“Failing to follow these simple suggestions, you are likely to waste many hours, weeks, and months in useless practice.” That oft-repeated warning in Palmer Method instructional materials sounded ominous but was ultimately good for business.
Austin Norman Palmer literally rewrote the book on penmanship, starting in Cedar Rapids in 1898 with the first edition of the “Palmer Method of Business Writing.”
Typewriters were becoming more common, replacing the highly decorative, “above-flourish” calligraphy that went hand-in-hand with business correspondence and bookkeeping at the time.
A simpler, faster method of handwriting was needed, and Palmer, who first studied under renowned penman George Gaskell, knew there was a business in it if he could establish it as more than just a new script.
Palmer had moved to Cedar Rapids from New Hampshire in 1879 and worked as an engrosser, which means he produced official documents like insurance policies and deeds using very fancy handwriting.
He became involved with the newly established Cedar Rapids Business College, which was owned by textbook publisher Samuel Goodyear. Palmer started teaching penmanship, bookkeeping and commercial law.
In 1884, Palmer launched The Penman, magazines about penmanship that would eventually reach 25,000 subscribers and codify his Palmer Method.
Palmer became an educational business partner with Goodyear in 1885 and bought the college from him three years later.
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Suddenly, he was parlaying his exacting method of non-frilly cursive handwriting into a full-blown curriculum that yielded development experience and disciples.
In addition to being a style of handwriting, the Palmer Method was a physical discipline.
It promised to prevent curvature of the spine while speeding up modern business.
It was the result of a taught posture and rehearsed movements of one’s entire arm, “pushing” and “pulling” it in a way that trained a writer’s muscular system.
The Palmer Method won awards at exhibitions across the country and landed a big client, a New York schools superintendent, at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
Shortly afterward, the three-story Palmer Building was built at the corner of Second Avenue and Fifth Street SE, expanding and updating the Cedar Rapids Business College, which had been at Second Avenue and Second Street SE.
As the Palmer method spread across the country, educators and businesspersons became accustomed to the idea of writing as a reflexive, secondary activity that didn’t involve creativity or individuality.
Mastering the method as a business college student or as an elementary school student meant repeatedly practicing loops and letters in drills and diagrams until one could write effortlessly while focusing on thoughts and words instead of the letters forming them.
Palmer’s business acumen looped everything together. He gave away a simplified method book to anyone willing to send in the names of 10 prospective business school students.
He also formed a separate publishing and supply company that sold all manner of instructional materials, classroom visuals, watermarked loose-leaf paper and tablets, composition books, rulers, pens and penholders.
Palmer and his wife, Sadie, moved to Manhattan in 1907 to expand the business. In 1923, they built the three-story Ausadie Apartment Building at 823 First Ave. SE. (“Ausadie” is a combination of their first names.)
The investment property had 24 apartments and a basement tea room. It served as their residence when they were in Cedar Rapids.
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It is believed that by 1925, 80 percent of American schools were teaching the Palmer Method. Palmer once estimated 25 million people had learned his method.
Falling out of favor
Austin Palmer was 67 and still president of the Cedar Rapids Business College when he died of a stroke in 1927. By then, his A.N. Palmer Company had offices in New York, Chicago and Portland, Ore. The business college had sister schools in Creston, Iowa, and St. Joseph, Mo.
After his death, Sadie returned to Cedar Rapids and served as president of the business, living in her namesake apartment building until she died in 1945.
Austin and Sadie are interred across from each other in a mausoleum at Cedar Memorial. Unfortunately, their names were not engraved in the famous Palmer Method script.
The business college closed in 1975. The supply company had additional offices in Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta before winding down and dissolving in 1988.
Why did the Palmer method fall out of favor?
Simply put, educators were no longer buying it — the need for masculine cursive, the psychological and physiological tenets behind it ... or the supplies.
Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and former journalist, educator and content marketer in Cedar Rapids. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa and is writing a book on Grant Wood. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org