Palmer Method of Penmanship

From Dead Media Archive

Jump to: navigation, search
A demonstrative example of Palmer's style.

Developed by Austin Norman Palmer (1860-1927) in the 1870s, the Palmer method of penmanship was both a style of handwriting and a pedagogical method for teaching the practice of penmanship. The handwriting produced by this method was italic, cursive writing, which curtailed much of the ornamentation which marked earlier penmanship systems in eighteenth and nineteenth century America. Conceived at the same historical moment as the typewriter, Palmer was responding to what he perceived as the need for an efficient handwriting style adapted the quickening pace of business in America. Comparing the process to a "writing machine," his system emphasized four qualities he saw as essential to good writing (Figure above). Palmer’s system largely displaced the earlier Spencerian system by the 1910s, gaining nationwide popularity, which it held until its eclipse by other methods in the 1950s.


Penmanship as Mediation

Palmer's moral example.

Tamara Thornton, author of Handwriting in America (1996) argues that handwriting has a "history of its own," yet one shaped by the cultural within socio-historical periods (xi). As a cultural practice, handwriting carries with it cultural messages transmitted through the training of penmanship and through the idealized letterforms to be emulated (xii). Friedrich Kittler argues that "our writing tools also work on our thoughts" (183), and this method can be seen as a result of, as well as a contributor to pragmatic and functionalist approaches to education. The Palmer Method can be analyzed both in terms of individual expression as well as the regulation of expression; as a method by which both the self and the social self were defined and controlled. Individuality was to be expressed within standardized forms, a paradox which is indicative of differing epistemological views existing in America during this period. In this sense, as a response to the changing sociological character of American culture, the Palmer Method functioned as a medium of social control.

Precursors and Palmer's Method

Fig. 2
Spencerian Script
Palmer's method of penmanship was a remediation of and a reaction to the Spencerian system; the leading method used for the fifty years prior to the Palmer Method's mainstream inclusion. Spencerian script was developed by Platt Rogers Spencer in the 1840s and was an earlier attempt to standardize penmanship. (Thornton 1996: 47) A Victorian writing master, Spencerian script did not represent handwriting elements as simply the formation of letters, choosing instead to model his method on natural forms. (Fig. 2) Spencer's script maintained the ornateness of past American scripts, such as the American Round-Hand system. The elegance of his script was seen by Palmer as being too feminine, and The Palmer Method was in part an attempt to reinsert masculinity into penmanship. (Thornton 1996: 67) The Palmer Method should also be examined in the context of the typewriter, developed concurrently. The Palmer Method maintained the analogue function of cursive writing, occasionally using discrete forms for practice of letters and isolated motions for the training of the muscular system.

Fig. 1
Palmer Method simple lines and circles.
Consisting of a series of lessons, the method begins with the proper positioning of the body, and then a series of exercises designed to strengthen the muscles. The instruction manuals consist of a series of images and text that the student attempts to emulate; Palmer argued against the use of blackboards for models, as they can be "seen at many different angles, and at different distances, and do not give correct mental impressions." (Palmer 1935:4) At the end of the program, students complete an examination which is sent to the A.N. Palmer to be examined and judged. The Palmer method maintained arbitrary functions such as writing left to right, however often used words and forms that were nonsensical in that they provided no semiotic content, simply lines and circles or arbitrary words to reproduce. (Fig. 1) The focus of this program is to train the muscles to lead to an "automatic style embodying legibility, rapidity, ease and endurance." (Palmer 1935: 4) The style of penmanship produced by this program is comparitively minimalist to previous styles which emphasized aesthetics over functionality.

Automatic Writing and the Body

The Palmer method was intended to make the act of writing automatic and redefined this as a physiological process. Writing became the result of the "unconscious functioning of the brain and consequent behavior of the human organism." (Thornton 145) Lisa Gitelman argues the term "automatic" in the late nineteenth century was not a function only of the machine, but a resolving of the "organic and mechanical of human forms and functions built into machinery." (Gitelman, 189) Akin to Foucault's conception of the docile body, the Palmer Method put a military-like emphasis on the posture, position, and muscle control of the pupil's body. Exercises and drills were to be taught and practiced regularly, and teachers were instructed to monitor and correct the students' positions. These drills programmed the body by building muscle memory so the mind need no longer think -- the body simply performs mechanically and efficiently, just as would a typewriter. In this sense, Palmer's method embodies a cake-mix effect: after mastering the method on a conscious level, the writing system becomes reflexive and mechanized on an unconscious level. Though the student is the one making the inscription, it is their programmed body, shaped by the instruction, that is performing the task of writing, conjuring up images of Isis. The conscious self becomes secondary to the process, however involved in the production of messages and languages the method always requires the conscious self and others as messengers of Hermes needed to decode what is produced.

Regulating Fatigue and Attention in Industrial Education

A schoolboy demonstrating correct position of the body for penmanship.
The Palmer Method made use of existing research in physiology and the emerging industrial view of the body as machine. Palmer's method is an attempt to extend the capabilities of human productivity in the act of writing, to maintain a border between capacity and incapacity in training the muscular activity of the student for both writing and relaxation needed between writing exercises. (Johannisson 7; Palmer 9) The Palmer Method's stringent requirements as to words per minute indicate that The A.N. Palmer Company thought they had found an ideal threshold between fatigue and productivity through seeing the body in terms of its physiological capabilities, while ignoring (although not discounting as in behaviourism) mental qualities which were thought to interfere with the machine. The emphasis placed by Palmer on maintaining a particular visuality in the practice of handwriting can be seen through the relationship he places between the student and the individual text. Denouncing blackboards as a pedagogical tool because they, "are seen at many different angles and at different distances and do not give correct mental impressions," it is clear that Palmer was attempting to promote a uniform objectivity in teaching handwriting while acknowledging models of subjective vision. (Palmer 4)

Internalization and Simulation of the Machine

If, as Kittler suggests (198), the typewriter "tears writing from the essential realm of the hand," and the hand is the "essence of man," Palmer's mechanical method can be interpreted as an attempt to reunite the two without losing the desireable aspects of the typewriter (ie. speed, legibility, efficiency). Alternatively, this metaphorical reunion might appear to be an internalization of the typewriter technology into the body. To take the analogy of the human typewriter further, consider Flusser's essay entitled The Lever Strikes Back, in which he says, "we have been moving our arms as though they were levers since we have had levers. We simulate what we have simulated" (Flusser, 53). Not only did the Palmer method train the body to simmulate the typewriter in speed and legibility, the method also instructed students to use their left arm to cover other drills and push the paper up as one progresses. Thus, once again, the simulator is simulated and the classroom suddenly becomes a factory, a "place in which human beings become less and less natural and more artificial" (Flusser, 44).

The Unavoidable Traces of the Self

Kittler argues that at the end of the nineteenth century, "something ceases not to write itself." (Kittler 1999:3) In this he is speaking of the modest mechanical apparatuses which were developed at/for the period which shattered the unity of the hand-driven form of writing, replacing it with an extension of the body in terms of a machine. The Palmer Method attempts to make the body into a "writing machine" through physiological training designed to promote automaticity. (Palmer 1935:*) The body becomes a machine, internalizing the habit of writing so that the person is fully occupied by the machine, ceasing to write one's self and beginning to write something else. (Kittler 1999: 14) "But once a hand took hold of a pen," Kittler notes, "something miraculous occured: the body which did not cease to not write itself, left strangely unavoidable traces." The traces Kittler speaks about are the pops and hisses of the writing system--the individual character of one's penmanship. Despite the best efforts of the Palmer Method to teach a standardized script, the characteristics of each person's unique handwriting were inevitable.

Encoding/Decoding: Grading, Classifying and Comparison through Writing

Fig. 3
Table comparing penmanship of 8th graders and office workers.
Penmanship and its connection to the self can be seen through an examination of signatures and the practice of graphology. Gitelman argues the term "automatic," which is used frequently by Palmer in his manuals, highlighting prevailing cultural assumptions "regarding the act of insciption and the relation that inscribing bears to authorial agency and textual evidence." (Palmer 1935: 3; Gitelman 1999: 186) Experiments carried out by Gertrude Stein attempted to explore the relation between the her test subject's character and the markings they would create through automatic writing. Stein maintained that her experiment resolved the "organic and mechanical - of human forms and functions built into machinery and of mechanical repsonses by human beings." (Gitelman 1999:189). Palmer's method of penmanship analysis treated the subject's automatic writing in the same vein by advocating practice drills to be evaluated by a teacher or a designate of the Palmer Company itself.
Certificate of Completion.

Writing for drills divorces words on a page from any potential narrative, presenting itself as storage for data regarding a student's aptitude toward the mechanical project of penmanship. In bulletins for grading penmanship issued by each city's board of education, teachers were advised to regard penmanship as a skill needed to find employment after graduation of the eight grade. Through this method, the functional nonsense of texts written for drills allow for handwriting to become an object for scientific study, and a graphology emerges from the text. (Fig. 3) Teachers evaluated handwriting samples based on speed, consistency, and adhearance to the aesthetic standard, and scored the sample on a scale of 0 to 100-- cumulatively, and in each category. Teachers could then compare a student's results to the median scores for practitioners of a number of occupations (NY Dept of Education: 1920, 45). The direct link between penmanship and aptitude for business is made explicit, just as Gertrude Stein's experiments with automatic writing had attempted to draw corellations between the hand and the subject's character. In this sense, discrete analysis of writing as scientific object enabled teachers to decode the examinations in an effort to encode them into a particular areas of aptitude. Such drills were exemplary of a specific trend in psychology of the late 19th century, where the goal was to employ new physiological methods to decode the narrative of the subject's psyche. (Gitelman 1999: 195)

Technology, Standardization, Modernism

Palmer was a follower of the philosophy and psychology of William James (1842-1910), who cherished individuality and autonomy while emphasizing universality and constraint.(Embridge 327; Bredo 4) Likewise, Palmer in his writing system argued that "within certain well-defined boundaries I would not only permit, but would encourage pupils in catering to their individual tastes." (Embridge 2007: 327; Thornton 1996: 116) The expression of individuality within a common norm was a quandry representative of American social life at the period, and the Palmer Method was characteristic of this dynamic.

The Palmer Method is especially representative of ideals of the progressive era of education at the turn of the century. In its design, Palmer set standards of uniformity to which all students were expected to adhere in order to succeed. This belief in unity through uniformity, while on one level providing an equal standard for all to meet according to their ability, on another level forced others into adopting a foreign identity. In many cases, this was the aim: to impose a disciplining order on populations not well understood. The closeness of graphology to personal identity made a handwriting system particularly effective in this exercise of control.

In setting a standard which the individual must conform to, Palmer's system imposes a kind of violence onto the individual.  Similar to the typewriter's uniformly legible type, the individual was expected to develop a consistent penmanship style.  In professional contexts in which the individual writes not for herself, a style legible for others, if not interchangeable, was increasingly important.  Indeed, student writing was assessed based on its correspondence with that of professionals in particular fields. Pushing the individual towards this idealized standard is fundamentally to force her to siphon the index of her identity through what Lacan calls the regime of the symbolic, or what Kittler calls "the bottleneck of the signifier." (4) When the subject is the one to deploy discrete letterforms in analog continuity, the letterforms then become primary, the subject secondary. As Flusser writes, “in the case of the machine, it is the constant and the human being is the variable” (45).

The Problem of the Other: Women, Writing and Left-Handedness

Typists were most typically women.
Gitelman argues this new found automaticity in writing was a site for "feminized labor." (Gitelman 1999: 193) In Palmer's system which attempts to automatize and standardize writing, the connections between authorship and writing become increasingly obscure; made more evident by his increasingly gendered view of the form of writing. Arguing that the Spencerian script was too feminized, Palmer sought to re-masculinize writing, doing away with the ornamentation resulting from the natural forms which Spencer attempts to emulate. Previous to this program handwriting and gender was distinctly intertwined; being excluded from mercantile activity, female penmanship focused upon embroidery and needlework whereas boys learned writing through the making of receipts and other commerce-related acts. However, nearing the end of the nineteenth century, economic and social changes began to take place in the world of business; emerging corporate and bureaucratic structures were found to be hostile to masculine autonomy in terms of the male clerk who was placed at the bottom of a hierarchical structure of labor. (Thronton 1996: 69-70) Women began entering into the office in large numbers, as scribes, secretaries and bookeepers and took the role that male clerks previously had held. Their task was to take words as input - whether from speech or other documents - and to produce words as output on paper, that is, to become a passive linguistic conduit, a witness to the inscription executed by their bodies. Previously handwriting had been defined as a male activity connnected with the mercantile world, and with the inclusion of women handwriting became less exclusive. Palmer's emphasis on masculine scripts was an attempt to reclaim the pen as a male object; this new penmanship reasserted masculinity even though it was being done by women as well as men. (Thornton 1996: 70) It also had the effect of increasing the invisibility of the author as the writer's gender identity could no longer be determined through an examination of handwriting alone.

Palmer Hand Positions
Palmer viewed the entire Spencerian script as being too feminine in form, despite the fact that separate categories of writing existed to differentiate men and women in terms of both the form and function of writing. These distinctions are lost in Palmer, however, his attempt to re-masculinize writing through a loss of ornamentation also had the result of increasing the invisibility of the author as the writer's gender identity could no longer be determined through an examination of handwriting alone. By adopting this masculine script, females who employed a pen were simultaneously written out of the act of penmanship. Similarly Palmer advocated to make left-handers conform and adopt a right-handed method, as he says in the Teachers' Guide to Palmer Method Penmanship in 1929, "it is a right handed world," although since left-handedness has long been associated in Christianity with evil, it was probably more indicative of cultural assumptions during the period. (Ramsey 1988: 504)

The End of the Palmer Era

Although alternative methods of handwriting existed concurrently, the Palmer Method enjoyed a large market share in both the business world and in the pedagogical method of primary schools. The method was eventually supplanted by the D'Nealiean method and the Zaner-Bloser method (which was an original competitor of the Palmer method, but remains a key player in handwriting pedagogy). It is admittedly hard to pinpoint exactly when and how the Palmer Method disappeared as a mode of mediation; its demise is inferred by the fact that Palmer ceased publishing textbooks in the early 1980's, and the methods of learning advocated by both the D'Nealiean and Zaner-Bloser systems differ greatly than those endorsed by Palmer. Modern penmanship systems such as D'Nealiean and Zaner-Bloser differ from Palmer in two distinct ways: they privilege manuscript over cursive, and they further digitize the writing system by atomizing each letter into combinations of six basic strokes. (Alston, 56) The Palmer method as a mode of mediation exposed the 19th century preoccupation with economies of attention in psychology. As this trend gave way to behaviorism, the Palmer method was no longer suitable as a mode of mediation. The 1960s, 70s, and 80s saw the emergence of a brand of child psychology where individuality was encouraged— less emphasis was placed on enforcing discipline, and a comparative laxity and permissiveness in child-rearing became the norm. Concurrently, teaching penmanship began with the mastery of manuscript, with the rationale that children should learn to write the characters they encounter in print. Cursive emerges later as an extension of the writing project: the new cursive is modeled after the already-mastered manuscript. "[M]anuscript that has been learned is not unlearned but, rather, built upon." (Alston, 57)


  • Alston, Jean and Jane Taylor. Handwriting: Theory, Research and Practice. Nichols Publishing Company, New York, 1987.
  • Bredo, E. "The Darwinian Center to the Vision of William James" in William James and Education. (ed) Garrison, Podeschi and Bredo. Columbia University: New York. 2002.
  • City of New York Board of Education. Grade Standards: New York Penmanship Scale. Bureau of Reference, Research and Statistics, 1920.
  • Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. The MIT Press. 1990.
  • Embridge, D. 2007. “The Palmer Method: Penmanship and the Tenor of Our Time” in Southwest Review. Platinum Periodicals: 92 (3): 327 -
  • Flusser, Vilém. The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design. Reaction Books. 1999.
  • Freeman, F. “Current Methods of Teaching Handwriting” in The Elementary School Teacher. University of Chicago Press: 13(1) 25-40.Freeman, F. 1912. “Current Methods of Teaching Handwriting” in The Elementary School Teacher. University of Chicago Press: 13(1) 25-40.
  • Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines. Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Henning, William and Melzer, Paul. An Elegant Hand: The Golden Age of American Penmanship and Calligraphy. Oak Knoll Press, 2002
  • Johannisson, Karin. Modern Fatigue: A Historical Perspective. A Multifaceted View of Stress. Ed. Dr. Bengt B. Arnetz, Prof. Rolf Ekman. Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, 2006
  • Kittler, Fredrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford University Press, 1999.
  • Palmer, A.N. The Palmer Method of Business Writing. The A.N. Palmer Company: New York. 1935.
  • Thornton, Tamara. Handwriting in America: A Cultural History. Yale University Press. 1996.
  • Vismann, Cornelia. Files: Law and Media Technology. Stanford University Press. 2008.
  • Wajda, S.T. 1999. “Inscribing the Self” in American Quarterly. The Johns Hopkins University Press: 51(2) 461-471.
Personal tools