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 cymppm@comcast.net )

 

Chester Martin
Chester Martin


John Shearer: Former American National Bank Building Turns 50

One of Chattanooga’s longtime depositors and loaners of money has collected its own form of gold this year.   The 20-story SunTrust Bank building downtown – originally built as the locally based American National Bank’s headquarters -- is reaching its golden anniversary with its 50 th  birthday.   In the early fall of 1968, the structure opened at Market ... (click for more)

The Signal Mountain Genealogical Society To Meet Aug. 7

The Signal Mountain Genealogical Society will meet at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 7.  The meeting will be held at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1160 Ridgeway Ave. Signal Mountain.  The speaker, Susan Gruwell, will present a program entitled, "Spotlight on Family Search."  Visitors are welcome. (click for more)

Man Killed, Passenger Seriously Injured; Driver Of Other Vehicle Hurt In Accident On Suck Creek Road Saturday Morning

One person was killed and two others injured in a head-on crash on Suck Creek Road on Saturday morning. The accident at 8:45 a.m. at the 2100 block of Suck Creek Road involved a Kia Sedona mini-van and a Hyundai Elantra. Preliminary results indicate that the Hyundai Elantra was traveling southbound on Suck Creek Road and, while negotiating a curve, ... (click for more)

A Jury For 2nd Time Convicts Randall Reed Of Murdering 70-Year-Old Woman In 2011

A jury for the second time has convicted Randall Reed of first-degree murder in the 2011 death of 70-year-old Jane Stokes in East Ridge. The verdict was returned in the courtroom of Judge Tom Greenholtz’s on Friday. The earlier verdict had been thrown out by an appeals court. Reed testified in his own behalf. The victim was murdered in her home during a robbery in 2011. ... (click for more)

Just Recuse Yourself

Pam Fleenor, have you ever heard the terms “conflict of interest” or “appearance of impropriety”? It’s a foregone conclusion that Robin Smith will be victorious in Chancellor Fleenor’s courtroom. Here’s another term you may want to re-examine, recuse yourself.   Rusty Munger (click for more)

Not My University: Why I’m Not Okay With Mike Pence Coming To Lee University - And Response (6)

As a student of Lee University, who is well-aware of the Lee administration’s more conservative stance in politics, I am upset about Mike Pence visiting the university and being welcomed on our campus. Although I respect that Pence is in a position of authority as our nation’s Vice President, and that he likewise deserves the right to hold his own opinions in regards to the issues ... (click for more)