Adventures in Penmanship (#atozchallenge)

My godmother was an artist, and she dealt in all sorts of media, including pen-and-ink, so she always had bottles of India ink around when I was a kid. I was never permitted to get close to the ink bottle when I was young. To state it in mathematical terms:

India ink + carpet = a permanent mess

Fortunately, the ballpoint pen, like the Bic stick, had pretty much replaced the fountain pen for daily use by the early Sixties, obviating the need for bottles that could be knocked over and ink that could be spilled on clothes, furniture, carpets, pets, younger siblings, etc.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell the Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus about this modern miracle, and when it came time to learn to write with a pen in third grade, we were told that we would have to go out and buy a cartridge pen before we would be allowed to attempt the Palmer Method in anything but pencil. We didn’t question what the nuns told us; being eight years old, we just said, “Yes, Sister,” went home and hit up our parents for the money to buy a cartridge pen.

When I told my mother what I needed and asked her for the money, her reaction was to snap, “Oh, for God’s sake” and call the principal, who had taught her twenty years earlier, to argue the case for the ballpoint. After a half hour of contentious conversation with Reverend Mother, she hung up, handed me a five-dollar bill and told me to go buy a cartridge pen.

(A pen not unlike my first. Courtesy

I was able to find one at the corner drug store, and it came with several “washable blue” ink cartridges, as required by the nuns. I learned later that the reason for washable blue ink was not so that our mothers could wash out the ink that would inevitably be spilled on our clothes; it was so that ink that was inevitably spilled in the classroom wouldn’t cause permanent damage to the furniture.

Armed with our pens, we began the painful process of learning to write with pen and ink. The results were mixed: the girls took to it like swans to water, while the boys … not so much. We boys were more interested in swinging our pens at our friends and splattering them with ink.

By the time fifth grade rolled around for us, we had a new principal who decided that making us write with pen and ink was asinine. We were ordered to part company with our cartridge pens and never use them at school again, and to use ballpoint pens from then on. None of us complained, our parents were happy, and the quality of our penmanship didn’t decline that much. Furthermore, left-handed kids like my brother no longer had to try and write right-handed. Everyone was a winner.

17 thoughts on “Adventures in Penmanship (#atozchallenge)

    1. Most people can print legibly enough, so I really don’t see the point of subjecting kids to the Palmer Method. About the only thing you need to write is your signature; even forms say “Please Print” at the top of the page. I knew a kid who could print faster than anyone could write, and everything he printed was legible.


  1. Hi John .. I remember those pens .. it was after that I tried to copy a friend’s writing .. and from then on my hand-writing is not very good .. fine with a pencil, and typing two-handed as been a boon. It does mean that writing things out and the studying of how to write (neither subjects can I think of to name?!) are options to me .. I totally shy away! Cheers Hilary


    1. Are you thinking of transcription and graphology? Anyway, I think that nearly everyone types these days and writing by hand is going the way of high-button shoes. My handwriting is so bad (was; my right hand is crippled and I never learned to write left-handed) that even I can’t read it. It was hell studying for exams, and I’m sure I would have been a straight-A student if people grading exams could have read my writing.


      1. Hi John .. no it wasn’t .. but transcription and graphology are good words. It must have been terrible attempting an education with that challenge .. life was probably unfair then too .. no leeway allowed. Good for you for writing and typing now .. Cheers Hilary


  2. I loved my cartridge pens! We didn’t have to have them, but since I wanted to be a bit different, I only used them; even for arithmetic. Of course, I also wrote upside down, backwards, so me using a cartridge pen was not that unusual.


    1. So, let me get this straight: you would write upside-down and backward, so that when you turned the paper over it looked right? Like the waitstaff at the Macaroni Grill, who have to do that with a crayon? Interesting… they say that forgers learn to copy a person’s signature by turning it over and writing backwards. I think it’d be a good skill to have.


  3. I still have some cartridge pens. I like them. I don’t use them anymore. Cartridges are hard to find. I started learning the Palmer method in first or second grade. I have vivid memories of long hours sitting with a pencil making circles and lines up and down a page of white lined paper. When I doodle what usually comes out is some version of those circles and lines. .


    1. While I was researching this, I found a number of places that still sell cartridges. Google “skrip cartridge” or “quink cartridge” and see what comes up. A lot of them are sold with calligraphy kits.

      I remember the exercises well, especially the one that looked like “O”s and the one that looked like a row of conjoined “N”s. I used to use them to test pens and see if they still wrote.


  4. I absolutely love the old real ink style of writing, and it is an art. The actual teaching of writing, which I agree is still the Palmer Method, is lost on teachers and students alike in todays schools. It should be taught better, even though technology suggests keyboarding should be taught alongside writing. My children barely learn writing skills, whether print or cursive. I, too, was taught by Nuns and my mother did contend with many an ink stain. Great post.


    1. I worked at a bank in Chicago, and they had ledgers going all the way back to the founding in the 1800’s. They were all written in the Spencerian script, the way people would write everything before the advent of the typewriter. I’m sure they’d fetch a lot of money, because they were works of art, but the bank had to keep them forever, so they just sat in a warehouse.

      I went to a Jesuit high school, and typing was a required class in freshman year, after which they expected all assignments to be typewritten. They probably knew how lousy our handwriting was. I was a lousy printer, and my cursive was even worse.

      Thanks for stopping by!


    1. I can’t see the rationale for doing it. The Palmer Method that they still teach in school was geared toward it, but it was just as easy to produce the letters with a ballpoint pen or a pencil. I’m not even sure that cursive writing is necessary anymore.


Comments are closed.