Spencerian Penmanship Theory – A review

In my quest to improve my handwriting, I have picked up some interesting reproductions of the Spencerian Penmanship school books that would have been widely used in the American classroom from the 1850s until about 1900 as more simplified, easier to teach writing styles became more popular.

My hope is that by reading (and in some parts re-reading repetitiously) the theory book, and doing the exercises (which will probably take me at least 50 hours, at a guess), I can really begin to retrain my hand/mind so that I can write with a script I can be happy with.

I’ll discuss my progress with the copy books in a later post, but the reason for obtaining the Theory book might be less self-evident, so I want to review the Theory book first.

The book

Disclaimer:  I’m trying something a little new here.  I’ve never made money from this site, and I’m not sure I ever will, but I want to try the whole “monetize by affiliate linking” experiment.  I apparently get over 350 viewers per month, and only one of them is my husband, so I assume everyone else who visits my site is lead here by search engines.  I am delighted that you’re visiting, and I have had an uptick in “likes” and “followers” lately.  I guess that means I’m writing about something that some people want to hear about.  But I don’t really know what lead you here.

So if this new commercial gesture offends some, I do apologize, but if people are here because they like my reviews, perhaps they will be interested in helping me buy more crafty things to review. As a matter of course, I was going to link to Amazon anyway, just to show you the book I’m talking about. Now perhaps, the links will do something for me.

Spencerian Penmanship (Theory Book)

If you buy the books from either of the links to Amazon on this page, I will apparently get some tiny percentage back as an “advertising” fee. However, my review as follows is my very honest unbiased own opinion, I bought the book with my own money earned from my day job, and I don’t need you to buy the book to eat, so please don’t feel obliged.

The texture of history

First, let me say that these are LOVINGLY reproduced books. When I bought this sight-unseen, I assumed like many historical reproductions that it would be a cheaply produced, copy of a ditto of a typed-on-a-typewriter reproduction with blotchy inscrutable copies of the woodcuts.  Instead, everything is nicely laid out with a crisp and clean font, and a modern sensibility for interline spacing.  All the diagrams of pen strokes have been redone, and the woodcuts that are present are as cleanly reproduced as one could hope for, given that they are presumably based on woodcuts from over 150 years ago.  The cover has a vellum-like satiny finish which I find to be an interesting texture, and is printed to graphically evoke a leather-bound book.  The pages themselves feel nicer than cheap copy paper, which is more than I expected.

Hand positioning for geeks

The Spencerian Penmanship Theory book goes into exhaustive and pedantic detail about every angle of how one should sit, how one should precisely hold a pen, what exact strokes make up the foundations of writing, exactly what angle the downstroke and connecting stroke should have to the horizontal, and so forth.  This is NOT going to be entertaining to everyone.  It’s pedantic and dry, and there are some terms and definitions that simply do not match up with the modern world.  Of course, I found it charming.

Reading this Theory book, I can really visualize the Victorian era classroom, the schoolmarm or master drilling fidgety pupils at little wooden desks in one-room schoolhouses or boarding schools.  It’s so Anne of Green Gables.  So charming!

And it’s such a product of the rote style of learning era, drilled questions, “measure and analyze the Capital C”,  “describe and form the First Principle “, etc.  And yet, I feel like I can get a lot out of some of the repetition.  I am finding myself opening the theory book every time I sit down to write, just to re-read the hand-position section in the beginning of the book.  I think I need to try the rote/repetitious style in order to overcome nearly 30 years of bad handwriting habits.

Here is my “normal” hand position.  I clearly need help!

hand gripping pencil in a fist

My lousy default hand position

Exhaustively detailed letter forms

The part I found less entertaining comprised the latter two-thirds of the book.  It contains lengthy descriptions of each letter and number form in a question-answer format.  I do think I will enjoy referencing this section as I approach each letter form through the practice exercises in the Copy Books.  But not being interested in memorizing the entire book like a 19th century school kid, it makes for a fairly dull read-through.


Adults:  If you are an adult trying to reteach yourself beautiful handwriting, I think you should only consider this book if you are:

  • Charmed by “old-timey” books or historical reproductions
  • Have a historical or re-enactment reason for wanting to pursue Spencerian handwriting
  • Learn really well from reading (there are not tons of diagrams for hand position)

I kind of fit all of the above.

Teaching Children:  If you are trying to teach your child cursive handwriting, consider whether your child learns well by doing drills.  If so, this might be a really excellent guidebook, but the rote methods of learning aren’t really in favor in the education world these days.  I won’t be able to test it out on my kid for many years yet, and I think I might consider modifying it for a modern audience unless he really wants to play “historical schoolroom” or something.  That is, assuming he’s even interested in learning cursive, because I’m 99% certain that no style of cursive will be taught in school by the time he goes through and I’m not going to force it on him.

If none of the above reasons apply, and/or you learn better by watching, there are a number of good videos out there that will demonstrate the hand position or the motions of writing.  Here’s a video demonstrating hand position that I thought was very nice (her old hand position looks a bit like my default one!). I’m sure it didn’t hurt me to get a look at someone practicing the skill.

hand writing in copy book

Better grip (correct? time will tell) as influenced by the Spencerian Penmanship Theory book, writing in Copy Book 1


I’ll review the copy books fully in a later post, but whether or not you get the Theory book, if you are on a mission to try Spencerian cursive, you should strongly consider the set of copy books.  I don’t think the Theory book really “works” without the scripted exercises in the Copy Book series.  You essentially spend an entire page working on the downslanted stroke, another page working on a downslant plus the connecting stroke, and eventually work your way up to letters, words, and phrases.  You might be able to find downloads of the copy books somewhere on the internet, because I think the whole lot fell out of copyright at some point before being picked up by the current publisher.  I could not find them, but didn’t try very hard since the set of reproduced copybooks seemed worth a shot.

Spencerian Copybooks 1-5, Set, without Theory Book (Spencerian Penmanship)

FTC disclosure:  Within this post, I have used some “affiliate links” which means that if you end up buying the listed product from Amazon.com, I will supposedly get a small percentage as an “advertising fee”.  So far, this is a hypothetical situation, as I have just started trying it out.  I am only going to share links of items that have been useful to me.  I am not going to write a more favorable review in the hopes that someone buys something.  So far, I have bought all the items reviewed.  Thus far, no brand or company has come by offering to give me product in exchange for reviews, however, I am open to that as long as you don’t expect an uncritical review of your brand/product.


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