Looking Back


Will the Art of Handwriting Disappear?

A look in the school room at Onoway Museum makes one think about how changes just "happen".


Children starting school in Alberta's early days needed two basic tools: a pencil and a scribbler. The "beginner's pencil" was about twice the diameter of the ordinary pencil, ostensibly making it easier for the child to grasp and gain control as he learned to print the letters on paper.

As time passed and students were using the pencil comfortably, the next step was the straight pen a long wooden stick with a metal nib at the end. The student delicately held the straight pen as he dipped the nib into a bottle of ink, then the writing began. Because the nib held only a small amount of ink, there was a constant dipping into the ink bottle or inkwell. (Most student desks were equipped with a hole in the top of the desk where a small ink container was kept. One of the teacher's duties was to refill the inkwells so that students never ran out during class time.) Writing with the split nib was awkward to learn, as the nib might split or splatter ink if too much pressure was applied. Then there was the waiting time while the ink dried; hand movements were cautious otherwise you'd end up with smudges (totally unacceptable!). So the progression to fountain pens, which had a built-in ink storage tube, was a huge time-saver. But there was still wait-time for the ink to dry. The ballpoint pen came next, a completely new design that used ink that dried quickly and would not smudge. Careful penmanship was no longer required just scribble something and you're done! This cheap writing tool changed the way people wrote.

Straight Pen & Scribbler
                            Pens & Ink

Student science project scribbler, straight pen and nibs on desk beside inkwell

Waterman fountain pens were most popular.
They became fancier and different colours of ink were available.

But how and what were the young scholars writing? They started printing but by grade 3, handwriting was taught. A fascinating resource used by long-time Onoway elementary school teacher Jean Payne was the Teachers' Manual to Alberta Writing Course, published in 1928. The manual begins with "During the first three years of school life, it is unreasonable to expect that pupils will master such a difficult manual art as writing. The most that we can expect to do is to create a desire for good penmanship, instil a love of neatness and order, and establish good writing habits."


The elegant loops and curls, careful slanting and even spacing were all part of the handwriting curriculum.

                            Grade 3

Teachers' Manual to Alberta Writing Course

Margaret Ertman's scribbler showing the first steps in handwriting in September of grade 3. Look at that perfectly uniform slant!

Times have changed and handwriting, now called cursive writing, seems to be on the decline although it is still part of the curriculum. Keyboarding skills and thumb-only texting may be replacing the unique handwriting that enabled the teacher to distinguish Henry's work from Albert's.

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Last updated: July 25, 2018