June 13, 2012

Penmanship and 19th Century Quilts

The style of handwriting on 19th century signature quilts varies significantly but quilts signed from the late 1840s through the end of the century often display Spencerian script, a style of penmanship developed by Platt Rogers Spencer.

Platt Rogers Spencer, 1800-1864.  Photograph courtesy of
Wikipedia images.

Platt Rogers Spencer was born in East Fishkill, New York, in 1800 or, by some accounts, in 1801.  He became intensely fond of writing as a child and, his family being unable to find or afford paper for him to pursue his childhood interest, he is said to have practiced his penmanship by writing in the snow and in sand, on birch-bark, on the leaves of his mother's Bible, and on leather scraps provided by a friendly cobbler.  When Platt enrolled in school at age 12, ample paper was finally available for his use. 

When old enough, Spencer took several jobs with businesses and as a clerk in local stores where he had daily opportunities to practice his penmanship.  He studied law, Latin, English literature, and penmanship from 1821-1824 and taught in a common school while continuing to provide bookkeeping services to merchants.  He considered entering college to pursue a degree that would lead to the ministry but by then suffered from alcoholism, a family malady that prevented him from doing so. This he rectified by practicing total abstinence, a principle he actively promoted for the rest of his life.

Spencer continued to teach in New York and then Ohio, instructing his students in, among other subjects, the style of penmanship he had formally developed.  In 1848, working closely with Victor M. Rice, he published Spencer and Rice's System of Business and Ladies' Penmanship.  This was followed by Spencerian or Semi-Angular Penmanship and several additional penmanship publications issued through 1886 by Spencer and by members of his family after his death in 1864.

A reproduction of Theory of Spencerian Penmanship in Nine Easy Lessons
first published in 1874.  This reproduction was published by Mott Media in 1985.

Facsimile edition of Number 1 of Spencerian System of Practical Penmanship in
12 Numbers, Four Distinct Series [workbooks] originally published in 1864.  This
facsimile edition by Mott Media, 1985.

Examples of Spencerian script are shown on the face of the foregoing publications.  Platt Rogers Spencer's own signature provides an ideal example of the style.

Platt Rogers Spencer's signature.  Courtesy of Wikipedia images.

Spencer's penmanship style was taught in schools throughout America in the 19th century and into the early 20th.  In addition, the availability of his publications gave women who lacked formal schooling the means to develop his penmanship style at home.

Philena Cooper Hambleton, recipient of a Quaker quilt in 1853, was at minimum home-schooled by her father, Whitson Cooper, and by her step-father, Reuben Clempson.  Based on an example of her signature, and the understanding that handwriting tends to change somewhat over time, she seems to have learned the Spencerian style of penmanship as a young woman.

The signature of Philena Cooper Hambleton, late in her life, as it appears on her husband's
probate records.  Note the capital P, the capital E, and Capital H.  Scan of signature
 by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.

The sole inscriber of Philena's quilt may also have been trained in Spencerian penmanship and may, in fact, have been Philena herself.  Unfortunately, the writing on the quilt is so faint that a convincing comparison of multiple inscriptions to Philena's penmanship is not possible.  Only the writing on one block of the quilt is clear enough for comparison.  The capital E and P written on George E. Hall's quilt block appear to be identical to those inscribed by Philena on the probate records.  The capital Hs differ slightly, the earlier one (on the quilt) being more florid than that written years later on the probate records.  The Hs are similar enough, however, for the old H to be the result of changes in Philena's hand over time.  This is not enough evidence to make a definitive case that Philena was the inscriber of her quilt, but when combined with circumstantial evidence, Philena becomes a candidate as the inscriber.

The name of George E. Hall inscribed on a block in Philena's quilt.  Below the name
is written "Phil Co. Pa 1853".  Scan of block by Lynda Salter Chenoweth. 

Anyone who has examined a number of signature quilts will attest to the variation in writing to be found on them.  Some of the signatures are almost illegible, even if well-preserved and absent of smears and fading.  (Even with today's technological advances of manipulating digital images for brightness and sharpness, old-fashion handwriting can be hard to interpret.)  Others are well-written but are not necessarily in the style developed by Spencer.  Nonetheless, Platt Rogers Spencer had a major impact on penmanship in the 19th century.  His style became the standard for all business transactions and bookkeeping records until the advent of the typewriter.  It was also extremely popular among women, both old and young, in a time when the exchange of letters and the signing of autograph albums prevailed as personal means of communication.  It's not surprising, then, to find a touch of Platt Rogers Spencer in some of the signatures that appear on 19th century quilts.


Chenoweth, Lynda Salter.  Philena's Friendship Quilt: A Quaker Farewell to Ohio.  Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2009.



Spencer, Platt Rogers.  Theory of the Sopencerian Penmanship in Nine Easy Lessons.  Fenton, MI: Mott Media, 1985.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare 2012