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  • Writer's pictureSabrina Riley

Great-Grandma's Handwriting

Privately-owned community business colleges were the for-profit educational institutions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. They provided inexpensive training in managerial, bookkeeping, and secretarial skills through short, accelerated courses for students who would otherwise have been unable to attend traditional colleges or universities. Will Keith Kellogg, progenitor of the Kellogg Company, attended such a school in Kalamazoo, Michigan—Parson’s Business College—in 1880. The South Bend Business College (also known at various times as People's College, South Bend College of Commerce, and the Michiana College of Commerce) in Northern Indiana marketed itself by promising to prepare students for employment by the Studebaker Corporation and other companies in South Bend. In the neighboring city of Elkhart, the Elkhart Business College,* founded in 1882, promised to prepare men and women “for the right sort of start in life” by training them to hold positions as stenographers and bookkeepers.


The Elkhart Business College regularly advertised in the Bristol Banner newspaper, a paper my great-grandmother, Edith Menges, likely read. In the autumn of 1914, during which she turned nineteen years old, she attended Elkhart Business College for a term. I don’t know if secretarial work or bookkeeping was her goal. Perhaps she wished to escape the farm her mother and aunt worked so hard to keep going.


So, it was with great interest that my mother and I (Edith’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter) discovered a certificate issued to Edith on December 11, 1914, by the Elkhart Business College, documenting the completion of her handwriting course. Not as valuable as a diploma, but still a piece of family history we wanted to preserve.


The certificate was tightly rolled, yellowed, and so brittle with age that it could not be safely unrolled or flattened. Thus, I placed it in an improvised humidification chamber (i.e. a Rubbermaid storage container with a small amount of water in the bottom and wire baking rack to hold the document out of the water). After about three hours, the paper had taken on enough moisture to safely unroll the document and let it airdry with weight on the edges to keep it flat. I was finally able to get a good look at it.


As I studied it, I was intrigued by the signatures: C. H. Woodward, instructor, and C. P. Zaner, teacher-author-editor.


C. H. Woodward was most likely Charles H. Woodward (1891-1968), a native of Homer, Michigan. In the autumn of 1914, Woodward was a recent graduate of the South Bend Business College and a brand-new instructor at the Elkhart Business College. Edith was one of his first students. Woodward married Pearl Shaffer in 1919. Two years later, the Woodwards moved to Burlington, Iowa, where they opened a business college which operated until 1961. When C. H. Woodward died in 1968, he was executive secretary of the American Business Colleges Association.


However, it was C. P. Zaner’s name I found more interesting. As a homeschool mom, I immediately thought of the popular Zaner-Bloser handwriting curriculum. Was there a connection? It turns out that the answer is yes.

Charles Paxton Zaner (1864-1918), along with Elmer W. Bloser (1865-1929), was a founder of the Zaner-Bloser method of handwriting instruction. Born in Pennsylvania, Zaner became a calligraphist with an interest in the human biomechanics involved in handwriting. He trained in Oberlin, Ohio, under penmanship instructor G. W. Michael in 1882. By 1888 he had opened his own “Zanerian College of Penmanship” which operated in Columbus, Ohio. Bloser became a partner in the school in 1891, and in 1895 the school was renamed the Zaner-Bloser Company. However, Zaner’s instruction was not confined to his school. He published textbooks for both elementary and commercial handwriting as well as ornamental calligraphy, drawing, and illustration.


The Zaner-Bloser programs included both diploma courses, which trained professional penmanship teachers, and certificate courses, which trained pen art specialists. Edith’s course, taught by an Elkhart Business College instructor, was one of the latter. She received a certificate in business writing after completing lessons from The Business Educator, the Zaner-Bloser Company’s journal for penmanship and business education.


People always complemented Edith on her beautiful handwriting. Her formal education ended when she married William Jasper Morris on November 25, 1915. For the rest of her life, she was a housewife and mother. Regardless of the turns her life took, Edith could always take pride in her elegant handwriting that demonstrated her educational attainment.


*During its 105 years of operation the Elkhart Business College was also known as the Elkhart Business University, the Elkhart University of Medical and Dental Technique, and the Elkhart Institute of Technology. It closed in 1987.




“College Building is Nearing Completion,” South Bend Tribune, October 30, 1914, p. 17.


David A. Fryxell, “History Matters: Handwriting,” Family History Magazine, January/February 2014.

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