Chester Martin Remembers Penmanship Class

Thursday, May 26, 2016
Early penmanship
Early penmanship

If there was any grade-school subject I hated more than Arithmetic it was Penmanship! The very thought of those two subjects could turn my insides wrongside out! Having to sit there in class while the arithmetic impressarios whizzed through their problems at the blackboard was one of the great humiliations of my younger life. (There were some of those in every math class) But Penmanship was even more of a disaster if such could be...

The Penmanship of my day was a thing of many incompatible parts, and my job as a student was to take all the parts: ink, pen point, paper, ink, pen staff, and did I say, "Ink" (?), and put them all together so as to create a page of graceful calligraphy which any museum in the world would want as part of its collection.

I always failed.

We were required to have all the above items in our desk - the ink, etc., - but, to be honest, we rarely had to actually use them, as I believe our teachers really did not like to teach the subject. A lot of accidents could occur because of the open bottles of ink, which sat seemingly securely, in deep recesses designed for no other purpose than to hold ink bottles. These were at the forward right corner of every desk and every boy's wish in the class was that a girl would be sitting in that desk who might have pig-tails which, of course, needed to be dipped into that ink bottle. This was a cliched old joke which probably pre-dated Shakespeare by many centuries, if not millennia.

The teachers really did not like to teach Penmanship, as noted, save for the ONE teacher in the entire school who LOVED the subject and had mastered all the techniques. Every school had one, and Mrs. Vess was such a teacher at Sunnyside School. She would come into the room from her own regular class for one hour, one or two days per week. Wasting not one second, she would start filling the blackboard with long rows of perfectly beautiful "bankers' script" calligraphy...repeating in a ritualistic manner the words, "Around - two - three - four - five - six, etc. Tops and bottoms of the letters were always perfectly even. She would loosen up by making "O's" first, as they seemed to be easiest for her, and we would try to copy her blackboard (chalkboard) presentation, only by using our stash of pen and ink. As mentioned earlier, there were several equipment parts that had to work harmoniously together. The small metal pen itself had to be inserted into a wooden penstaff which was easy enough. But the pen was made out of some kind of spring steel and was very sharp. It was also split, so the writing point which came in contact with the paper would spread when pressure was applied, and could produce beautiful thick and thin letters - if you knew the trick. And there was the rub! No one told you it took years, and constant practice, to learn how to get the desired results. Girls seemed to have slightly better luck at it than the boys, but it was really a bad experience for all - surely was for me! The sharp point would suddenly bite into the paper and the minuscule jolt would cause the ink to splatter and ruin any work that might otherwise be almost passable.

Fountain pens did exist, however, and were not forbidden in the classroom, but a good one might cost $5, which was about $4.75 more than most of us could afford. Our parents would rarely buy us the more expensive item when the cheap ones had been the mainstay of their own writing classes.

But Time marched on, and 1946 became 1947 - and I was at Brainerd Junior High School. Then, out of the blue, without any publicity, there was an absolutely astounding new writing implement which burst on the scene: the ball-point pen! I can point out to this day exactly which room I was in - and the window I was sitting near - when I saw my first one! The girl I sat next to in English class had one, and I was mesmerized by watching her write with it. I asked to try it and she gladly consented; I think I almost wore it out! The entire once-big culture which had formed around the fountain pen industry suddenly vanished, and the once beautiful calligraphic qualities of handwriting have declined ever since. Ball points cannot produce those richly thick-and thin- letters of my youth, nor of the country's early days. Have you ever seen a legal document of 100 years ago or more, so beautifully written by someone like our Mrs. Vess, above? I am personally grateful that I was "saved by the ball-point", yet I deplore the decline that it led to handwriting in general. It is safe to say that the majority of school kids of the present day can only barely write, by comparison. The keyboard has replaced handwriting in the same way the ball-point pen replaced "bankers' style" calligraphy.

Around thirty years ago Ken Burns, of Documentary fame, filmed a truly great history of our American Civil War. He used many actual examples of beautifully composed letters which were exchanged during that conflict: remarkable for both their verbal content and their calligraphic qualities. Though personally glad to be  typing these articles on a keyboard, there is a part of me that will always lament losing the older system, even if it did involve the use of ink!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )


Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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