Copperplate script by John Ayres, 1683; Columbia University Libraries. From Encyclopedia Britannica.

We’ve all seen it. Copperplate flexes its stiff old joints and takes a run around the track whenever there’s a wedding invitation to be done.

But why would the handwriting style also called English Roundhand get that name?

Once upon a time all illustrations for printing were cut in wood. By the seventeenth century printers had figured that engraved copper plates (though more expensive) would be more durable and better able to hold the finest detail. Pages printed from these copperplate engravings got the name “plates” and were printed separately from the rest of the book. An engraving could have a raised impression like type but would more usually be an intaglio image with the area to print black recessed into the plate — this would obviously make printing on a different press a necessity. You can see a video of a copper plate being engraved at the earlier post Die sinker.

Because for hundreds of years all the handwriting manuals teaching schoolchildren English Roundhand were printed from copperplates, that term took over as the name of the script in colloquial usage. And when I say these manuals were widespread and long-lasting you have to understand that I learned handwriting from one of them (probably by then printed by offset lithography, but quite possibly not) which I was given at the age of four upon arrival at Primary School in Gullane. A line of letters was followed by a wide space below, with little leader lines onto which we were meant to copy the model above. We were not required to make all the curlicues as shown in the picture above, which had evolved as markers of scribal skill, though we were taught a fairly elaborate script.

These books would be reprinted over and over again, with nary a change needed. That was one of the benefits of the technology: unlike letterpress the type/images didn’t need to be recreated every time you needed to print more. It was quite common to re-engrave the lines on a copperplate before reusing it for a second printing. Fine lines might fill in after the press bashed the plate about for a number of impressions. This cleanup was routine and noncontroversial: nothing really was changed. The Folger Shakespeare Library blog, The Collation, shows us the example below from two versions of The Aeneid from 1654 and 1697 where part of the plate was re-engraved to change Aeneas’ face. Their conclusion is that this was done to make Aeneas look like the mustacheless King William III; it is thought that the printer, Jacob Tonson, did this in order to attract patriotic wealthy subscribers. It worked. The book turned out to be oversubscribed, and several refunds had to be made.

Research shows that apart from this edit, the plates were identical.