WRIGHTSTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Take a letter, dear reader. H, for instance.

Nothing but two simple uprights belted at the waist, correct?

But in penman Robert Hurford's hands, H explodes like a Roman candle in ink.

He launches the letter with an upward whirl and a downward, leftward-looping plunge, swoops to another loop at upper right — crossing the equator in flight — spirals south and twirls the line back on itself before igniting the next sparkler. Each letter of the alphabet, every numeral and symbol, announces its kinship to the other in a flourishing script called Spencerian.

This style of handwriting ruled written communication in America from 1850 until the mid-1920s. Today the postal service may return a letter addressed in Spencerian penmanship, if it's deemed illegible and thus undeliverable. That's happened to Hurford, an expert calligrapher and handwriting historian who lives in Wrightstown Township.

The soft plop of an elegantly penned envelope falling back into a sender's mailbox squawks high irony in the history of writing developed for clarity and speed in a pre-keyboard era. Even after the typewriter clacked its way into business offices in the late 19th century, millions hitched their ambitions to mastery of graceful, thick-and-thin arcs and whorls.

"Handwriting used to define a personality," Hurford said. "People worked on their handwriting. They wanted to show off, they wanted to look good." Esthetics, utility and status were powerful motivators to write well.

During the latter 20th century, however, cursive writing began to lose standing in education, even as computer keyboarding gained traction. "Handwriting in schools is almost dead," said Hurford.

Some educators are taking another look at penmanship, influenced by neurological research that "claims ... a connection between brain development and handwriting," according to a 2012 scholarly paper by Richard S. Christen of the University of Portland.

The internet has brought together practitioners such as Hurford, further reviving interest in old-time scribal arts through organizations such as the International Association of Master Penmen, Engrossers, and Teachers of Handwriting.

When Hurford first attended the IAMPETH's annual convention in 2000, the gathering drew 67 enthusiasts. At the event in Louisville, Kentucky, that ended July 15, 245 attended. The organization has grown from 170 penmen and women in 2000 to 1,400 today, with members in 18 countries.

For long centuries, writing by hand was a living. Expert penmanship was an essential skill if you wanted a business career pre-typewriter, pre-copy machine, pre-word processing and pre-email.

"Think of Bob Cratchit with the green eyeshade — somebody had to sit there and slug it out," said Hurford.

For millennia, the only way to write a letter or a book was to dip a writing tool such as a goose quill into a pot of ink and laboriously apply it to paper or calfskin, one character at a time, unless you lived in China, where scribes used brushes.

By the Middle Ages myriad handwriting styles arose, including German black letter, Italian round gothic, italic and copperplate. The latter two helped streamline business transactions.

"When you think of the evolution, think of the need for speed. We always needed legibility," said Hurford. Italic reflected an early way to increase the efficiency of scribes by connecting the letters and lessening the number of times the writer had to lift pen from page.

Italic was an improvement, but by 1570, "It wasn't keeping up with commerce," he said. English copperplate, also known as English roundhand, sped things up.

Training scribes became a profession on its own. Centuries before "The Art of the Deal," there was "The Art of Writing," the first penmanship manual in America, published in 1791 by John Jenkins. Hurford describes him as "an itinerant penman," traveling and teaching in various locations.

America's handwriting standard," according to Christen, the education scholar. Then along came Platt Rogers Spencer, whom Hurford considers an overlooked innovator. Spencer taught pupils the graceful script that bears his name in a log cabin in Ashtabula, Ohio.

Spencer's sons popularized their father's method after his death in 1864. Spencerian penmanship inscribed its elegant contours across the culture during its long reign among the ledgers and copybooks. Schoolchildren dutifully learned every loop and curlicue. The business world took note.

If you've seen a can of Coca-Cola, you've read Spencerian script. Ornate penmanship gives the logo its verve. In 1909, the Ford Motor Co. proclaimed its brand in Spencerian, and uses a slightly simplified version on its vehicles today.

According to Hurford, handwriting instruction became something of a knock-down, drag-out business as the Spencerian sun set. Publishing fortunes could be made in public schools, as well as correspondence courses for business strivers.

With the decline of Spencerian training, "Suddenly, in terms of the penmanship world, there was a power vacuum ... a fight for penmanship textbooks to get into school systems," said Hurford. The Palmer method, a sort of Spencerian Lite, vied with a handwriting curriculum devised by Charles Paxton Zaner and Elmer Ward Bloser called Zaner-Bloser.

"You could make the case that Austin Palmer won," said Hurford. Educators embraced the Palmer method, drilling students in push-pull and oval-tracing exercises executed in unvarying line widths.

Banished from generations of handwriting were thick-and-thin variations that lent dimension to Spencerian script. Gone were full-throated flourishes that trumpeted the arrival of a capital letter before the reader's eye. Palmer penmanship required discipline to learn, but "It was a pretty vanilla face," said Hurford.

His introduction to fine penmanship was accidental. Hurford was not looking for an avocation when he first visited the in-house scriptorium operated by the National Association of Printers and Lithographers, where his duties included managing the awards given by the group. Many of these prizes took the form of hand-illuminated scrolls.

The sight of skilled artisans lettering, painting and gilding the scrolls spoke to him. "I loved it," he recalled. Hurford began visiting the scriptorium as often as he could. He taught himself to produce calligraphy with quills and steel pens, later joining IAMPETH, where he ran the newsletter as something of a scholarly journal for nine years, took a hiatus, and was recently renamed to the job.

Among many other activities, Hurford lectures, maintains a website with specialized lessons, has demonstrated calligraphy at the Mercer Museum and taught little kids at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Doylestown to devise their own letterforms during after-school sessions. "It becomes the foundation for a lot of other creativity," he said.

Hurford's linked letters turn pyrotechnic when he writes with a steel nib dipped in ink he brews of walnuts from his own trees, following a 5,000-year-old recipe. In this context, modern means a different formula of gall wasp husks and iron sulfite that's only about 1,300 years old.

Sometimes, he writes his grocery lists in a lavish Spencerian hand.

And though he's been an expert calligrapher for decades, "He practices every day, like a piano," said his wife, Jeanne.

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Online:

http://bit.ly/2w2CCas

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Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com