The Theory and Practice of Handwriting/Chapter 2

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This is a subject that has seldom if ever been referred to, much less treated and discussed in Works on Education or in Manuals of Handwriting.

The idea itself is only in its infancy and with one exception has been confined to medical essays and excerpts. Nevertheless wonderful progress has been made during the past two or three years; and as medical men and teachers are the sole authorities on this subject, it will be sufficient to confine the arguments within the limits of their united evidence.

On the general question a paper was read by the author of these pages at the Seventh International Congress of Hygiene and Demography, London, August 1891, followed by a resolution, the substance and text of which are reproduced here as fairly covering the ground to be explored. On the particular aspects of the question as relating to Spinal Curvature and Shortsight a report by a Commission of Specialists was presented to the Imperial and Royal Supreme Council of Health Vienna February 1891. The substance of this Report will afford abundant proof of the relation of writing to health and will conclusively demonstrate the positions taken up.

Writing is almost as important as speaking, there being no occupation or rank in life into which as a potent factor and as an energising influence writing does not enter. In the diary of the private individual, the correspondence of everyday life, the records of business transactions, the literature of the author, the briefs of the barrister or the manuscripts of the Theologian and Ecclesiastic writing is equally essential and universal. Not only is it thus all pervasive throughout civilised society it rises to even greater prominence and significance in the case of the hundreds of thousands who as secretaries, copyists or clerks follow writing as their profession or business, and derive from it their sole means of subsistence.

Such persons are occupied the year round, for from 8 to 16 hours daily, exclusively in clerical work. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of an art which is pre-eminently the vital principle in the machinery of the Law, the Civil Service, Commerce, Science and individual as well as international communication. If we look into the origin and development of handwriting we find it had its birth in an age of semi barbarism; that at first it consisted of the most imperfect pictorial representations, which gradually merged into a still crude hieroglyphic as the basis of an incipient alphabet. Subsequently this alphabet was improved and modified, and at last developed into what may be termed a phonetic one, although very defective, the characters having little scientific meaning or relationship. From the ornate and laboured style of the mediæval period the present Italian style has been evolved, and if we carefully trace this evolution through its manifold stages and variations, we discover that it and they have all been purely responsive to exclusively caligraphic or so-called artistic demands. Pursuing the investigation a step further, the fact is revealed that these caligraphic and artistic demands have been dictated and controlled, not by logical or scientific principles, but by capricious and often conflicting theories.

The writing, and not the writer, has always been the supreme consideration in the growth of the art of penmanship. A certain style of writing was deemed or decreed to be essential, the idea of protest was never entertained, and our ancestors had to bend cringe and twist under the system of bondage thus established. As to Hygienic principles these have never been associated even in a remote degree with the history of slanting writing that for some two hundred years has flourished amongst us.

Indeed physiological requirements have not been recognised much less urged until within the past few years, and even at the present day but few teachers would be found to spontaneously admit any possible connection between Hygiene and Handwriting. That these Hygienic principles should be an integral part of any system of penmanship whatever, there cannot be the shadow of a doubt, but it may be emphatically stated that the existing style of oblique or slant writing has been elaborated not only independently, but in spite of every physiological demand. Awkward and painful postures have always accompanied the practice of sloping writing. It is more than surprising that such injurious distortions should ever have been for one moment tolerated, but the power or dominance of fashion over our minds is incredibly imperious and overwhelming. It is not the less remarkable that when the subject of school postures first engaged the attention of the medical faculty the real root of the malady was never for one moment suspected and that it remained for so long a time undiscovered. Possibly this was after all not unnatural as the idea of a flaw or defect in the writing itself would be the last to strike the mind of the enquirer.

Hence the various and contradictory charges that have been made. First, the Instruction was at fault. Teachers were indifferent or not sufficiently careful to inculcate correct position. It only needed strict attention efficient and constant supervision to remedy the evil. Time and experience however proved the contrary, for unhealthy postures were found co-existent with the most sedulous care and perfect instruction. A crusade was then inaugurated against Desks and Seats—and not before time. The former were too sloping or otherwise, too high or too low, and furthermore they were not adjustable, so we got adjustable desks and broader seats, both being brought to a state of almost perfect Hygienic and mechanical excellence. Nevertheless the Bad Postures survived still.

The question of Light was next considered, but when that was set right the positions were still wrong and the matter remained in abeyance for a brief space. Last of all attention was directed to the Writing (the Sloping Writing) itself, and it is cause for congratulation that this attack was made; for the unanimous opinion of the numerous experts engaged in the investigation is that the Slant or Slope of our writing is the undoubted cause of the abnormal and injurious postures so grievously complained of. As will appear in the Sequel there is no room for doubt, question or challenge. Teachers, Oculists and Surgeons combine in one united body and give an unqualified verdict. For thirty years we have had abundant opportunity for observation and experiment and we give an emphatic, unreserved confirmation to the testimony just alluded to. No matter what pattern desks and seats are in use, what the light may be and what the nature and thoroughness of the instruction; whenever children are required to write in the sloping style their postures will present every variety of abnormity and distortion.

The concurrent evidence of a body of medical experts and specialists supported by the experience of thousands of teachers goes to show that in sloping writing the side position of the body is inevitable; that twisting of the head or neck, and distortion of the spine must accompany this side position; that displacement of the right shoulder, deflection of the wrist, a disturbance of the common action of the two eyes with a consequent delusive and oblique view of the book, and an unhealthy compression of the chest walls involving pneumonic and gastric disturbances, are the inseparable accompaniments of the postures required in and necessary to oblique writing.

The directions generally prescribed to a writing class where sloping penmanship is taught run as follow:—

1. Left sides to the desk.
2. Left arms close in to side.
3. Left hands on Copy Books.
4. Right elbows in to side.
5. Pens pointing to right ear (or chin).
6. Faces turned towards Books.
7. Grasp pens firmly and Go on!!!

What can be expected from a system of writing that inflicts such conditions as these? As to the writing an answer is supplied in Chapter I,—it is a miserable failure; and with reference to the writers themselves we get such a number of debilitated and deformed victims so seriously affected in lungs, spine or eyes as to create a feeling of alarm in medical and educational circles and even in Departments and Councils.

Eminent Medical Gentlemen have pursued their investigations into the question of postures in schools with great ability patience and success. Such experts as Barnard, Cohn, Carpenter, Carter, Coindet Reuss, Lorenz, Smith have been indefatigably working, with the outcome of a unanimous pronouncement that all the ills which initiated the inquiry are traceable to the postures assumed in and required by the Slanting writing.

One writer says "The postures of young people assumed in the sloping writing are one of the chief factors in the production of spinal curvature."

Another declares these postures to be "without doubt recognisable as one of the most frequent causes of crooked growth." Were this the only effect it would be more than enough to justify an official inquiry into the whole question; but when equally dismal testimony is borne to the injury of other organs (notably the eyes) and the interference with other functions, the urgency of the case becomes irresistible.

Vertical Writing is the only specific for these abnormal postures and their train of disastrous consequences. The elaboration of the argument in support of this statement will be found in the able analysis detailed in Appendix II at the end of this volume. The material difference between this Upright or Perpendicular Style and Slanting Writing is in the Direction of the Downstrokes of the letters; in the former being definitely and absolutely Vertical in the latter indefinitely and variously Sloped or Oblique. It is incredible what a difference this slight and seemingly insignificant alteration in the down strokes makes, and what an effect it exerts upon the writer. When found in conjunction with the minor characteristics of the system, viz. short loops, minimum thickness and continuity the results are almost magical.

Before detailing the several Hygienic merits of Upright

See also Report of French Commission, by Dr. Javal (Physiology of Writing, Pocket Pedagogical Library, No. 2).

Penmanship reference may be made to some of the statements of Medical Men in regard to its claims. The opinions are dogmatic and incontestable.

"Vertical Writing is the only system consistent with all Hygienic principles."

"It is impossible for writers to avoid twisting the Spine unless they adopt an upright style of caligraphy."

"The absolute superiority of this method of writing over other methods must be recognised."

"Upright Writing is very much to be preferred to oblique Writing."

Now what is the posture necessary to the Vertical Writing? In one word it is the natural position, indeed it is the posture that a pupil will instinctively assume in the effort to write vertically. Granted that the book lies evenly on the desk in the straight middle position (as described further on) and that the Scholar has been duly instructed how to hold his pen, the writer's position is actually dictated by the style of writing adopted, and he sits square before his desk both arms evenly placed thereon, the whole posture being the simplest and easiest that could be prescribed for the work to be done. The eyes look straight down upon the page, the hand wrist and arm are in the best condition and relation for a running handwriting, the body is not distressed by artificial posing, the spine rests in a normal condition, the chest remains free from all external pressure, and the writing is thus produced with the least expenditure of energy and therefore with the minimum amount of weariness.

By referring to the diagrams (figs. 7 & 8) it will be observed that instead of the oblique or side position we have the square or front posture; instead of the head all awry we have a straight pose securing an identity or parallelism of the facial and chest planes with the edge of the desk; instead of the elbows close in to the side we have them both unrestricted and free; instead of the oblique and hence delusive view of the book we secure an even and perfect command of the page; and in place of the awkward sprawl over the desk we have the nearly upright position, free from even the tendency towards an unhealthy or painful attitude. It may be safely asserted that since all unnatural positions are

Theory and Practice of Handwriting-034-Fig 7.jpg

Position in Sloping Writing (Front View)
Position in Vertical Writing (Front View)

Fig. 7.

precluded from the System, Vertical Writing strictly fulfils every Hygienic requirement.

When we turn to the actual achievements of Vertical Writing, as exhibited in the evidence of numerous teachers in schools of all grades where it has been adopted and tested what do we see? In passing let it be remembered that this test of experience is the crucial test, which has once for all determined the correctness

Theory and Practice of Handwriting-035-Fig 8.jpg

Twisted Position Required and Taught in
Sloping Writing
(Back View)

Natural Position Required and Taught in
Vertical Writing
(Back View)


Fig. 8.

and soundness of medical theories and deductions, as well as of our own frequently repeated categorical assertions.

It is found that the Evidence is Uniform, undisturbed by a single conflicting dissentient. Scores and hundreds of these contributions have been received (from all parts of Great Britain and the Continent) yielding a variety of testimony covering every point in the controversy. Whilst teachers unanimously declare that vertical writing disposes finally and satisfactorily of the painful postures that have in the Sloping writing worked such havoc amongst school children for so many years, they also unite in testifying that the Upright Penmanship enkindles a greater interest in the art specially with pupils, that it entails much less labour in teaching, that it wonderfully accelerates the rate of progress and improvement, that it secures a much higher standard of excellence and that it materially increases the speed of the writer. These points however will be considered later on.

Theory and Practice of Handwriting-036-Fig 9.jpg

Fig. 9.

During the discussion which followed the reading of his paper the author formulated the following resolution, which, being proposed by Dr. Noble Smith (and by Dr. Kotelmann in German) and seconded by Professor Gladstone (then) Vice Chairman of the School Board for London, was put and carried.

"That, as the Hygienic advantages of Vertical Writing have been clearly demonstrated and established both by Medical investigation and practical experiment and that as by its adoption the injurious postures so productive of spinal curvature and short sight are to a very great extent avoided, it is hereby recommended that Upright Penmanship he introduced and generally taught in our elementary and secondary schools."

Every member of the congress that addressed the section spoke in unqualified terms of the claims of Upright Penmanship to every Hygienic Superiority, and nothing could have been more unanimous than the feeling which pervaded the entire meeting on the subject.

To proceed to the aspects of this Hygienic Relation in a particular sense, we would direct attention to the opinions and report of the Specialists appointed by the Vienna Supreme Council to investigate the effect of Vertical Writing upon the attitude of the body and the checking of defects of sight—Professor A. R. v. Reuss (University Vienna) in Ophthalmology and Professor A. Lorenz (University Vienna) in Orthopædics. Report of French Commission—Dr. Javal, Physiologie de l'Ecriture (Pocket Pedagogical Library, No. 2).

A.Professor Reuss' (Ophthalmologist) opinion in respect of Ophthalmology

For years the School Desk question occupied medical men and teachers. Short sight and spinal curvature continually increasing in number and degree called for preventive measures. The question of School Desks was considered as solved by a correct proportioning to the size of the writer, by the introduction of the minimum distance and the application of back-rests. The question proved unsolved. Children sat upon the new benches approved by the faculty just as badly as upon the old. . . . To the oculist and to the surgeon it was always evident that the position of the head in writing exercises a powerful influence on the attitude of the whole body, and that an abnormity in the pose of the head which is at first apparently unimportant soon brings in its train a very erroneous position of the entire body. It was also found that in reading we always turn the head so that the base-line of the eyes (that is the line connecting the axes of the two eyes) if prolonged to meet the surface of the page corresponds to the direction of the lines of print. Moreover in writing it will usually be seen that the ground strokes of the letters stand perpendicular to this prolongation of the base-line of the eyes. The direction of the lines of writing and the angle which the downstrokes make with those lines influence considerably therefore the attitude of the head and body of the writer. But even here there soon appeared a difference between theory and practice. People thought that if only the ground strokes came to be vertical to the edge of the desk the base line of the eyes must needs remain parallel to this edge and so the whole body exhibits an upright posture. But this was not so. In the so-called oblique middle position (see Chap. VII. for explanation) of the Copy Book the above postulate was fulfilled and yet the children sat awry. It became manifest that the direction of the lines exercised a great influence on the attitude of the body and that the school children placed the base-line of their eyes parallel to the edge of the desk when the lines also ran parallel to it provided that a turning of the head was not necessitated by the obliquity of the letters, i.e., provided the ground strokes stand upright on the lines or in other words that vertical writing is used.

To Principal Dr. Bayr we owe the service of having first proved by experiments on a large scale the accuracy of the hypotheses or theoretical considerations we have just briefly stated. They triumphantly furnished the proof. The position of the scholars in Vertical Writing is an exemplary one; the head is slightly bent and remains—which, to the oculist, is the most essential point—at a suitable distance from the desk, and therewith the whole body preserves a correct attitude. The desks on which these experiments took place were not such as to exercise especially favourable effect on the posture and it was observed that the same scholars who sat correctly in Vertical Writing at once assumed the faulty posture which is found in all schools during writing as soon as they wrote a sloping hand. In fact it could easily be recognised by the attitude of the body in which style they were writing when part of the pupils were instructed to write sloping and part upright.

One must however at once meet an objection which was made on the part of a teacher.

"If in a school" says he "one subject is cultivated so much beyond others as writing is with Dr. Bayr and if the attitude of the body is so closely supervised as by him then it is no wonder that the children sit upright. It must not be forgotten that girls especially. when these experiments are carried out easily exaggerate involuntarily the faulty postures of body in oblique writing. Moreover the pupils if they do not wish to be in the way with their pen when writing are forced to a position of the hand in which they can only write a round style or Roman hand: therefore the introduction of vertical writing will be equivalent to the adoption of Roman hand by the exclusion of the present current hand: the latter is however a national peculiarity," and so on. One sees with what remarkable views hygienic questions can be judged.

A reply is necessary because this solitary voice apparently represents the opinion of a whole party.

Before everything it must be mentioned that the bad position of pupils in Oblique writing as it was observed in Herr Bayr's school differs as little in character as in degree from the usual writing position as can be seen at any time in any school and as has been observed since special attention was given to the bodily attitude of pupils. A warning from the teacher improves the position for a few minutes but quite spontaneously the oblique position soon returns.

Even if the continual upright position during the practice of vertical writing were only the result of a firm discipline it would be a circumstance greatly in favour of this style. Furthermore in other schools where no attention is given to the position of the ground strokes—in which on the contrary the principle of leaving the slant of the letters to the fancy of the pupil holds good—it was observed that individual scholars who had a specially correct posture wrote in upright fashion or nearly so and here any special oversight of the pupils was completely excluded.

If in Vertical Writing (but this is beyond the province of the Medical man to investigate) the Roman hand is possible and if the introduction of the former is equivalent to a monopoly for the latter this can only be hailed with gladness by Medical men.

By the dropping of one alphabet (there are really two now written and printed) an important relief would be afforded to the pupil and therewith also would disappear a national peculiarity which compels the Germans, in distinction to other nations, to allow their children's eyes to undergo a double strain.

Were one to prove the value of a correct position of the head from an oculist's point of view this would be going much too far and besides would be superfluous, for one cannot consider the defence of a position which no one attacks.

This only shall be stated that Vertical Writing, in addition, makes it possible to prescribe spectacles for pupils who are already shortsighted without the subsequent fear that this will help the increase of myopia through an incorrect position of the head. That vertical writing necessitates another form of Copy book, that is with shorter lines, is a very subordinate matter and one must in this as in many other respects realise the fact that while vertical writing is with us an unusual thing, it is as far as I know a usual thing in England and America.

"It is therefore, strongly recommended that the Imperial and Royal Supreme Council of Health would support to the utmost the endeavours towards a general adoption of Vertical Writing."

B.Opinions in Respect of Orthopædics

At the request of Herr Bayr, conductor of the City Public School in Vienna, the Commission composed of Messrs. Councillor Kusy, Councillor of Health Albert, and the experts Messrs. Von Reuss, Gouber and Lorenz met in the aforenamed school building to undertake an inspection of the children who were using the upright style of writing.

In the report now presented the theoretical grounds which were alleged on behalf of the straight middle position of the Copy Book and against the oblique middle position will not be stated, for this question has already repeatedly been exhaustively discussed. It must however be said that the results of the latest researches in this field (the eminent work of the Oculist Dr. Schubert of Nuremberg is here referred to) speak without exception in favour of Vertical Writing.

The problem before the Commission consisted simply in this: to see in use the System of vertical writing introduced methodically by Herr Dr. Bayr into the institution under his charge and especially to observe its influence on the attitude of the children while writing.

In this connection it must be stated that the Members of the Commission have unanimously carried away the best impression of the correctness of attitude of the children who write the upright hand. By the arrangement made—the children on the desks on one side of the schoolroom writing the customary oblique style those in the desks opposite on the contrary the upright hand—the extraordinarily favourable impression which the attitude of the vertical writers made was rendered much more emphatic and important.

The aforesaid correct posture of body of those children who used vertical writing showed itself, without any influence whatever on the part of the superintending teacher, so characteristic and so constant that in a second class where children who wrote upright and those who wrote obliquely were grouped quite irregularly the members of the Commission were able even from a distance—and more easily upon a close view especially from behind—to distinguish the two groups one from another.

Further it was evident that also for rapidity of writing the children in some degree accustomed to Vertical Writing were in no way behind those who wrote obliquely.

It deserves special mention that the children use for vertical writing no specially made pens (as was stated in many quarters) but with the usual and customary instruments wrote a hand which was as pleasing as it was clear and legible. Specimens of it were submitted to the Commission.

It was remarkable that the Vertical writers showed a permanently upright position of the head. With the oblique writers even if the position of the head were good at the beginning of the work gradually in the course of the writing lesson there appeared a marked tendency to bend the head to the left. The position of the head is affected in an obvious degree by the direction of the lines of writing and since these run parallel to the edge of the desk in Vertical Writing the necessity of turning the head to the left is done away with for the child who writes upright whereas the oblique writer is, to some extent, compelled to turn his head owing to the lines ascending towards the right.

A normal position of the head must be received as the primary essential of a good posture in writing. Each side turning of the head is necessarily followed, by lateral movements of the spinal column whose frequent return with longer duration each time is without doubt recognisable as one of the most frequent causes of crooked growth.

Quite apart from all other advantages the absolute superiority of this method of writing over other methods must be admitted, for the children who use it are not in the least compelled to any lateral twisting of the head owing to the kind of manipulation used in what we may call their professional work.

The practical use of vertical writing corroborates the theoretical inference that it does not by the method and manner of practising it, conceal within itself the tendency or compulsion to an oblique position of sitting and consequently to a crooked growth.

Given rightly-proportioned desks and especially back-rests which are suitably constructed and adapted to the writing position by means of which the fatigue which inevitably follows each position of sitting is most effectually held in check—Vertical Writing is very much to be preferred from the orthopaedic point of view to oblique writing, and has been recommended for a long time by many orthopædic Surgeons in private practice with the best results for rendering the writing position a healthy one!

Comment on the tone and conclusions of the above report would be superfluous. The investigation was so complete, the experiment so thorough and the decision so unanimous that nothing could add to its effect and authority.

We presume there can be no appeal from the almost identical findings of these two supreme Councils. Indeed who would feel himself qualified to challenge them particularly as they are supported by universal experience.

The finality of the verdict is, and must be recognised by every thinking mind.

But here the obligation and responsibility of Teachers commence, here the prerogative of our Educational Boards and Departments should be exercised. Shall Hundreds of Thousands of our children continue to suffer the injuries and inconveniences inflicted by an admittedly pernicious System of Sloping Writing when a perfectly harmless, Hygienic and in every way Superior System of Penmanship is both existing and available? Shall health be ruined, eyesight be deteriorated, body be deformed in hundreds nay thousands of instances every year by a method of writing which apart from Physiological considerations is in itself a caligraphic failure (as was demonstrated in the preceding chapter)? Ought not our Bureau of Education, our School Superintendents, our School Boards and beyond all our School Teachers themselves to take vigorous and immediate action in a matter fraught with such grave issues? Delay is dangerous, indifference is criminal and inaction equally fatal, both as to bodily health and our standard of writing as a National accomplishment.