GENEVA — The aged, handwritten letters are a mundane read; the daily minutiae of a Pittsburgh woman named Emelina who wrote regularly to a friend, Freeland R. Cook, Esq., of Windsor, circa 1873.
“I would like to have been out to go to the party with you,” Emelina wrote. “I know I would enjoy myself for I always do at dances. Dancing is my delight. I was at a very nice party last night. I enjoyed myself splendid.”
But the woman’s flowing, cursive letters carried much more meaning to Michael Sull.
Sull, a Master Penman from Kansas, immediately identified the handwriting style and lit up. The flourishes of tails on certain letters; the deliberate, consistent spacing and letter thickness — all are hallmarks of Spencerian script, developed in the 1820s by Platt Rogers Spencer of Geneva.
The Platt R. Spencer Historical Society in Geneva, of which Sull is a member, on Friday honored the five-year anniversary of a monument to the Ashtabula County man who came to be known as the “Father of American Handwriting” at Geneva’s Western County Courthouse.
“The beauty of the writing ... this writing is just so perfect,” Alicia Orosz of Madison said Friday, admiring a draft written in the Spencerian “semi-angular” style displayed near a room dedicated to Spencer in the courthouse.
Spencer developed the style in the 1820s and it continued to grow in popularity through the 1840s, Sull said. By 1851, the Spencerian style was established as the official American handwriting style, he said.
“He was very influenced by nature,” society member Beth Stillwell told the Star Beacon in 2015. “He would go to the beach and write in the sand, imitating the circles, ellipses and curls he found in the environment.”
Sull said Spencerian script isn’t much like English roundhand, now called Copperplate — another common American script used to write the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
“You have close letter spacing. Every aspect of the letters is fairly limited in size because all you’re using is your fingers — they’re all about the same height,” he said. “That’s what the English were after — uniformity, consistency.
“Spencerian script is very different ... uses a lot more muscularity,” Sull said — Spencerian writers add space between letters by moving their arms, rather than their wrists.
“You also have a much greater variation between shaded strokes like the ‘T’s and the ‘D’s, and your shorter, lowercase letters. You have more variation in what we call the ‘color’ of writing, between thicks and thins.”
Through Sull’s expert eye for penmanship, he ventured Emelina wrote with a steel pen rather than a quill, which is what Spencer used. The thickness and “color” of Emelina’s print is consistent throughout the letter, indicating her ink didn’t run dry and she didn’t need to re-sharpen a quill, he said.
Schools across the country were teaching Spencer’s style by the early 1860s. Spencer himself opened schools in Geneva Township, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Geneva Area City Schools’ elementary building was dedicated in 2010 for the cursive master.
Sull said Emelina — who lived in Pittsburgh when she wrote the letters — also likely learned to write Spencerian script in grade school, called “common” schools in the 19th century.
Judy Pallutch, a member of the Ashtabula County Historical Society, said she found the letters while cleaning and sorting her home. Her parents were postcard collectors and would buy boxes of them at auction, she said.
“I hated to throw them away myself. ... They’re old and I thought they might have meaning to someone else. I’m like that,” she said.
Instead, she delivered the letters to the Star Beacon, which plans to donate the letters to the Platt R. Spencer Historical Society.
“This is a ‘pedestrian’ letter,” Sull said. “Yet this is a period of time. This is a link to the past. This is very special. I don’t care if she just wrote about washing dishes. To me, this is a person who lived many years ago, and with their hand, communicated to somebody else.
“What she learned started here in Geneva.”
Follow Justin Dennis on Twitter @justindennis.
'A link to the past'
One of the letters addressed from a Pittsburgh woman named Emelina to a Freeland R. Cook Esq., of Windsor, is dated Sept. 30, 1874:
I know I am in debt a letter to you, but you might have wrote two for one and I would not write you a letter, only Aunt Ellen told mother you were sick. It was not because I did not think of you that I did write, for I thought of you every day, but I really had no time. We are all well. Jim us getting strong but he is not able to work yet. He went to work but could not stand it. It is real cold this evening. It has rained almost steady since Sunday morning. It hailed a little today. John Gripp still goes to see Dillie. I don’t think Jim visits Mattie quite as often as he did.
I was at a very nice party last Thursday evening given by the “Autumn Social” at K. Blair’s Parlors on 5th Avenue. Jim was there too. We did not get home until 5 o’clock A.M.
There has been a good many large fires this month. The pork house opposite the Hook and Ladder house was burned. The loss reached about 40 thousand dollars. There was a row of stores on Penn Avenue burned, loss about 24 thousand. 5 houses and the Panhandle R.R. bridge, loss about sixty thousand, and a planing mill on Penn Ave, loss about $40,000.
Pap is going to St. Louis to the Chief Engineer’s Convention. He starts on Friday morning. He is coming home by way of Cleveland. Mother thinks of going to Windsor after Pap comes home and she gets the fall work done.
Freel, I wish you would take a notion and come to see us. We would be pleased to see you anytime. What is Em going to call her baby? Tell her to give it a pretty name. I (can’t) think of anything more this time. We all send our love to you and all the rest of the folks. Hoping to see you but satisfied with hearing from you soon. I am as ever…
Your friend Emelina