What Is Secretary Hand?

Secretary Hand is a style of European handwriting that flourished during the 16th and 17th centuries. Known for its uniformity and legibility, it was the script of choice for English clerks and scribes, streamlining communication in an era before typewriters and computers. Intrigued by how this script shaped historical documents? Discover its lasting impact on the written word.
T. Carrier
T. Carrier

Secretary hand is a European handwriting type that has fallen out of general use. It first appeared in Europe in the 16th century, and was frequently used over the next 100-plus years in various languages, such as German, English, and Gaelic. This particular style was developed as an alternative to the less-legible book hand, and it was eventually replaced itself in most areas by italic script.

A precursor to modern cursive writing, secretary hand stylistically used many loops. Letters were thus generally joined together, rather than being separate, and strokes and slashes were also commonplace. For example, a slash placed at the beginning of a word was known as an attacking stroke. Each letter also generally had a lower-case and upper-case form.

Secretary hand was a precursor to modern cursive.
Secretary hand was a precursor to modern cursive.

Some letters, such as s, resembled modern letters when written in secretary hand. Others, such as k, had a much different appearance than their contemporary writing representations. In addition, some letters — like t and c — had similar appearances and were often confused with each other. Since words were often written as to how they sounded, standard spellings were not commonplace, which also makes current readings of secretary hand more difficult. As such, different writers may have written the same word with different secretary hand style letters.

A style known as book hand preceded secretary hand, and it was perhaps the most common writing style used prior to the 16th century. This style resembled calligraphy in that the letters were fluid and malleable as they were written, with often dramatic flourishes. Since this form was highly stylized, the letters were often illegible to an untrained eye.

Increased legibility became essential during this era because more individuals had become literate and written correspondences were beginning to spread beyond local barriers. Book hand was deemed unsuitable for these purposes because it was hard to read. Since secretaries were in the business of drafting clear correspondences, increasing numbers of individuals began to adopt their method of writing.

Most professionals eventually learned secretary hand, including historians, scholars, and other individuals who could read and write, or scriveners. If an individual knew how to read and write secretary hand in these eras, it was likely that they performed in a higher-ranking job than the average person. Many remnants of secretary hand can be found on historical official documents, such as wills and government papers.

This form of writing was replaced in the 17th century by italic script. This script differs in that writers usually tilted the writing instrument at a 45° angle and thus created a more curved script. Modern italic fonts were inspired by this handwriting style. Scholars trace such handwriting trends as book hand, secretary hand, and italic script through paleography, or the study of ancient writing.

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    • Secretary hand was a precursor to modern cursive.
      By: gosphotodesign
      Secretary hand was a precursor to modern cursive.