Platt Rogers Spencer was an educator and developer of a popular style of penmanship. He is often referred to as the Father of American penmanship.
Spencer was born in East Fishkill, New York, on November 7, 1800. He was the eleventh and youngest child of Caleb Spencer, a native of Rhode Island and a veteran of the American Revolution, and Jerusha Coveil Spencer, a native of Chatham on Cape Cod. His father, Caleb, died in 1806 when Platt was five years old.
His mother, Jerusha, took a keen interest in educating her children and developing their minds. When Platt first began to form letters with charcoal on a board, she recognized his ability and encouraged him in his writing.
In 1806, westward migration was providing new opportunities. The first canvas-topped Conestoga wagons, laden with household furniture, had traveled across the Alleghenies into Ohio and the Western Reserve. In 1810, the Spencer family started westward and halted fifty-one days later in a small cluster of log cabins to be known as Jefferson, located in Ashtabula County, Ohio.
As Platt grew up, he helped on the farm and with household chores yet still found time for reading and writing. Because paper was both difficult and expensive to obtain on the frontier, he wrote in the snow, in sand, and with charcoal on the floor. A traveling cobbler who visited each farm in winter to make a year’s supply of shoes for the family lent Platt his chalk and let him write on the large pieces of sole leather that were waiting to be cut up. On Sundays, Platt’s mother allowed him, as a special treat, to write her favorite Scripture tests in ink on the flyleaves of her Bible.
When Platt was twelve years old, a district school located in a one-room log cabin was opened ten miles away in Conneaut. Platt walked the ten miles to and from school throughout the winter. The schoolmaster discovered Platt’s talent for writing so kept him occupied by having him copy lessons for the school from expensive and very difficult to procure textbooks. Spencer himself once walked barefoot for 20 miles in late autumn to purchase at a low cost an edition of Daboll’s Arithmetic. On the way home, he slept in a barn as he was too bashful to ask for lodging. His only food was a raw turnip.
In 1815, Spencer taught his first writing class and, from 1816 to 1821, worked as a clerk and a book keeper to help support his family. From 1821 to 1824, he studied law, Latin, English literature and penmanship, taught in a common school and wrote up merchants’ books. In 1824, he contemplated entering college with a view to preparing for the ministry but, due to his alcoholism aggravated by the prevalent drinking customs of the day, was unable to pass the entrance exams.
Beginning in 1825, Spencer taught in New York State for two years. He returned to Ohio where, in 1828, he married Miss Persis Duty, a young teacher. In 1832, Spencer was able to withdraw from alcohol, becoming a total abstainer. He advocated abstaining from alcohol for the remainder of his life.
Soon after his reformation, Spencer was elected to public office, serving as Ashtabula County treasurer until 1850. He was instrumental in collecting the early history of the county and was deeply interested in American history. He was also a strong supporter of the temperance and abolitionist movements.
In these positions, Spencer actively practiced his penmanship and created a new style of penmanship known as the “semi-angular” or “Spencerian” system. His first publications on penmanship were issued in 1848 under the title “Spencer and Rice’s System of Business” and “Ladies’ Penmanship”, working closely with Victor M. Rice, which was later published under the title “Spencerian or Semi-Angular Penmanship”. His other publications on penmanship appeared from 1855 to 1863. The New Spencerian Compendium, which was issued in parts, was completed in 1886.
In 1848, Spencer built his own farm in Geneva, Ohio. From 1853 to 1863, Spencer conducted summer institutes at Jericho, the log seminary, on his Geneva property. Teachers came from all parts of the country to hear Spencer expound upon the beauties of his system.
In 1852, Spencer’s work as a teacher, his system of penmanship for keeping business records, and his lectures led him to establish the Spencerian Commercial College in Pittsburgh PA. Illness forced him to close the college two years later.
In 1854, Spencer played a role in the formation of Bryant & Stratton College, serving as a partner and teacher at the school which originally focused on bookkeeping and standardized penmanship. The school became well-known and notable early students included John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford. The college expanded to over 50 cities in the United States. By the early 1860’s, schools across the United States were teaching pupils the Spencerian style and it became the preferred style for clerks working for the United States government.
Also in 1854, Spencer accepted a call to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, known today as Hiram College, in Hiram OH as a professor of penmanship. While there, a poorly dressed, self-taught farm boy enrolled at the college as a student. Supporting himself by ringing the college bell and sweeping out the buildings, the student would study under Spencer. Later in life, this same student wrote a letter to one of Spencer’s sons praising the influence his father had upon him. That student was James A. Garfield who would serve as the 20th President of the United States until his assassination on September 19, 1881.
After a long illness, Spencer’s wife died in 1862. The master penman seemed to lose heart and began to age rapidly. In the winter of 1863, Spencer delivered his final lecture before the business college in Brooklyn, New York, and gave his last course of lessons at Packard’s Business College in New York City. Platt R. Spencer died on May 16, 1864 in Geneva, Ohio. He is interred at Geneva’s Evergreen Cemetery.