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History of Penmanship

In the past, master penmen or engrossers were called upon to letter in large, clear handwriting such legal documents as land deeds, mortgages, baptism certificates, and military commissions. A large staff of engrossers was once used on Capitol Hill to letter Congressional Bills prior to submission for passage. 

On July 4, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was approved by the colonies and on July 19 the Continental Congress ordered that the Declaration be "fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile [sic] of 'The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America,' and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress."

On August 2 the journal of the Continental Congress records that "The declaration of independence being engrossed and compared at the table was signed." The engrosser was Timothy Matlack, shown at right.


Jacob Shallus (1750-1796)
Engrosser of the Constitution of the United States

After winning independence from the British, the Federal Convention, meeting in Philadelphia in 1787, decided to draft an entirely new frame of government ​rather than amend the existing Articles of Confederation. All through the summer, in closed sessions, the delegates debated and drafted the new Constitution.


In order to be approved by the Constitutional Convention on Monday, September 17, 1787, the draft had to be copied onto parchment over the weekend. The honor fell to Jacob Shallus, clerk of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. He wrote a very legible script with titles that were engrossed--that is, made larger and darker. His tools were quill pens cut from large feathers, and ink made from oak galls, iron, and gum arabic, often with a colorant such as logwood added to the initially pale ink. 

Following English practice, Shallus wrote important legal documents on parchment, animal skin that was specially treated with lime and stretched. It was expensive, generally imported from Great Britain, but could be expected to last a very long time. Before beginning to letter, he drew guidelines on the parchment in pale brown crayon. Corrections were difficult to make--words were scraped away with a penknife or inserted carefully in the lines of text, and then listed in an errata paragraph.

The scribes who lettered the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution 

Timothy Matlack (1730-1829)
Engrosser of the Declaration of Independence

by Dr. Joseph M. Vitolo 

When someone thinks of the Declaration of Independence, a beautifully penned calligraphic document usually comes to mind. However, did you ever wonder who penned that beautiful specimen of our country's history? Historians believe Timothy Matlack was the man chosen to engross the Declaration of Independence after the first draft was penned by Thomas Jefferson. Official documents of the time were usually engrossed, i.e. copied in large, clear script/text. 

Handwriting in the colonial period was heavily influence by Europe, in particular England. Indeed, examining the script used by Matlack in the Declaration of Independence one can easily see these influences. In particular, his use of English roundhand script stands out. This form of script was executed with a feather quill pen and was actually a form of handwriting. The script is known today as Copperplate. 

In the 1780’s Matlack became a delegate to the Continental Congress representing Pennsylvania. He was also known to be a sword-toting patriot around the streets of Philadelphia. Interestingly, historians also identify Matlack as the person who penned George Washington's commission as commanding general of the Continental Army. 

Born in Haddonfield, NJ in 1730, Timothy Matlack was a Quaker who spent a majority of his life in Pennsylvania. He died near Hornesburg, PA in 1829 at the incredible age of 99.

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