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A plate of polished copper on which an engraving has been made with a graver, or otherwise. A print or impression taken from a copper plate. — Webster, 1882

copperplateThe style of Copperplate writing began in the sixteenth century as an alternative to calligraphy, in which the pen was lifted between letters. Here, letters are joined, thus speeding up the writing process. Copperplate refers to several types of shaded script, including roundhand and engraver’s script. Unlike the flat quill or nib used by the calligrapher, roundhand employed a nib that was both pointed and flexible. Thickness of lines depended upon pressure and direction of the strokes; light pressure resulted in thin lines, while heavier pressure produced thicker ones. And because such writing was used in printed material, roundhand script eventually became known as Copperplate.

A simplified outline of the process would begin with writing masters who hand-lettered the desired text. These pages were sent to an engraver, who recreated the fine details of the lettering onto copper plates. The incised lines were rubbed with ink, filling the indentations and remaining after the flat plate itself was cleaned of ink. The image was then transferred to paper using strong pressure. Copperplate script was used on decorative bank checks, legal documents, certificates, currency, and fancy cards and invitations.

A “beautiful” handwriting – such as Mary Power’s – was the result of practice. In the existing manuscript for Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder made no comment about Mary Power’s handwriting, and in real life, Mary did not sign Laura’s album with a verse, nor did she have particularly beautiful penmanship (based on surviving samples). She simply wrote in Laura’s album: “Your loving friend, Mary Power. De Smet Jan 16 1882.”

Handwriting was taught in the De Smet schools using copybooks. In the introduction to On the Way Home, Rose Wilder Lane wrote this about her penmanship lessons: “‘Procrastination is the thief of time,’ I wrote twenty times in my penmanship book, without error or blot… every t and d exactly three times as tall; every t crossed; every i dotted.”

During the Little House years, an even more fluid form of writing was often taught, the Spencerian method, named after Platt Rogers Spencer (1800-1864). Spencerian script was a uniquely American form of elaborate handwriting which flourished (with flourishes!) from the mid-nineteenth century until it was replaced by the less flowery Palmer method beginning in about 1900.

Spencer believed that beautiful handwriting was as important as the words themselves, and script was taught that was both legible and beautiful, and could be individualized with scrolls and decorations applied mainly to the upper-case letters. There are a number of subtle differences between Copperplate and Spencerian writing, but in general, Spencerian script had more delicately-shaded lower-case letters than Copperplate.


copper plate (LTP 16), see also autograph album, copper