A History: English round hand and ‘The Universal Penman’

The English round hand is a style of handwriting that developed in the 18th century, primarily in Great Britain. It grew out of earlier writing styles, especially the cursive styles of the late 17th century, which were written with pens that had a flexible nib (rather than the flatly cut tip on the broad-edged pens in use in the Renaissance). It developed into several related writing styles in the 19th century, but it flourished during the Age of Enlightenment – and of commerce.

Round hand sample from the Universal Penman

The English round hand, a business hand with flourishes. From George Bickham’s The Universal Penman. (Folio 143, detail.) Image courtesy of the Letterform Archive, San Francisco.

This lettering style, which looks so ornate to us today, was in fact developed as a practical commercial hand, useful for everyday mercantile documents such as contracts, bills of sale, and accountants’ ledgers. It was considered easy to read and, significantly for its widespread success, easy to teach.

The Universal Penman

In the 18th century, writing masters taught handwriting to educated men and women, especially to men who would be expected to use it on a daily basis in commerce. The craft of legible and elegant handwriting was a useful business skill.

18th century letter of credit from the Universal Penman

An exemplary 18th-century letter of credit, from George Bickham’s The Universal Penman. (Folio 134, detail.) Image courtesy of the Letterform Archive, San Francisco.

To aid in teaching this craft, enterprising publishers brought out “copy books”: manuals of handwriting that presented good examples and encouraged their emulation. Throughout this period a new copy book would come out almost every year.

The most famous and ambitious compendium of this flowering of English handwriting was The Universal Penman. This was the work of George Bickham, a calligrapher and engraver who in 1733 took on the task of inviting the best scribes of his day to contribute examples of their finest handwriting, which would be engraved, published, and sold to subscribers as a series of 52 parts over a period of eight years.

“All of this activity and interest was caused by just two things: the rising importance of English commercial enterprise, and the development, under these writing masters, of a round, even, flowing hand for business correspondence, which proved to be a well-nigh perfect technique when used by well trained clerks. It was legible, neat in appearance, and above all, swifter in execution than any of the hands practised at that time elsewhere in Europe.”

—Philip Hofer, introduction of the 1941 facsimile of The Universal Penman, published by Paul A. Struck

Title page from The Universal Penman

Title page of The Universal Penman, George Bickham, published in London in 1743. Image courtesy of the Letterform Archive, San Francisco.

“Twenty-five penmen contributed specimens for him to engrave,” writes Hofer. “Among these were the best masters of the day: E. Austin, John Bland, William and Gabriel Brooks, Zachary Chambers, Joseph Champion, Willington Clark, Richard Morris and Samuel Vaux.”

In an earlier publication, Penmanship In Its Utmost Beauty and Extent, Bickham had traced the development of penmanship in Britain by showing examples from the previous generation of writing masters. There’s a clear continuity, but styles had been developing and becoming more refined as they evolved from the Renaissance chancery script toward what would become round hand.

Writing excerpt showing a bill from Penmanship In Its Utmost Extent

A bill, with flourishes: writing samples from Bickham’s earlier writing book, Penmanship In Its Utmost Beauty and Extent; London, 1731. (Folio 10, detail.) Image courtesy of the Letterform Archive, San Francisco.

The Universal Penman illustrates more than just English round hand, but that is by far the dominant style. Its pages demonstrate how this kind of writing can be used in the most ordinary of business documents (though none of them looks the least bit ordinary in these tour-de-force examples). The book includes Bickham’s own invitation to his contributors, and in some cases their replies to him. It also features blackletter and a remarkable kind of blocky but elegant roman caps — John Baskerville’s roman capital letters come closest in contemporary type design — along with a somewhat slimmer style of cursive script, with more elegant blobs on the ends of many of the extending strokes, that harks back to the look of 17th-century handwriting.

Roman caps complementing running text in a cursive hand, from the Universal Penman

Roman caps complementing running text in a cursive hand, from George Bickham’s The Universal Penman. (Folio 8, detail.) Image courtesy of the Letterform Archive, San Francisco.

Older style of penmanship is rounder and more upright

Example of a somewhat older style, rounder and more upright, from George Bickham’s Penmanship in its Utmost Beauty and Extent (London, 1731), folio 17 (detail). Image courtesy of the Letterform Archive, San Francisco.

For what was meant to be a practical form of business handwriting, the round-hand scripts displayed in The Universal Penman feature a surprising number of flamboyant flourishes and decorative extensions. While both the writers and the engravers were certainly showing off in this grand exemplary production, this also reflected real practice in 18th-century handwritten documents – not all of them, perhaps, but the ones that were supposed to make an impression.

One Response

  1. vearjohn says:

    can a document be written by hand –as with a digital pen’s nib– onto the digital online screen?

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John Berry

John D. Berry

John Berry writes, speaks, and consults extensively on typography, has written and edited several books, and has been a program manager on the Fonts team at Microsoft. He is Director of the Scripta Typographic Institute.