Penmanship Samples, a Family Heirloom

My handwriting is terrible. Some very old penmanship samples showed me just how awkward. My struggle with writing made me admire my grandmother’s Spencerian script even more. But she was not the only person with good handwriting back in her day.  If you look at the penmanship of most of the entries in the autograph books of Maude and Vera Stout, you will see many examples of children who might have studied penmanship with a master.

One day when I was visiting her, she showed me three pieces of paper with fanciful birds, drawn by pen in swooping lines of every-changing width.  I gaped. The person who created these penmanship samples was an artist. In fact, the drawings were promotional material. Advertising differed in the 1880s from today’s TV and websites. So did penmanship.

  The International Association of Master Penman, etc. provides a haven for those who think penmanship counts. They introduce F. W. Tamblyn, who moved from itinerant penmanship teacher to penmanship by mail courses. If you love beautiful penmaship, you may want to givve their site a look.
Penmanship Sample

This is smaller than the other two penmanship samples, also done by J. S. Johnston of Millersburg, Ohio. Like the other two, it is on ruled paper like children used in school.

They were all signed by J. S. Johnston, Millersburg, Ohio, and two of them designated that Mr. Johnston was a Penman.  My grandmother had kept them folded in a drawer for more than sixty years.

Itinerant penmanship teachers swarmed over the countryside in the 1800s. At that time, penmanship fell under the category of vocational training.  For those of us researching court documents and old legal papers, we become familiar with the handwriting of clerks hired for their beautiful and clear penmanship.

Grandma Vera Anderson explained that the penmanship teacher would come to town (Killbuck, Ohio) and set up outdoors near the center of town, creating these awesome examples of his work and handing them out to the children who gathered around.  Of course, he really wanted the youngsters to run back home and tell their parents about the wonderful drawings and that they could sign up and take his class so they, too, could make their writing a work of art.

In this one I admire the delicate suggestion of tree limbs in the background of the top bird, and water behind the lower bird. And how beautiful that U. S. A.!

Penmanship Sample

Two graceful birds in penmanship sample by J. S. Johnston of Millersburg, Ohio. Note he made an error in writing Millersburg! 7 3/4″ wide by 9 1/2″ tall.


I think of the skill needed to make these penmanship samples with a scratchy metal pen dipped again and again in a pot of ink and I get the shivers.  Even if he had never studied the concept, he was working with negative space and balancing the decorative designs around the page so that they fit into the whole.  His composition draws the eye just where he wants it.

I wonder how long it took for him to create something like the complexity of the drawing below? I can almost hear him talking to the gathered children as his hand flew across the paper. He told them how these lines form part of letters in handwriting, and wouldn’t they like to be able to do this, too?  Here, take this paper home and show your Mother and Father. I will be here all week giving lessons in penmanship.

Penmanship Sample

Very detailed picture made by penmanship teacher, J. S. Johnson of Millersburg Ohio, on ruled paper like a child’s school tablet. 7 3/4″ wide x 10″ tall.

When I inherited the drawings, I framed them properly as a work of art should be framed. Now they are well over 100 years old, and protected.

I think of these examples of penmanship, and the children’s desire to write beautifully in the autograph books whenever I hear the current discussion of whether it is practical to teach script in school any more, since everybody prints or keyboards.

Poor Mr. Johnston, the penmanship teacher, would be bereft.

As I would be without these gorgeous penmanship drawings.

Note: This post is a response to the weekly prompt of the 52 Ancestors project started by Amy Johnson Crow.    This week’s prompt: Heirloom

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