The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Palmer, Austin Norman
(December 22, 1857–November 16, 1927)

–entrepreneur, educator, publisher, owner of the Cedar Rapids Business College Company, and founder of the Palmer Method of Handwriting—was born in New York. He studied business at the school of renowned penman George Gaskell and afterward became an itinerant teacher before moving to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in his early 20s.

    Palmer found work as a penman in Cedar Rapids, hand copying business letters and forms in the days before typewriters were common. He began to experiment with the strictly Spencerian script he had been taught, and soon developed a less ornate, more rapid, and more relaxed style of writing better suited to the needs of business. In the early 1880s he joined forces with S. H. Goodyear to open the Cedar Rapids Business College, where he began to teach his own method of "muscular writing," so called because it emphasized whole-arm movements rather than the finger-straining movements of previous penmanship styles.

    By 1884 Palmer had launched the magazine Western Penman to further spread the news about his handwriting method. Still, by the turn of the century the effect of Palmer's method on the American public school system was mostly regional—although it had been widely adopted by parochial schools. That was to change in 1904, when Palmer gave a penmanship exhibit in St. Louis. In attendance were New York City school officials who asked him to come to New York to teach the system to inner-city school students. His results were so impressive that the New York schools began to use his system the very next year. Palmer soon opened a New York office and moved there in 1907 to oversee the widespread adoption of his methods, which quickly spread throughout the rest of the United States.

    Palmer maintained his ties to Cedar Rapids, however, keeping an apartment ready for his frequent visits. He remained involved with his business college there and with its sister schools in St. Joseph, Missouri, and Creston, Iowa. He was relatively progressive in his educational approach, believing that students should be taught at their own pace and that they should learn a wide variety of skills rather than the narrow focus taught at other business colleges. As a result, his schools were popular, and their graduates had little trouble finding jobs. Palmer's "Normal Commercial" courses in penmanship and transcription, which were also available by correspondence and as summer courses for already employed teachers, remained a focus of his attention throughout his life. His thousands of students helped spread his teaching methods. The college remained open until 1973.

    Palmer's entrepreneurship skills are evident in the number of products he produced to supplement the teaching of his handwriting method. His A. N. Palmer Company—based in Cedar Rapids until 1955, when it moved to Chicago—manufacturedand sold official Palmer pens and paper in addition to its more than 20 textbooks, including Business and High School Edition of the Palmer Method of Business Writing, Standards for the Evaluation of Efficiency in the Palmer Method of Handwriting, and Palmer's Guide to Muscular Movement Writing, all of which went through numerous editions before the company quit publishing handwriting manuals in 1988. At its peak, Palmer's publishing company had plants in New York, Chicago, Portland, Boston, Philadelphia, and Atlanta, in addition to Cedar Rapids.

    A. N. Palmer, the man who revolutionized American handwriting methods, died in New York in 1927. He was buried in Cedar Rapids beside his wife, Sadie Whiting Palmer. By the time of his death, millions of Americans had learned to write using his system.
Sources Most books on handwriting and penmanship contain sections about Palmer. Articles include Robert E. Belding, "The Penman Builds an Empire," Palimpsest 61 (1980), 138– 45; Ruth S. Beitz, "Penmanship at Its Prime," Iowan 10 (Winter 1962), 6–9; Bill Duffy, "Push and Pull, Push and Pull, Hit the Line Every Time," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 3/17/1965; Kurt Rogahn, "Handwriting Expert Left His Mark on C. R. History," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 5/8/1983; Becky Stover, "C. R. Man's Message Clear about Handwriting," Cedar Rapids Gazette (undated clipping); and Joseph S. Taylor, "A. N. Palmer: An Appreciation," Educational Review 76 (June 1928), 15–20.
Contributor: Charlotte M. Wright

Cite as: Wright, Charlotte M. "Palmer, Austin Norman" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017