Palmer Method of Penmanship
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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
Tamara Thornton, author of <i>Handwriting in America</i> (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
Automatic Writing and the Body
Regulating Fatigue and Attention in Industrial Education
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).
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
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
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)
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- 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.
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