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  • An Elegant Hand: The Golden Age of American Penmanship and Calligraphy
  • Monika Eberhard
An Elegant Hand: The Golden Age of American Penmanship and Calligraphy. By William E. Henning and edited by Paul Melzer. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2002. xi, 307 pp. $59.95. ISBN 1-58456-067-3.

An Elegant Hand traces the evolution of penmanship in the work of selected American handwriting masters. With a straightforward, readable style infused with wit and a sense of storytelling, Henning guides readers through the subtleties of orthography with clear details and abundant examples. Spanning nearly one hundred years of calligraphic effort, Henning examines the work of Platt Rogers Spencer, George A. Gaskell, Louis Madarasz, William E. Dennis, Austin Norman Palmer, Francis B. Courtney, and William C. Henning.

The book includes multiple illustrations on nearly every page. This richness of visual content allows researchers to quickly see examples of technical points explained in the text. A variety of media and calligraphic usages keeps the examples from getting monotonous or repetitive. Among the included samples are advertisements for handwriting schools, elaborately addressed envelopes, cartoons and caricatures, and even photos of white-on-black chalkboard demonstrations. The breadth of examples facilitates the comparison of individual styles as well as scholarly analysis of the evolution of methods and appearances of penmanship techniques over time.

For readers unfamiliar with technical matters of penmanship—such as the difference between French Roundhand and Engrosser's Script—Henning's succinct captions accompanying each illustration enhance and expand the text. Handwriting experts will appreciate the extensive research into historical context and its underlying social implications. Both kinds of researchers can appreciate the book's many illustrations of penmen's forays into graphics such as feathers, grasses, abstract curlicues, and numerous flourished birds. Some of these drawings, especially those advertising handwriting schools, accompany and are even woven into exquisitely rendered words, but some are entirely isolated from text and exist solely for their own aesthetic value. Henning also incorporates educational instructions from the time, showing not only examples of penmen practicing letters and the strokes that make them up but also lengthy successions of precisely equal ovals and spirals designed to both improve and display manual skills.

In addition to explaining and illustrating the technical aspects of handwriting, Henning goes into extensive personal detail about the lives of the "stars" of calligraphy's golden age. These men were celebrities in their time, and the speed and skill with which they commanded a pen drew widespread awe. Public demonstrations with chalk on blackboards attracted large crowds of admirers. Henning refrains from digressing into unnecessary trivia and uses the stories and personal anecdotes to draw connections among the events and people that influenced the men covered in the book.

A foreword by modern penmanship master Delbert Tysdal offers a perspective of the labor and drudgery of a handwriting student. Business colleges in [End Page 100] particular stressed penmanship at that time, and most classes used genuine business transactions for their drills. Historian and calligrapher Ross Green introduces the book by going over the scant research into a fading field, making it clear that Henning's publication will be highly valuable. But the book proves its own worth with thorough research, an engaging writing style, and rich, gorgeous illustrations.

Monika Eberhard
University of Texas at Austin


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 100-101
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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