• Eric Kellenberger

The Left-Handed Penmanship Contests

I am left-handed, and it is probably more mundane than you might expect. Oh, you write with your right hand? Strange. I could never.


Left-handedness inspires just about two topics.


Q: How does left-handedness impact how you live?

A: I bump elbows at restaurants, spiral-bound notebooks are uncomfortable, I’m bad with scissors. Occasionally, someone points out that I’m left-handed, and I agree.


Q: What else is different about lefties?

A: Handedness is largely determined by differences in the brain, which has generated research into things like creativity, intelligence, life expectancy, and mental illness. None of this research changes the way I try to live.


So I was interested when I discovered the Left-Handed Penmanship Contests from--you guessed it--the Library of Congress. A few months after the American Civil War ended, this announcement appeared in the June 1865 issue of The Soldier’s Friend:


"There are many men now in hospital, as well as at their homes, who have lost their right arms, or whose right arm is so disabled that they cannot write with it. Penmanship is a necessary requisite to any man who wants a situation under the government, or in almost any business establishment. As an inducement to the class of wounded and disabled soldiers here named to make every effort to fit themselves for lucrative and honorable positions, we offer the following premiums..."


The organizer of the contest was William Oland Bourne. Bourne served as a chaplain at Central Park Hospital during the war and then became the editor of The Soldier’s Friend. Many Union veterans, their right arms amputated or injured, had to learn to write with their left hand.


So how much moolah are we talking? $1000 (about $16,800 adjusted for inflation), or $200 ($3,360) for first prize. Other publications like Harper’s Weekly, The Chicago Tribune, and The Evening Star picked up the contest in advertisements or editorials.


The submissions were first displayed in New York in 1866 with plenty of fanfare, including flags, photographs, and banners inscribed with things like


“We lost our right hand for our Rights,

And ‘tis the left hand now that writes.”


The winner was Franklin H. Durrah. Here’s one of the pages of his “left-handed penmanship specimen”:




The exhibition was highly successful, and spurred a second display in Washington, D.C. Harper’s Weekly in April 1866 stated that "it is plain from the number of specimens that no Yankee loses his heart with his arm, for there were some two hundred and seventy manuscripts collected from nearly every State in the Union." A second competition was held in 1867 and offered 10 awards of $50 ($839), with each award carrying the name of a famous Union military officer.


Wait. Since this competition was only for veterans who switched to left-handed penmanship because of injuries, that means it excluded native lefties. Hey!


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Read the original article here and browse through the contest submissions here.


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