Posts Tagged ‘history of handwriting in Britain’

Why Britain Made a Change to Vertical Handwriting

July 9, 2011

A Sample of British Writing from 1888--Notice the Forward Slant to the Right

Examining older samples of British writing (1800s, and much of the pre-WWII writing), the British handwriting of that time was slanted to the right (as were cursive scripts in most European countries).  Now, most British writing is vertical.  How and when did this change come about?

Reading this 1925 letter written by A. N. Palmer, developer of the Palmer Method of handwriting, the actual preferred slant used to be a very precise 52°.  Mention of the precise 52° angle is also made in this 1893 article (see p. 87 at this link)  which argues for an introduction of vertical, unslanted writing.  Today, an ideal slant is considered to be between 60° and 75°.

Spencerian Script written at a perfect 52° angle

In Britain, in the early 1890’s, Professor John Jackson introduced vertical writing, which he felt had superior legibility, and was easier for students to learn.  Examiners began to require it in all branches of the Civil Service.  Many English schools began to adopt professor Jackson’s copy books.  Progressive German schools also began to use Professor Jackson’s system.

A Sample of Vertical British Handwriting

One argument used at the time was that vertical writing, by virtue of the fact that “the perpendicular of every right-angled triangle is shorter than the hypotenuse, and therefore there is less distance for the pen to travel in making vertical lines, than in making slanting lines.”  (Joseph Witherbee, 1893, p. 89-90)

As a teacher of handwriting for many years, I disagree, however.  Trying this out personally, I find that in vertical writing, the position of the hand creates a far greater drag on the paper, because of the hand being in the way; in forward-slanted writing, because the paper is turned, the position of the hand creates much less drag and the hand can move across the paper more swiftly.

One other argument for vertical cursive made at the time was that it does not require the student to have to “twist their spine” in order to write it, but instead to maintain a straight, upright posture which was “better for their health.”

Again, as a teacher of slanted cursive for many years, I can firmly state that if students are twisting in order to write slanted cursive, it is because the teacher does not know what they are doing in terms of showing students that they should be turning their paper on a greater angle in order to achieve the desired slant, rather than twisting their body.

Vertical writing apparently became more standard in England  after World War II (most British and French hands written prior to that time that I am familiar with still show slanted writing, while today, both countries generally have vertical writing), as young people learned the new style of handwriting, and those with slanted styles passed away.  (Vertical writing apparently spread to Germany and Austria starting around the 1890’s, and to France in the first half of the 20th century.)

Yet, in America, according to Palmer, “The vertical fell of its own weight…because in slowing down the process of writing, it was even worse than the old 52° copy book style.”  The Palmer method was developed specifically for business use, meaning for speed combined with legibility.  American cursive remains slanted to this day.

–Lynne Diligent

Other Cursive Posts by Lynne Diligent:

Part I:  What NOT to Do When Teaching Cursive in the Classroom

Part 2:  Help for Teachers/Other Adults Who Need/Want to Learn Cursive on Their Own, or in Preparation for Teaching Cursive