As office boy I made such a mark
That they gave me the post of a junior clerk.
I served the writs with a smile so bland,
And I copied all the letters in a big round hand.
(He copied all the letters in a big round hand.)
I copied all the letters in a hand so free,
That now I am the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!
(He copied all the letters in a hand so free,
That now he is the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!)

W.S. Gilbert, HMS Pinafore, 1878, “When I was a Lad” stanza II.


The Universal Penman Education George Bickham the Elder 1733 1741 1

The Universal Penman, “Learning”, George Bickham the Elder, 1733-1741

Many, many years ago, Benj. Franklin said, Nothing more certain to make a man’s fortune than a Big Round Hand.1  Not too long ago, when neglecting the Big Round Hand, Sister Mary Mary would knuckle-ruler-whap to encourage a hand’s strict roundness.  Recently, the Big Round Hand is neglected, and see what’s come of it: mediocrity in penmanship, and most all else.

Now, John Hancock wrote with a Big Round Hand when signing the Declaration of Independence in defiance of King George III.  Can’t miss John’s signature.  Was rather proud of his big bold signature, it seems; put it smack at the top, smart in the middle, as by right the President of the Continental Congress should do.  Well, John, how ‘bout that, “President” … see what comes of a Big Round Hand.

But then!  King George threatened, promised to hang the colonial round-handers who opposed the Crown.  Did John Hancock fear hanging: no, those who boldly compose in a Big Round Hand tend to bravery, excellence, refinement and other qualities admirable, enviable.


Big Round Hand Bickham 4

The Universal Penman, “Education”, George Bickham the Elder, 1733-1741

Thomas Jefferson wrote in a Big Round Hand, when at leisure, which seldom he was.  Most often, President Jefferson was engaged in pressing employments, composing on-deadline The Declaration of Independence, a report on Lewis & Clark’s Discovery Expedition, et cetera; then, often, his hand might cramp, as whose would not.  After all, Thos. Jefferson composed epistles (letters), directives, histories, commentaries, poems, memoirs, and who-knows-how-many notes, directions, instructions, et cetera, that collected run to 12, thick volumes.

That, a big fuss of writing for which Jefferson required copies, as you require copies in letters, notes, receipts, et cetera.  Your copies are approximated digitally.  For his approximated copies, Jefferson acquired from the clever, Chas. Willson Peale, a polygraph much refined from Hawkins’ original (some refinements suggested by Jefferson, himself).


Big Round Hand Bickham 6

The Universal Penman, “The Penman’s Advice”, George Bickham the Elder, 1733-1741

The beautifully crafted polygraph (see, below) is, alike the lap computer, a most handy device.  As Jefferson admitted, “…the use of the polygraph has spoiled me for the old copying press the copies of which are hardly ever legibleI could not, now therefore, live without the Polygraph.

And so very many copies, From sun-rise to one or two o’clock, I am drudging at the writing table.nearly 20,000 letters, scholars assume.  And so very much time, as Jefferson mentioned in epistle to John Adams, “…under the persecution of letters (approximately 1,267 received in one year, 1820 – my goodness, almost alike a “you’ve got mail” torture) many of them requiring answers of elaborate research, and all to be answered with due attention and consideration.


Big Round Hand Bickham 2b

The Universal Penman, “Reputation”, George Bickham the Elder, 1733-1741

We are pleased that the great man was conscientious in attention and in consideration, that his thoughts and eloquent sentences survive, often, in polygraph copy.  By letters, et cetera, we learn much of the man, of his acquaintance, of his times, and thereby, we learn in depth about ourselves, our measure in the Big Round Hand.  The letters of a person, especially one whose business has been chiefly transacted by letters, form the only full and genuine journal of his life. Thos. Jefferson.

Jefferson’s training in Big Round Hand penmanship began young when copying quotations in English, Latin, Greek (and, perhaps, French, Italian, Spanish), as is common to schoolers of the period.  Jefferson, alike many Founding Fathers, could at eight years read, copy, consider Latin and Greek grammar, Tacitus and Livy, Herodotus and Thucydides, and would translate the verse of Virgil, of Horace, et alia: in all, as I have found, an excellent practice.


Penmanship in 5 Steps: How to Write with a Big Round Hand

  1. for you, beginner, best to employ lined, penmanship paper, which you might freely download
  2. best to secure the feather of a healthy, country goose, cutting the nib … better yet, secure a fountain-pen (1.5mm or 2.4mm nib should suit) – avoid the ballpoint
  1. hold the pen upon an angle approximating 45% to 55% degrees, as suits your nature
  1. for straight lines, relaxed of hand, draw (your nib is not a sword, do not kill the paper; instruct firmly in a gentle line as you might urge a lover) with the whole arm in masterful strokes easy toward the body’s center; for round lines, the same
  1. secure a style manual for model, for example, for helpful hints, for useful advice … this author suggests



Governor Jefferson’s March 1781 letter concerning the British arrival in Virginia … he readies for battle between Lafayette and Benedict Arnold.


  1. for a simple, tolerable hand, Spencerian Handwriting: The Complete Collection of Theory and Practical Workbooks for Perfect Cursive and Hand Lettering
  2. for a competent hand, Mastering Copperplate Calligraphy: A Step-by-Step Manual (Lettering, Calligraphy, Typography) 
  3. for artists and most excellent persons, The Universal Penman


Polygraph 1806. Courtesy of the University of Virginia. Produced by John Isaac Hawkins 1772 1855 and Charles Willson Peale 1741 1827 in mahogany brass green baize.

Polygraph, 1806. Produced by John Isaac Hawkins and Charles Willson Peale in mahogany, brass, green baize. credit:University of Virginia



Writing is the First Step, and Essential in furnishing out the Man of Business: informs Thos. Watts, 1716.

An artless Scrawl ye blushing Scribler shames; / All shou’d be fair that Beauteous Woman frames

Strive to excel, with Ease the Pen will move; / And pretty line add Charms to infant Love (and that, sound advice to ardent lovers’ novice and initiate): writing master Sam. Vaux, 1734.

Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Madison both wrote a plain, beautiful hand, but you could write better with your toes than Mr. Monroe wrote: Thos. Jefferson’s overseer, Edm. Bacon.

“…take pains at the same time to write a neat round, plain hand, and you will find it a great convenience through life to write a small & compact hand as well as a fair & legible one.” Jefferson to his grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph, 1810; an encouragement toward daily practice of letter-writing.

Jefferson commenting on Geo. Washington’s round hand, “…he wrote readily, rather diffusely, in an easy correct style.”



  1. Benj. Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, pub. 1793: Nothing is so likely to make a man’s fortune as virtue.


Featured Image: Declaration of Independence. credit: Pamela Au


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