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Developing Spencerian Penmanship at Home

An Interview with Michael and Deb Sull

2001, by Martha Robinson

Named after Platt Rogers Spencer (1800-1864), Spencerian Script, a uniquely American form of ornamental penmanship, became an important part of business and personal life in the United States. "Born near Poughkeepsie, New York, Spencer was a dynamic individual whose vision and boundless energy were responsible for ushering in a major period of economic and artistic endeavor in America. The "golden age" of ornamental penmanship lasted from approximately 1850 to 1925, and resulted in perhaps the most elaborate penmanship every written by the human hand." *

We are fortunate to have Michael and Deb Sull speak with us about Spencerian penmanship in today's time.

Michael Sull developed an interest in penmanship at an early age after making note of his mother's beautiful Palmer handwriting. He worked as a lettering artist for Hallmark cards, and from 1980 to 1981 had the opportunity to apprentice with Paul O'Hara, the last living master penman from the Spencerian "golden age." Author of the two volume Spencerian Script and Ornamental Penmanship, the definitive text on the topic, Michael Sull is renowned for his skill in this almost forgotten art. From Oscar award certificates to White House invitations to special documents for everyday people, Mr. Sull produces beauty with the stroke of a pen.

Deb Sull shares her husband's interest in Spencerian penmanship. A graduate of the University of Kansas, Deb majored in art with an emphasis in typography and calligraphy. She assists Michael in all aspects of the business, researching, and co-authoring books and materials. Deb also works with him during his annual workshop known as the Spencerian Saga. Her current project is revamping their website to provide detailed information on handwriting instruction, American penmanship history, and the availability of materials for aspiring students of Spencerian Script.

*From Learning to Write Spencerian Script by Michael R. Sull and Debra E. Rapp.

Why is good handwriting important?

Michael Sull: There are many reasons. As human beings, our ability to think, to show emotion, and to share our feelings with another person are truly blessings from God! Handwriting is the marvelous key that allows us to do this: to communicate our thoughts with friends, family, business colleagues, with anybody we choose. Unlike e-mail, which is produced by a machine, the aspect of writing by hand allows us to truly have a written conversation with our correspondent. The wonder of our thoughts and emotions comes through to the recipient in a most personal manner through our handwriting. And yet, poor handwriting is not easy to read, is certainly not pleasing to the eye, and can even give the impression that little thought or care was put forth by the writer. Poor handwriting often gives the impression that the writer did not think the recipient was important enough to put any time or care into the action of corresponding. Not a nice feeling!

Good handwriting says a lot about the writer. It shows that the writer values both the recipient and the act of corresponding. Its also an indication that the writer is a person of good self-esteem who cares about communicating in a pleasing fashion, so that his/her written conversation is a reflection of their regard for the recipient. Even in this computer age, handwriting is still a necessary life skill. To be able to write legibly not only means that you possess this skill to a high degree, but that you can communicate in a more pleasing and attractive manner.

Why was the teaching of Spencerian discontinued?

Michael Sull: Spencerian Script was discontinued because it was supplanted, or replaced by a more contemporary style of handwriting developed by A. N. Palmer. This occurred around 1900. By that time the steel pen point was readily available throughout America, and the use of quill pens had all but vanished. Palmer felt that it would be easier for children to learn handwriting without the vintage shaded letters and (he felt) excessive loops and curved lines. Basically, he streamlined Spencerian to make handwriting instruction more compatible with the booming Industrial Age of the time.

What is the difference between Spencerian and the writing used by our Founding Fathers?

Michael Sull: Although our founding fathers were Americans, their educational heritage had strong ties to the English school curricula, for as a pioneer land of English colonies and then a fledgling country, the United States had not yet developed its own system of handwriting. Thus our colonial patriots had been taught the English Roundhand Script, or Copperplate Script, and they used this style for the writing of important documents.

Copperplate is a style characterized by letters being made with a combination of separate, individual strokes using finger movement. All lowercase letters are shaded, letters are written quite close together, curves are based on rounded forms, and the action is fairly slow and deliberate.

Spencerian is uniquely American. Letters are based on elliptical curves and are made with a graceful, swinging motion using a combination of muscle groups (finger, wrist, arm). Furthermore, Spencerian is not fatiguing, is rapidly written, has fairly wide letter-spacing, little shading, and is quite spontaneous in action. Spencerian also lends itself to embellishment far more readily than Copperplate does.

What skills should a child have before learning Spencerian?

Michael Sull: Prior to their teenage years, children should only use standard writing tools when learning Spencerian. Therefore, the basic skills required are the ability to grasp and control basic writing tools and the mental capability to learn, recognize, and practice the concepts of movement, letterform, and proper use of muscles.

You suggest starting a child out writing Spencerian with a pencil. Do you recommend a particular type of pencil? At what age (or what other criteria) would it be appropriate to switch to a pen?

Michael Sull: A regular No. 2 or N. 2 wood pencil is fine, but it should have a sharp point. Because of this, it would be helpful for students to have a portable pencil sharpener with them as they practice. By age 10 a child should be able to understand how to control their pressure upon the pencil as they write (so they don't press too hard on the paper). Thus, at age 10 children can begin using mechanical pencils with a 5 mm lead. I recommend that children do not switch to a steel pen until they are 12.

When was the oblique penholder invented and what benefit does it offer over a traditional pen? Is the oblique penholder useful for lefties?

Michael Sull: The oblique penholder design was patented by two English engineers, Sampson Mordan and William Brockedon, on November 16, 1831. It never became popular in England, and in the United States its popularity did not surface until the late 1850s. It has several marked advantages over the straight pen. An oblique penholder holds the pen point in such a position that it closely aligns the point with the slant of the letters. This allows the actual act of "inking the paper" as you write to be much smoother than it would be with a straight pen.

With an oblique penholder, it is easy to make smooth-edged shaded strokes, which is difficult to do with a straight pen. It is also easier to actually see the pen point as you are writing when an oblique holder is used; this "clearer view" of the writing area is a distinct advantage. It is also much easier to make large arcs and curved strokes (such as in capital letters) with an oblique pen than a straight holder. Your wrist is the pivot point for such strokes, and the angle of the pen point in an oblique holder makes this an easy task. With a straight holder you are drawing the inked line across the axis of the pen point; it is a more coarse, scratchy movement.

Most left-handed people write by holding their pens in a mirror-image fashion to the way right-handed people write. That is, although they do hold the pen in their left hand, they position the paper in the same perspective to their left hand as a right-handed person does to their right hand. For these lefties, the standard oblique penholder is often still useful and most frequently employed for writing Spencerian. Nonetheless, some lefties find that using a straight penholder works well for them. I would recommend trying both and determining for yourself which one is better.

For lefties who write with their hand in the "hooked" position that is, with their left hand writing in a position arched over the top of the paper, Spencerian is more difficult (but not impossible). This difficulty centers around making the shaded strokes while you are writing. Since shaded strokes can only be made by pressing down on the pen while you are moving the pen towards the baseline of writing, a lefty must place their paper in a position relative to their hand. This way, when the fingers contract to make a "downstroke" toward their own palm or wrist, the letters will rest on the baseline in a normal manner. This re-positioning of the paper is not difficult to do, but it may take a bit of getting used to. Like anyone else, the degree of progress a left-handed person makes is in direct relationship to their interest, determination, and diligent practice.

I do make left-handed oblique penholders, but I suggest that lefties try the standard oblique and/or straight penholders first. If these don't work, then perhaps the left-oblique is for you.

Can beautiful results be achieved using any of the new pen technologies for everyday writing?

Michael Sull: Yes, attractive handwriting can be achieved with any of the new writing tools that are designed to be held by the hand and used in the traditional manual way. This is not so with electronic "writing instruments" or writing programs meant to be used with (or by) a computer. The larger, broader, or heavier the point size is, however, the more difficult it is to achieve clear, crisp, and open letters, particularly with small letters like a, e, and o. I therefore recommend fine- or medium-points on any writing tools.

Even though handwriting is still taught in private, public, and home school curriculums, many students occupy their studying and scholastic hours working with a computer rather than handwriting. Consequently, because pupils seldom spend lengthy periods of time handwriting anymore, does the subject of "proper posture" remain important?

Michael Sull: The subject of posture will always be important. Whenever you are writing, you are using various muscles in your body to move your writing tool. If you use these muscles improperly, even for a short time, aches and pains can result that are not only a source of discomfort, but they can do much to take away the enjoyment and pleasure of writing. Posture means not only the way we sit when we write, but the best way to use our entire body to accomplish handwriting (or reading, too, for that matter). This also refers to the way we use our various muscles. Good posture and the proper use of our muscles is essential to good handwriting. Emphasis and instruction on proper posture is as important as teaching the letters themselves.

Your method used three-line paper while readers from the past, like the Catholic National Readers, for example, and the Spencerian copybooks use four lines. How would three lines be better than four?

Michael Sull: For children learning to write Spencerian, 3 lines are easier to work with than 4, as long as the correct proportion for letter-height are studied and practiced. In the overall process of writing, the concept of proportions is more crucial (and useful) than precise measurement. This is why 3 lines are better (in my opinion) than 4.

You developed your expertise in Spencerian penmanship through an apprenticeship. Would you please tell us how one would go about getting an apprenticeship and what sort of career path would be open to someone once the apprenticeship is successfully completed?

Michael Sull: Unfortunately, the days of apprenticing as a penman and following a career as a penman are all but vanished. There are no formal apprenticeship programs in penmanship anymore, and only a small handful of professional penmen still exist, let alone Master Penmen. And yet, if a person is absolutely determined to devote themselves and their vocational career to becoming a professional penman, I would suggest that they join an organization called the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers and Teachers of Handwriting (IAMPETH). We have an annual convention where the old time-honored techniques of Spencerian Script and Ornamental Penmanship are taught. For more information, contact Ms. Kathy Saunders, 1818 Kennedy Road, Webster, New York 14580.

What materials would a family need to buy for additional students with the purchase of your Spencerian Script Penmanship Kit?

Michael Sull: Students can share the instruction book if they wish. Each student, however, should have his/her own Cross-Drill Practice tablet and a complete set of the Handwriting Practice Sheets. If students are using the oblique penholder, then each student should have his own oblique penholder, 3 or 4 extra pen points, and his own cushion sheet. They may share a single bottle of ink.

For more information, see the Sull's website.

Many thanks to the Sulls for sharing their thoughts with us here at!

Related Resources

Review of Spencerian Script Penmanship Kit
Review of An Elegant Hand
Interview with Bruce Smith, Ph.D., on developing beautiful handwriting's Language Arts Resource Section