat as noted in the postscript. Note the ‘w’ letters in this. It was in this year that Dr. Samuel Johnson first published an English language dictionary. A third example of the writing of this period is a French and Indian war letter from a member of the Garfield family, written at Flat Bush six miles above Albany on June 18, 1758 following a ‘tedious march through the woods’.

E. Revolutonary War Round Hand

By the time of the American Revolution theeducated upper class imported the Samuel Johnson dictionary and began to standardize spelling which was largely phoenetic up to this point. There still is no American dictionaryand the tradesmen and farmer classes still spell phonetically. Noah Webster (1758-1843) published a pioneer spelling brook at the close of the war in 1783-5 and a preliminary dictionary in 1806 but his great dictionary was not published until 1828, with a second edition in 1840.

The first Revolutionary War example is written at Horn’s Hook, six miles from New York (which is below Wall St.) the day the British entered the city by crossing from Brooklyn to Kips Bay and tarried at Murray Hill (site of the New York Collectors Club) for tea while Washington marched up Broadway to escape the trap. Second we have an American POW from Connecticut held at Flatbush in Brooklyn, N.Y. writing to his wife at Newton Bucks County, PA September 10, 1778. It bears the censor mark ‘Exam’d James Skeane, Assist. Dep’y Commissioner Prisioners.’

F. War of 1812 Round Hand

This ’round hand’ is represented by an official notice of the War of 1812, dated at Greenbush (near Troy, N.Y.) July 30, 1812 by E. Beebe, acting deputy adjuunct general and addressed to Col. Kingsbury at Fort Wolcott near Newport R.I. Note the beginning sweep of down curved letters that eventually became characteristic of Spencerian writing. This hand had a characteristic loop at the top of such letters as the ‘3’ of ’30’ and sometimes the ‘2’ and ‘7’. By this date America had Webster’s preliminary Dictionary and a uniform spelling was beginning to be taught in the schools. Although marked ‘Public Service’ there was a 51 cent postal charge.

G. Payson, Dunton, Scribner Modified Round Hand

This system evolved in the schools beginning about 1840 and was dominate until about 1865 when the Spencerian hand came into full flower. Shown is a late ’round hand’ which is already being modified by the new copybooks of this hand published in 1850. It is written by former New York postmaster John Lorimer Graham, who instituted the U.S. City Despatch Post and the move to the Old Dutch Church. The letter seen here is dated July 30, 1847 and recommends a clerk for possible employment. It is addressed to rail magnate Erastus Corning (1794-1872), the mayor of Albany from 1834-1837. It is one component style of the second of the four different systems used in the 19th century. An example of someone taught under this system is an 1861 letter from Greenville, N.Y.

H. Early example of Spencerian Handwriting

An example of the earliest use of Spencerian handwriting is found on this, Mr. Spencer’s letter of July 22, 1845 to his wife announcing he was beginng to write a handwriting book and that it ‘goes Trememdous Tough.’ Platt Roger Spencer (1800-1864) introduced his copy slips in 1848 followed by copy books and text books in 1855 although he had begun developing the style in the 1820s. With its ‘massy look and curling graces’ it is the most attractive of the styles.

Advocates of the Payson, Dunnton Scribner and the Spencerian styles battled to dominate the handwriting field, borrowing from each other with the final result beiing a late ‘Spencerian’ writing that combined both and was the second major 19th century style. This final Spencerian hand began eliminating the flourishes and extra strokes of the preceding systems and created a simplified, clearer hand. The theory was that by making connecting turns nearly angular but still sufficiently rounded it would permit a rapid, continuous writing flow. The old round hand connections slanted at about 40° while the late Spencerian slanted at only 30°, permitting a more continuous rapid flow of writing.

In overall appearance, it slanted 52° degrees from the horizontal, had little shading on the small letters, which were written with wider spaces between them, while vertical letters (such as ‘l and y’) were 3/5th above and 2/5th below the horizontal respectively. The capital letters were quite different from the earlier round hand. Examples

I . The Palmer ‘arm movement’ Hand

By the 1880s, Austin Norman Palmer (1859-1927) developed the third major 19th century hand, a form of ‘arm movement’or commercial hand which became common during the first half of the 20th century. Popularized for business use this hand called for a free arm movement and the rapid writing forms which arose from the late Spencerian hand. A card of the popular American Palmer method of handwriting taught by him is seen here. It is difficult for people trained under this hand to ‘forge’ the earlier hands except by tracing which leaves clues. In the 20th century the commercial hand has developed narrow connections and straight connecting strokes, making it less legible but more rapid. It is basically beyond the scope of this article, which is focused on the 19th century classic stamp period handwriting.

J. The new ‘Vertical Hand’ of the 1890-1900 Period.

The fourth and final 19th century hand was the ‘vertical hand,’ which was taught for only about ten years. It was a reversion to the more legible writing of the old round hand, which was almost a form of printing, slow but legible. A major difference is in the connecting strokes. In round hand these measured about .045 or three times as wide as in the Spencerian (.015) and about half of the new vertical hand (.080). Another significant difference is the curvature at the tops of small letters like ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘h’ and ‘e’, which is five to ten times as large in the Spencerian hand. That hand is based upon arcs of circles, as contrasted with the vertical hand, which is based upon a small round circle. In the Spencerian the connections are almost points rather than the broad curves of the vertical style.

An example of this hand can be seen in the letter of a young soldier on his way to the Philippines during the Spanish American War, written at Honolulu in September 1898. His letter is a blend between the final Spencerian hand and the new vertical hand (seen in the words ‘boys’ ‘three’ ‘keep’, etc.)

Until the copybooks of the 1850s were developed, revolutions in handwriting took many years to evolve as there was no standard against which to measure. Individual teachers determined the hand. Most handwriting fits into the overall style in which it is written and the time of the specific writing. When a writer attempts to create an earlier style or period from that which is native to him he is likely to miss essential characteristics and highlight accidental ones. With the exception of the writing master who created the hand, it is rare that any given handwriting closely reproduces the system of its origin.

During the 19th century, women were taught a large angular, somewhat awkward hand which differs in a number of respects from the general hand of the period. Finding this had almost immediately indicates the sex of the writer.
The forger really does have great difficulty in taking on a style other than his own, and which he may not fully understand in its differences from his own hand. For example the ‘old round hand’ ‘6’ is made from the bottom up rather than from the top down as in more modern systems, and both the ‘6’ and ‘9’ have definite curved staffs not found in the later systems.

The sharp angles at the bottom of the small ‘m’ in round hand is one difference that has trapped a number of forgers as is the continuous uniform shading of the period. The final ‘s’ never had an upward stroke as it did in the succeeding system. The late Spencerian rounded top ‘J’ did not come into common use until just before the UPU period. A number of other changes were introduced around that time as well, which can be used to date writing that is likely to be out of period.

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