Copperplate Writingby Sherwood Carter


Copperplate evolved in the earliest part of the 18th century due to a need for an efficient commercial hand in England. The “secretary hand” (a cursive variety of Gothic minuscule), the “mixed hand”, and the more elegant Italian cancellaresca testeggiata had given way to something plainer and more practical. Two varieties of a new “copperplate” style became common: “round hand,” the bolder of the two, was considered appropriate for business use, and “Italian,” a lighter and narrower form, was considered the ladies’ hand.

Such was the success of copperplate that by the end of the 18th century it had been adopted in France (where it has coexisted with ronde), Spain, and Italy. In these countries it was known as the “English hand”. John Seally’s manual of about 1770, The Running Hand, recommends a sloping Italian with loops (not in regular use before), in which all the letters are linked. The running influenced English handwriting in the last years of the 18th century, and loops and links have been the general rule ever since.

Until the middle of the 18th century, the American colonies relied on handwriting models from England. The colonists wrote secretary, humanist, or mixed hands which were indistinguishable from those of their contemporaries at home. Benjamin Franklin, who himself wrote an attractive copperplate hand, executed the first colonial models of the Italian, round, and secretary hands and published them in The American Instructor (Philadelphia, 1748). Franklin’s popular school book, plagiarized from an equally popular London work of the period, stressed the English round hand; so did the first U.S. writing manual of any consequence, John Jenkins’ The Art of Writing (1791). Round hand influenced the American “Spencerian” script taught in business schools throughout the United States in the 1840s and thereafter.

The Pen

Unlike earlier styles, such as French ronde, Gothic, and Italian cancellaresca, which required a pen with a broad nib shaped like a minute screwdriver blade, copperplate requires a flexible, very sharp, pointed nib. Today copperplate calligraphy is sometimes called the “pointed pen method”. To begin practicing 18th century copperplate handwriting, you might want to use a fine ball-point pen. When you have taught yourself to form the letters correctly, you should switch to a quill pen or a steel point held in a pen holder or wedged into the end of a quill. Some of the steel points you may find suitable for copperplate writing are Hunt’s No. 99, 100, 103 and 22B. You will not need the elbow pen, which is usually recommended by modern teachers of copperplate calligraphy.

The Ink

At an art or office supply store, you may purchase a black, non-waterproof ink such as that made by Osmiroid. Do not use India ink, because it tends to gum up the nib. You may make an authentic 18th century black ink by combining a teaspoon each of copperas and tannic acid, a pinch of gum arabic, and a pint of rain or distilled water.

The Paper

For practicing copperplate, a good quality lined legal pad is excellent. You should use a sized paper of good quality; cheap or unsized paper tends to permit the ink to bleed. For authentic 18th century letter writing you may want to purchase an off-white laid paper of 100% rag, linen or cotton content, such as that manufactured by the Crane and Gilbert companies and sold in office supply stores. Please note that on laid paper, one side is smoother than the other is. You may need to examine the paper carefully under good light to distinguish the two sides. Write on the smoother side to help prevent the pen tip from snagging the paper fibers and splattering ink.

The Copperplate Script

Learning 18th century copperplate handwriting is a matter of learning to write the capital letters (called majuscules by calligraphers and “upper case” by printers), the small letters (minuscules or “lower case”), as well as the numbers and a few symbols (shown in Figures 1, 2, and 4).

Capitals rely heavily on the S-shaped “line of beauty” described by Hogarth. This was popular during the 18th century, not only in calligraphy but also in furniture design (cabriole chair legs, mirror frames) and architecture. Many of the capital letters are begun by drawing the S-shaped downstroke to the base line. The upstroke of each letter is a light thin line, but the quill point is lightly flattened to broaden the downstrokes.

Small 18th century copperplate letters also emphasize the downstroke. These are similar to the modern cursive script you learned in elementary school, but the S has two forms. Lower case S’s at the beginning and in the middle of words were written in a form similar to the modern cursive small S; all other S’s resemble F without a bar. These two different forms of the letter S were dropped by some educated people by the time of the American Revolution. For example, Thomas Jefferson did not use the F-type S in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence. Other writers continued to use it well into the 19th century.

Note how both the letters and numbers slant to the right 54 degrees from the horizontal baseline. (See figures). Figure 4 shows a common way arabic numbers were written in the 18th century and a common symbol, the ampersand. Note that numbers 3, 4, 5, 7, and 9 descend below the baseline an equal distance, while the numbers 1, 2, 6, 8, and 0 stay above the line.

There are many variations of the copperplate alphabet; often several styles are collected in one copybook. The two alphabets shown in Figures 1 and 2 are from the Universal Penman and represent two typical 18th century styles.


A good way to learn authentic 18th century copperplate is to copy the script in copybooks printed in the 18th century. This, of course, is exactly the way 18th century children, ladies, and gentlemen learned to write copperplate. George Bickham’s 1743 publication, The Universal Penman, is one of the better copybooks and should be available from Dover Publications.

You should not become discouraged if you find that your copperplate is not as beautiful as the copybook examples. There are good reasons for this. First, the writing in the copybooks was not done with a quill pen. The writing examples were engraved backwards (using a mirror) by an expert, talented and practiced engraver, using a steel graver on a copper plate. The copper plate was then inked and the pages of the copybook were printed from the inked sheet of copper (thus, the source of the name “copperplate” calligraphy). Second, a steel graver makes a cleaner line on a copper plate than a quill will make on laid paper, even of the finest quality. Finally, the copybook examples are an art form called calligraphy, a word meaning “beautiful writing”. Educated people of the 18th century copied these examples to improve their handwriting; an exact reproduction of the examples in the copybooks represented an ideal, a polar star, by which the student was guided; however, like modern handwriting, everyday 18th century handwriting seldom rose to the level of “calligraphy”.

Referring to his attempts at self-improvement, Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography, “As those who aim at perfect Writing by imitating the engraved copies, tho’ they never reach the wish’d for Excellence of those Copies, their Hand is mended by the Endeavor, and is tolerable while it continues fair & legible” (Franklin pp. 115-116). Likewise, if you practice copying the 18th century examples from the copybooks, then your handwriting, too, may be improved or even become very beautiful.

Practical Hints

An excellent way to keep your lines straight and at the proper slant is to use guide paper with 54º slanting lines. Simply lay your stationery over the guide paper. You may also accustom yourself to the shape of the letters and to writing at a 54º angle by tracing over the letters on tracing paper.

A fast way to learn copperplate script is to write the capital and lower case letters one hundred times each with a ball-point pen. Once that is done, you should have each letter imprinted into your brain, hand and eye; then you may find it easier to use a quill or flexible steel nib when you begin emphasizing the downstrokes by slight pressure increase. Modern books on copperplate tell you to draw the letters, a section at a time. If your goal is only to write letters in the 18th century style, I would just write them as you would cursive writing.

If you are interested in 18th century handwriting, you will find a great wealth of useful information in two books written by Joyce Irene Whalley, who was a member of the staff of The National Art Library, Ancient Manuscripts Division, of the Victoria and Albert Museum London, England.


1. Bickham, George, The Universal Penman, Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York (1968) (originally published London, 1743).

2. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1968, (Calligraphy; Paleography).

3. Franklin, Benjamin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Easton Press, Norwalk, Connecticut, 1976 (written in 1771, 1783 and 1790).

4. Kaufman, Herb and Homelsky, Geri, Calligraphy in the Copperplate Style, General Publishing Co., Ltd., Toronto, Canada, and Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York (1980).

5. Turner, Gordon, The Technique of Copperplate Calligraphy, Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York (1987).

6. Whalley, Joyce Irene, The Pen’s Excellencie: A History of Calligraphy in Western Europe and America, Midas Books, (1980).

7. Whalley, Joyce Irene, Writing Implements and Accessories, David & Charles (1975).