Calligraphy & Handwriting in America, 1710-1962

Calligraphy & Handwriting in America, 1710-1962

Calligraphy & Handwriting in America, 1710-1962

Calligraphy & Handwriting in America, 1710-1962


In the winter of 1959 the Peabody Institute Library held an exhibition of calligraphy and illumination. Three quarters of the exhibits came from England, where handwriting has lately become a subject of lively interest to both adults and children. America was represented only by familiar works of a few leading exponents. The exhibition attracted more than 4,000 visitors--a record for the Library-- and aroused, among others, the following questions:

What is being done about handwriting in the United States?

How did we come to write the way we do?

How can we improve the way we write?

To answer some of these questions, another exhibition was held late in 1961, devoted exclusively to American calligraphy and handwriting, perhaps the most comprehensive exhibition of its kind ever assembled. Beginning with a deed dated 1710, the development of handwriting for the last 250 years was unfolded by means of influential instruction books and characteristic documents. These exhibits formed Section I, the historical part of the exhibition.

Section II showed the work of contemporary calligraphers in various fields from book jackets and package design to the illumination of sacred texts and inscriptions chiseled in stone. Examples by amateurs and exercises by groups of school children were also included.

The request for material brought forth an unforeseen avalanche; lenders were so generous, and interesting material so profuse that selection was indeed difficult, and many excellent offerings had to be passed over in favor of those that represent a broad field or mark a significant development or innovation.

Since the exhibition was entitled Calligraphy and Handwriting in America, one of the first questions aroused was, "What is Calligraphy, and how does it differ from Handwriting?" For answer let us turn to two English authorities, leaders of the present revival of handwriting in their country. Stanley Morison in the Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th ed., 1929, writes:

Calligraphy is the art of fine writing, communicated by agreed signs; if these signs or symbols are engraved on wood or on stone we have that extension of writing known as lettering, i.e. a large script generally formed with mechanical aids such as the rule, the compass, and square. But it is the essence of handwriting that it be free from such, though not from all government; and of beautiful handwriting that it possess style. . . . Calligraphy may be defined as freehand in which the freedom is so nicely reconciled with order that the understanding eye is pleased to contemplate it.

Alfred Fairbank, "writer of the finest controlled hand in England," in his Book of Scripts writes:

Calligraphy is handwriting considered as an art. . . . The calligrapher, guiding his pen to form legible words, produces a fine pattern and design, and in his writing we may see unity, good form, and good . . .

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