Strongsonian Penmanship; or, the Writing Master’s Bluff

Last year, I found a twelve-page penmanship sampler bound in coarse brown paper while browsing one of my favorite antique malls up in Wisconsin.

penmanshipIt wasn’t priced, but fortunately the dealer was there and available for haggling.  He said that he thought it might have come from the papers of a family connected with inventor John Deere, but he wasn’t sure, so with that uncertainty in mind he sold it to me for $15.  Several pages feature the name “William Ball” or “William T. Ball” written in different styles, and in one instance this is expanded to “Wm. T. Ball, Teacher of Penmanship, Granville Vt.”  What we have here, then, is apparently a sampler prepared by a writing instructor in rural Vermont named William T. Ball to display his mastery of his subject to prospective students.

wm-t-ball-teacher-of-penmanship-granville-vtSo who was William Ball?  By pooling information from a family genealogy and an obituary, I learned that William Tyler Ball—the full name appears here—was born in 1839 in Granville, Vermont, the son of a farmer named Joseph Patrick Ball and his wife Malona Lamb.  His mother’s sister, Demarius Lamb, was the wife of John Deere, who thus turns out to have been William’s uncle by marriage.  William Ball was still living at home with his parents as of the 1860 census, and his occupation was still listed as “farmer” when he registered for the draft in 1863, but at some point he “received his early education” at the Montpelier Academy, which would surely have included training in penmanship.  He got married in 1864 and had a daughter in Vermont around 1867.  “For six years he was engaged in teaching in his native state,” states his obituary, after which he moved to Illinois; the 1870 federal census shows him working as a bookkeeper in Moline, probably for his Uncle John, whose “personal business and financial matters” he is said to have handled.  In 1881 he became secretary and treasurer of the Union Malleable Iron Company, whose principal client was Deere, and in 1895 he was the founding president of the Tri-City Electric Company, which is still going strong today.  He died in Moline in 1917.

Judging from these biographical data, my document must date from the six years in the mid-to-late-1860s during which Ball “was engaged in teaching in his native state.”  It seems that he was a teacher specifically of penmanship, a detail which the family genealogy and obituary hadn’t mentioned.  Or perhaps I should qualify that statement: we know that he aspired to teach penmanship (perhaps alongside other subjects) enough to prepare this sampler, regardless of whether anyone took him up on it.  Neatness and legibility aren’t exactly his strong suits in these specimens of the phrase “teacher of writing”:

teacher-of-writingSome pages of the sampler are dedicated to specific, named writing styles: a “runninghand,” a “round runninghand,” and an “Italian hand.”  The main point of Ball’s plain “runninghand” seems to lie in combining the letters m, n, and u into barely decipherable sequences of pen-strokes that look more like gently skewed sine waves than anything else.  Here’s the test word summermorning (or is it smmmrmormg?):

summermorningBall’s “round runninghand” is more practically serviceable, though somewhat old-fashioned for the 1860s; it’s based on British “roundhand” models dating back to the seventeenth century, with their emphasis on roundness of form:

round-runninghandThe “Italian hand” seems exclusively decorative, with portions of each line laboriously widened—not exactly a style that would have lent itself to keeping a business ledger or writing chatty letters to family:

italian-handMany of Ball’s other efforts are similarly calculated to impress with their sheer meticulous artistry:

penmanship1But the page that I find most interesting of all is the one Ball dedicated to illustrating the “Strongsonian system of penmanship”:

strongsonian-fullpageOf all Ball’s featured styles, this is the one that looks most typical of mid-nineteenth-century American handwriting.  Its reference to a “system” would also have seemed attractively up-to-date.  The teaching of penmanship as a “system” built upon a set of formal elements (curves, ovals, etc.) had become common by the 1860s, most famously in the “Spencerian” system developed by Platt Rogers Spencer.  If any of Bell’s prospective students knew anything about the world of contemporary penmanship, they would have expected him to be able to teach a “system.”  But what exactly was the Strongsonian system?

Taken at face value, “Strongsonian” would seem to refer to a system invented or promoted by someone named Strongson.  However, I didn’t get a single hit of any kind when I googled the term “Strongsonian,” despite some instances turning up of the phrase “strong son Ian.”  Further searching failed to locate any references to a “Strongson” in mid-nineteenth-century texts on penmanship, or on any other subject, for that matter.  So I dug deeper to see if I could find any record of a writing master named Strongson active anywhere in North America, since at this point I was ready to rule out that I was dealing with a more widely known figure.  Genealogical records show that there were some Strongsons in the United States beginning in the early twentieth century, but the only nineteenth-century listing my surname search turned up for a “Strongson” (specifically, in the 1880 federal census) concerned the family of a Detroit jeweler whose name was actually Gustave Strengson.  As far as I can tell, there was nobody named Strongson—much less a penmanship expert by that name—living in North America during or before the 1860s.

strongsonian-closeupIt seems there wasn’t any such thing as the “Strongsonian system of penmanship” after all, so what was it doing in Ball’s book?  Knowing that handwriting “systems” were then in vogue, Ball may have speculated that it would increase his chances of getting enough pupils to earn his living as a writing master if he offered to teach one.  The well-known Spencerian system may not have been available to him; it’s likely that he didn’t even know it himself.  So I suspect he simply made up a similar-sounding name for a “system”—Strongsonian rather than Spencerian—and then tried to bluff his way through teaching it.  If so, that makes my handwriting sampler the chirographic equivalent of a circular for snake oil.

That said, Ball might still have been perfectly successful in teaching people in and around tiny Granville, Vermont such handwriting skills as they actually needed or wanted back in the 1860s, even if the pretense of a “system” was all smoke and mirrors.  Ultimately, we don’t know just what he taught them or how, or what they thought of it, or what kind of a living he was able to earn.  Within a few years, of course, he had moved to Illinois and taken on a job working as a bookkeeper, probably using something much like his earlier “Strongsonian” script to keep accounts of the sales of plows, corn planters, wagons and the like for his famous uncle.

You can download a PDF of the complete penmanship sampler of William T. Ball here (5.64 MB).


One thought on “Strongsonian Penmanship; or, the Writing Master’s Bluff

  1. Pingback: My Fiftieth Griffonage-Dot-Com Blog Post | Griffonage-Dot-Com

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