Skill. In an age when all documents had to be written by hand, it was essential that these documents be written neatly and legibly. Handwriting was an important skill to learn, and there was disagreement about the best way to teach it. Most schools simply taught writing by having students learn words; the Lancastrian system and Jenkins’s system both taught letters before words. Jenkins’s system was specifically a way to learn penmanship, while Lancaster’s system was part of a whole theory of education. Writing with a good hand was crucial to doing business, and young men trying to advance in the business world would generally enter an established firm as a clerk, responsible for copying documents. It was essential that they write clearly and quickly. One writing teacher noted that his students were graded 70 percent on legibility, 20 percent on speed, and 10 percent on elegance.
Jenkins. The first important American writing text was published in 1791 by John Jenkins of Boston. Jenkins believed that writing was “a mechanical art to be taught mechanically” and argued that all letters were based on six strokes. Jenkins ultimately published his lessons in a series of seven books titled The Art of Writing Reduced to a Plain and Easy System, on a Plan Entirely New (1813), and included recipes for ink, directions for making pens, and practice business forms. Writing lessons typically took one to two hours per day, as students both practiced the six basic strokes and the formation of letters. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences endorsed Jenkins’s method, and it proved popular throughout the country.
School Supplies. Paper was an expensive commodity not to be wasted on teaching children to write. In the Lancastrian schools of New York City, children learned to form letters on a table covered with a layer of sand. Later, these schools began writing with chalk on boards painted black. In Vermont, where slate was plentiful, children could use it for their writing exercises. Slate was breakable, and students were often required to provide their own. Elsewhere, pupils used tree bark or other materials when writing their lessons. Students would learn to write using charcoal, rocks, or chalk. Pens were difficult to find, and pupils would have to make their own out of sticks or feathers, using a special small knife (a “penknife”) to shape their point. Pupils would also learn to make lead pencils by pouring molten lead into a crack in a brick hearth. When the lead hardened, it could be removed and one end sharpened. In 1812 William Monroe of Concord, Massachusetts, found a way to manufacture pencils in quantity. He gave up the business, but John Thoreau of Concord, father of Henry David Thoreau, helped support his family by making and selling pencils to a Boston art school.
Itinerant Instructors. Many writing teachers found it difficult to support themselves in one place, so they traveled to different towns to offer writing lessons. Amos Towne, for example, had taught in Gloucester, Haverhill, Andover, and Salem, Massachusetts, before settling in Hartford, Connecticut, where he hoped to draw students both from that city and New Haven. He advertised that students could “acquire a fair regular handwriting” through his fifteen ninety-minute exercises, and after suitable practice “may acquire a habit of writing with ease and dispatch.” His method was based on Jenkins’s theory, as were most other systems of writing. One writing teacher in Hartford reminded readers in 1815 that “writing is the soul of commerce, the picture of the past, the regulator of the future, and the messenger of thought,” and invited both young men intent on careers in business and children beginning their education to attend his school. “Let those Write now who never Wrote before,” he urged, heartened at the return of peace which would bring more business to merchants and clerks and “important changes in the commercial department.” The future belonged to good, clear writers, he knew, and he closed his statement with a warning: “Those parents who prefer that their children should continue their ‘marking and guessing’ on the common plan, to the loss of much time and stationary, and to the neglect of more important branches, ought not to complain, if they miss their object, disappoint their expectations, and, instead of reaching the heights of scientific eminence and profound erudition, they prove in the end but superficial scholars.”
PEN AND INK
According to the American Instructor (1799), the best way to make a quill pen was as follows:
Scrape off the superfluous Scurff on the back of the Quill, so that the slit may be fine, and without the Gander’s teeth. Cut Quill at end half through the back Part, and then turning up the Belly cut the other half or part quite through viz about a fourth or about half an inch at the end of the Quill which will then appear forked. Then enter the Pen knife a little back of the Notch and then putting the peg of the Pen knife Haft (or the end of another Quill) into the back Notch holding your thumb pretty hard on the back of the Quill (as high as you intend the slit to be) then with a sudden and quick Twitch force up the Slit. It must be sudden and smart that the Slit may be clearer. Then by several cuts of each Side bring the Quill into equal Shape or Form on both sides, and having brought it to a fine Point place the inside of the Nib on the Nail of your Thumb and enter the Knife at the extremity of the Nib, and cut it through a little sloping. Then with an almost downward cut of the Knife, cut the Nib, and then by other proper cuts finish the Pen, bringing it into handsome Shape and proper Form.
John Jenkins’s recipe for ink was found in The Art of Writing (1813):
Recipe to make excellent Black Ink. For three pints.
3 oz. Aleppo Galls
3 oz. Copperas
1 oz. Gum Arabic
Boil six ounces of Logwood, strain through a cloth and mix the whole. The ink will be better if the Galls are steeped several days first and the copperas, etc., added afterwards.