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On December 25, 1955, the Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article titled “Decline of Penmanship.” An Associated Press piece by Arthur Edson, the article bemoaned “this typewriter-infested age” stating that “in most schools [penmanship lessons] faded in the 1920s and 1930’s” because educators deemed teaching penmanship “wasted time” despite the numerous examples Edson provided that emphasize the importance of good handwriting.1

The lament was national in scope, but the Times-Dispatch chose to reprint the article in part to provide a very local rebuff. Directly under the Associated Press article, the RTD printed several visual examples of handwriting from Richmond Public School children and the following editor’s note:

Complaints have been voiced in other parts of the nation that children don’t learn satisfactory handwriting these days. Is that true in Richmond? For the answer, a reporter sought W. Clyde Locker, the public schools’ penmanship expert.2

Example of Richmond Public School Student Handwriting

Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 25, 1955.

Locker’s response? “I think we have the best handwriting of any school system in the country” the 80-year-old said. One would hope he thought so, having been the one overseeing it for 45 years.3

Since his hiring in 1911, Locker had reigned supreme over the teaching of handwriting in Richmond, and for several decades, over much of Virginia as well.  Locker believed that good penmanship was correlated with good character because “a conscientious student who has learned to write well…won’t become sloppy.”4 Because of this, if all else was equal, there was no doubt in his mind that “the person who writes a good hand has a decided advantage over the one who ‘scrawls’” not only in the job market, but in life in general.5

The good news was that legible handwriting was not innate; it could be taught through the “Locker Writing Method,” a variation on the more famous Palmer Method (in fact, it supposedly was created after Palmer wouldn’t allow Locker to license an official Palmer Virginia version).6 He wrote as such in verse in his 1919 teacher’s manual:

Writing is practiced – to be applied,
The lie of “can’t” must be denied;
Foursquare the purpose by “Mr. Can,”
Revise the creed,
If there be need
But form the HABIT – and be a man.7

Locker loved to write instructions in verse, and in fact his brevity and simplification of Palmer’s instructions was one of the reasons Virginia teachers were supportive of switching from Palmer to Locker. When Norfolk Public Schools made the switch in 1915, the teachers were excited to learn that instead of having to grade the 50-page Palmer exams, the Locker system exam was only seven.8 While Palmer’s teacher instruction manual was 250 pages, by 1945 Locker had distilled his down “to the size of a road map.”9

For years though, the actual lessons did not vary much from their inspiration. In the early days of Locker Writing, penmanship instruction was as much about learning how to manipulate a fountain pen neatly as it was forming individual letters. Students filled writing books with “ups and downs and round and rounds” to learn how to produce uniform strokes. In 1990, Albert A. Joseph, a student in Newport News public schools in the 1940s, reflected for the Daily Press newspaper on the trouble he had learning the method:

The supplies [were] an instruction booklet, a bottle of black ink that snugly [fit] in a circular hole cut in the desk, a wooden pen with several split steel points and a too-small cotton wipe cloth…

The method is easy to observe, difficult to explain and next to impossible to do. The procedure [was] as follows: diligently wipe all traces of oil off the steel point [of the pen] with the aid of spittle, cautiously dip up a drop of ink, using a fluid motion with a firm wrist, press down hard enough to spread the split point apart so the ink will flow evenly down the thin crevice to form a letter.

Invariably I press[ed] too hard and end[ed] up with an ink splotch…I [was] never going to obtain a certificate as a member of the Locker Writing Club.10

Those certificates, awarded by Locker himself based on samples of student work sent to him by teachers, as well as the buttons awarded for completing a Locker Writing Book, were highly prized by students around the state. From the 1920s to the mid-1940s, the commonwealth’s papers were filled with lists of students being awarded the honors.11 In 1930, the Roanoke paper The World-News ran under the title “Lost and Found” a request from one Sara Anne Burnette of Woodrow Wilson Junior High School for the return of her “Locker writing pin…lost Wednesday morning between the first and third periods.”12

Snappy the Turtle

The Richmond News Leader, September 06, 1949.

The Locker Writing Method went through several revisions as teaching styles changed. Even so, by 1945 most of the state had moved on. In Richmond however, Locker was still king and still principal of the John Marshall Night School besides. The 1945 version was an attempt to make the system more child-friendly by adding illustrations in the younger grades including a mascot, Snappy the turtle. It even used “airplanes instead of arrows to show movement.”13 In the higher grades Locker introduced more meaningful writing examples. Previously the students had written disjointed words over and over such “river, raven, brave, bobbin,” but in the new version they copied out whole sentences such as “Man first noted the passing of time when he observed the movements of the sun and stars,” to keep the students more engaged.14

Despite this, by 1959, even Richmond moved on. After 44 years of using the Locker System, RPS started to phase out the curriculum gradually. “The new [method’s] letters are not much different…If anything they are another step towards simplicity” reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch, something Locker himself might have approved in a subsequent revision of his own method. However, at 84 years old he was no longer able to continue with his updates.15 He died at the age of 86 in 1961.16

His legacy has outlived him, as people continue to use the handwriting they learned in childhood. It even helped at least one adult: in 1964, three years after Locker’s death, his curriculum out of print, an article in the Greene County Record mentioned a woman frantically searching for some old Locker books to help her husband re-learn how to write after a medical emergency, perhaps hoping the familiar method would be easier for them both.17 And as the 1957 John Marshall High School yearbook dedicated to him reminded his past students, “every time you sign a check, or write a billet doux, or fill in an application blank, Mr. Locker’s influence may be seen at the point of your pen.”18

1957 Marshallite Yearbook Dedication

If you are a pro at reading handwriting, make sure to check out our Making History: Transcribe crowdsourcing project, where you can volunteer to help transcribe historical documents in our collections. If you don’t know where to start, please join us either in person or virtually for one of our introductory programs.


1. Arthur Edson, “Decline of Penmanship,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 25, 1955.

2. Larry Weekley, “Locker Lauds Local Schools,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 25, 1955.

3. Ibid.

4. Earle Dunford, “School Penmanship Expert Has Firm Hand At 79,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 29, 1954.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. W. C. Locker, Teacher’s Guide: Locker Easy Method Writing (Richmond, Va., 1919).

8. “Locker Writing System.,” Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch, October 13, 1915.

9. “W. C. Locker Uses Pictures As Aid in Teaching Writing,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 19, 1945.

10. Albert A. Joseph, “Getting Out of Penmanship Training,” Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), April 30, 1990.

11. For examples see: “Buttons for 3-A Grade Pupils in Writing,” The Waynesboro News, April 25, 1929; “14 Seventh Grade Pupils to Receive Locker Certificates,” Waynesboro News-Virginian, June 03, 1946; “Ginter Park Pupils Achieve 100% in Test,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, June 11, 1945.

12. “Lost and Found,” The Roanoke World-News, October 04, 1930.

13. “W. C. Locker Uses Pictures As Aid in Teaching Writing,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 19, 1945.

14. Ibid.

15. “Locker System is On the Way Out Here,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, October 08, 1959.

16. “Locker Rights Tomorrow; Penmanship Teacher,” The Richmond News Leader, May 22, 1961.

17. Wayne Harris, “‘Dead’ For Two Hours, Man Builds Life Anew” Greene County Record (Standardsville, Va), December 17, 1964.

18. The Marshallite, John Marshall High School, 1957.

Jessi Bennett

Digital Collections Specialist

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