Patrick W. Costello

PWC Portrait Biogr Cover


Master Engrosser, Illuminator and Penman

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The Early Years

Patrick William Costello was born on March 11, 1866 in the Minooka section of Scranton, Pennsylvania in the heart of the Anthracite Coal Region. He was the only son of William and Bridget Langan Costello, Irish immigrants from County Mayo. Bridget died when Patrick was only two years old. His father, a coal miner, decided to take his young son to Birmingham, England, a move likely motivated by a series of strikes in the Scranton mining industry and the need to find work. In 1877, when Patrick was eleven, they returned to Scranton and for the next two years he worked picking slate at the Bellevue Coal Breaker, located along the Lackawanna River, only a few miles from where he was born.

In the late 1800s, Scranton’s economy was driven by the coal, steel and railroad industries. A coal miner could only earn an average of $375 a year, so a family’s desperate need for additional income forced young boys like Patrick, many only 9 or 10 years old, to leave school and work in the mines as breaker boys.

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 The Breaker Boys

Slate picking was a dirty, exhausting job separating chunks of slate and rock from coal. Boys were not allowed to wear gloves, so 12-hour days handling sulphur-covered rock left their fingers red-raw, cracked and bleeding ("red tops" they called them), for a meager four cents an hour. They labored six days a week under harsh conditions. The mines and breakers were cold during the winter, hot in the summer, and the air was thick with coal dust which filled their lungs and decreased visibility. They were subjected to the constant deafening roar of coal being crushed and separated by machines at the top of the breaker. It was then dumped onto metal chutes that slowly guided the coal in the direction of the breaker boys, who sat below on pine boards and bent down to remove all foreign material by hand as the coal passed beneath them. A chute boss stood by with stick in hand, ready to punish any boy caught talking or slacking off. Several decades passed before Congress finally legislated enforceable Child Labor Laws designed to prevent the exploitation of children by industry.

It is likely that Patrick attended grade school during those formative years when he lived in England. Perhaps it was the encouragement of a teacher, together with his exposure to British culture that led to his discovery of an innate talent for art. Upon his return to Scranton, Patrick devoted the limited free hours he had at home to the practice of lettering and penmanship. A grandson of Patrick’s, who lived with him just prior to his death, recalls hearing that, as a boy, he used to sketch drawings on slabs of slate that he found near the mines. It is believed that he had no formal training in art, except for a few lessons from W.E. Dennis in 1903, about thirteen years after he had established a small engrossing business in Scranton.

Venture into Politics

When Patrick was in his late teens, he worked as a clerk in Millett’s neighborhood grocery store in Bellevue. There he mixed with all kinds of people and easily won them over with his affable, easy-going personality. Those social skills served him well when he decided, as an ambitious 19-year old, to venture into local politics.

In 1886, he secured a position as a clerk for the City Treasurer. When the Treasurer’s term ended six months later, Costello was appointed office clerk for the City Engineer, where he remained for the next nine years. These positions afforded him the opportunity, in his spare time, to practice lettering and engrossing. He also began to refine a distinctive cross-hatch style he used to sketch portraits, a technique that in subsequent years became a trademark and earned him widespread renown as a master illustrator.

Costello won his first elected political position in 1896 as Auditor of Lackawanna County and was re-elected to a second term three years later. In 1901, he ran for County Controller and lost a controversial, hard-fought contest by only eleven votes. The following year, 1902, he was elected City Controller in Scranton and served one term. As a public official, Costello earned a reputation as a man of conscience, loyalty and unwavering integrity. During his administration as City Controller, he was instrumental in uncovering misuse of public funds by city departments, leading to an investigation and several convictions.  In 1906, the Governor of PA selected Costello to be a Democratic member of the first board of registration commissioners in Scranton, a position to which he was later reappointed.

Influence of CP Zaner

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Charles Paxton Zaner (1864-1918)

It wasn’t long before the quality of his engrossing work began to attract the attention of professional penmen throughout the country, including Charles Paxton Zaner, founder of the Zanerian College of Penmanship in Columbus, Ohio, and also a native of the PA coal region. He traveled to Scranton to meet with Costello and to see his work firsthand. Zaner is reported to have asked, “Why, do you mean to tell me that you have never gone to an art school?”- to which Costello replied: “No sir. Just picked it up myself.” The Master Penman was so amazed by the quality of Costello’s pen work that he strongly encouraged him to leave politics and devote his time entirely to a career in engrossing.

Costello heeded Zaner’s advice, finished out his term as City Controller and began to focus his undivided attention on developing his engrossing skills and small business located in downtown Scranton. His first engrossing job brought him $25.00 and marked the beginning of a remarkable career, one that ultimately earned him the lasting respect and admiration of his professional peers, the rare distinction of Master Penman, and produced an impressive body of work that continues to educate and inspire successive generations of young artists.

Costello and Zaner became life-long friends and shared a strong commitment to the education of young penmen, certainly reasons why Costello frequently contributed his work for publication in The Business Educator. During one of Zaner’s trips to Scranton, Costello introduced him to a close friend named George Howell, the Superintendent of Schools, a meeting that led to the establishment of the Zaner-Bloser penmanship program in the Scranton Public Schools. Several days later, Howell told Costello that Zaner “demonstrated to me that he thoroughly knew his penmanship.”

Family & Community

In September, 1890, PW Costello married Mary Agnes Mahon, also a Bellevue resident, and together they raised eight children, including three sons who also became accomplished artists.

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Mary Agnes Mahon

William Costello was a commercial sign painter who ran his own business in downtown Scranton for many years. He also lettered diplomas for many local high schools and colleges.

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William ‘Bill’ Costello

Jerry Costello worked as a cartoonist for several newspapers between 1915 and 1921, including, Scranton Daily News, Scranton Republican, Philadelphia Press, Newark Star Eagle and New York Herald.  From 1922-62, he was an editorial cartoonist for The Knickerbocker News in Albany, NY. He was syndicated by the Gannett Corporation and his cartoons appeared in many of their papers nationally. He created three cartoon comic strips in the 1920s & 30s, was a pioneer in animated movie cartooning, and authored a pictorial book on the life of Al Smith, former Governor of New York.

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Jerry Costello

Joseph Costello was trained as an engrosser by his father and joined him in his Scranton engrossing business after graduating from St. Thomas College in 1924.

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Joseph Costello

Not only was PW's art talent passed on to his three sons, it also re-emerged in the form of cartooning in the hands of his great-great-grandson, Bill Costello. Bill, a former nationally syndicated editorial cartoonist, published in over 600 periodicals, has won numerous awards for his work, written three books that teach children how to draw, produced an instructional television series for children that aired on PBS, and earned an M.S. in Elementary Education. Thus, PW's genetic legacy includes not only artistic talent, but also a penchant for educating others.

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Bill Costello

Throughout his lifetime, PW Costello was very active in his local community and was one of the founders and first elected officers of the Irish American Society of Lackawanna County, later called the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. To this day, the Friendly Sons sponsor Scranton’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade, one of the largest in the U.S., and a formal dinner that consistently draws dignitaries from all over the country and crowds exceeding one-thousand. Costello's name has been listed in the front of every dinner program since 1906. It's likely that he engrossed the cover art on many of them.


In the late 1890s, as Costello was busy establishing his reputation as a highly-skilled engrosser, he also co-owned a popular downtown restaurant, Costello & Fleming’s Arbor Café, located in the heart of Scranton’s theater district, only a few doors from his engrossing studio. While he made his living as an engrosser, he was also famous for his sketches of local and national figures that lined the walls of his restaurant. The Arbor Café became a favorite gathering place for stage stars and other celebrities who would occasionally sit for his portraits. Most of the portraits were drawn from photographs; many were autographed by his subjects.

Later in his life, Costello returned to the restaurant business as co-owner of the Oak Café in Scranton, where framed portraits of many of the following figures were again prominently displayed: (Presidents) George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, James Monroe, William McKinley, Grover Cleveland, William Taft & Theodore Roosevelt; (Writers and Poets) Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, William Shakespeare, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, John Greenleaf Whittier; (Supreme Court Justices) Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Evans Hughes; (Secretary of State, Orator) William Jennings Bryan; (Humorist, Columnist) Will Rogers; (Actors) Tyrone Power, Lily Langtry, Ellen Terry, Maude Adams, Joseph Jefferson, Julia Marlowe, Laura Keene, Junius Brutus Booth, Edwin Booth, Alexander Salvini, Lynn Fontanne, Otis Skinner, John Drew, Lionel & John Barrymore.

In July, 1918, PW Costello’s beloved wife, Aggie, died at the age of 50. At the time, two of their children were on their own. Four daughters and two sons, ranging in age from 10 to 25 years, were still living at home.

PW and his wife were able to raise a large family, unlike many other penmen of his era who chose not to have children due to the enormous time demands and focused dedication the profession required. In addition, PW built a productive engrossing business, managed a busy restaurant and stayed active in community affairs. It was a remarkable accomplishment for one in his profession.

Following his wife’s death, PW had to single-handedly care for six children (he never remarried), while maintaining his commitment to his work and the community. Judging by the volume and quality of the engrossings he produced between 1919 and 1930 (the year his health began to deteriorate), and by the success of his children as parents, educators and artists, he managed to handle all of it exceptionally well.

Even in his later years, Costello continued to stay active in the Democratic Party as a city and county committee member from his local ward in East Scranton. He loved baseball and was a big supporter of Scranton’s minor league team. His passion for the sport was reflected in some of his drawings and engrossings that commemorated professional players from his day, including, Ty Cobb, the legendary center-fielder for the Detroit Tigers; Connie Mack, the owner of the Philadelphia Athletics; Honus Wagner, Hall of Fame shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates; Stanley R. Harris, from Pittston, PA, Player-Manager of the Washington Nationals and hero of the 1924 World Series; and Stephen F. O’Neill, also a native of Minooka and former breaker boy, who went on to become an outstanding catcher and manager in the American League. O’Neill was part of two World Series champions: first, in 1920, as a player with the Cleveland Indians, when he hit .333 for the Series, and again in 1945, as manager of the Detroit Tigers.

PW Costello & The Art of Engrossing – by Del Tysdal

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Engrossing by PW Costello 1924

Mr. Costello chose a vocation as an artist-calligrapher. In the period from 1875-1940   this occupation became known as engrossing. It was a continuation of the artwork of European monasteries and carried over to the United States by imitation. Mr. Costello became a talented and prolific engrosser in traditional styles; he was able to effectively adopt early 20th century lettering trends and also refine his own trademark techniques. His name, P W Costello, was displayed in column ads in Scranton, PA telephone books under the heading Engrossers.

Engrossing, as it applies to calligraphy, means to add beauty to the written letter forms A-Z. The traditional method involved use of a large capital letter in the upper left of a large document. This single letter immediately became the object of the viewer’s eye. The first letter of the word, Whereas, In Memoriam, or This Award is Given To, appeared much larger than the letters that followed. Mr. Costello would add colors such as purple, vermillion, or dark blue to highlight the outline of the large letter, or its inner parts. Gold leaf, applied painstakingly with brush and glue, added significance and aesthetic appeal to the heading.

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Engrossed by PW Costello

Often the document was large, 18 x 24” or more, with all four borders illuminated with griffins and goblins, or more plainly with vines and filigrees. These forms were often modeled after those found in library collections of medieval literature. An example of medieval influence was the common use of white vines to embellish the surrounding and inner, open areas of a letter.

In his engrossings, Mr. Costello combined artistic embellishment with traditional letter forms of calligraphy. He also created his own imaginative styles of lettering that added variety and enhanced eye appeal. He often used Old English lettering in the headings, followed by German Text or simpler legible words formed with his calligraphic pen nib, such as the Speedball C-6 in a straight penholder. It’s likely that his repertoire of nibs, in a wide range of sizes, included the Soennecken from Germany and England. In some of  Mr. Costello’s work that I have seen he used as many as ten or more 'fonts' to create a most inventive document.

Mr. Costello's use of color was not limited to the primary colors. He loved to use varying shades of Payne's Gray to outline his calligraphy. Payne's Gray is a lighter hue of black and worked effectively for him in adding depth to the page. In his color work, that included reds and blues, he would dimple minute points and fill those dimples with gold. The careful viewer would notice these little things and wonder how he did it. In using gold leaf to fill the voids of outlined letters he would additionally incise engravings with a rounded-end burnishing tool.


Engrossed by PW Costello

His use of both simple and intricate color showed his depth of skill in creating master-pieces using the common alphabet. His expertise at incorporating historic engrossing designs from two to five centuries earlier and perfecting a unique artistic style, attracted the attention of a broad range of public and commercial businesses. He produced elaborate 'resolutions' for several U.S. presidents, congressmen, labor leaders, mayors, bishops and other men of importance within his local community and throughout the Northeast. For nearly 50 years he devoted his career as a master artist to honoring the lives of other men through the embellished word.

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PW Costello drawings of Al Jolson and Laura Keene

The Passing of a Great Man & Artist

After five years of illness, Patrick W. Costello died on May 20, 1935. He was 69. Several months after his death, The Educator honored PW by publishing a commemorative edition, which included a cover photo and this excerpt taken from the obituary:

Mr. Costello was one of the best friends The Educator ever had. He was a regular contributor until about three years ago when ill health called a halt to his activities.  P. W. Costello gained the love and admiration of the penmanship profession by his unselfish and untiring efforts to help others in the profession, for his carefully planned lessons, his masterful examples of engrossing and pen and ink drawings.  His work is studied by both students and professionals. In his death we have lost a great engrosser, illuminator and pen artist. His work is done, but his masterpieces will live for future generations." [The Educator - September, 1935]

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The Educator, September 1935 Edition

This excerpt is from an editorial published in The Scranton Times the day following PW’s death. It captures the genuine affection and admiration of the local community:

Mr. Costello was possessed of the soul of the poet and the artist. Even in the nineties [1890s] when he was in politics, which are calculated to harden a man against the beauties of the world, he dreamed his dream – and out of that dream grew an art that made him famous throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania. [He] was a great artist, a lover of beautiful things – but better still, he was a lover of his fellow man, and hundreds of them, who treasure his work and who admire his character, will mourn his departure…” [Editorial, The Scranton Times – May 21, 1935, p. 8]

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*Biography written by Tom Costello, great-grandson of Patrick Costello.

**’PW Costello & The Art of Engrossing’ written by Del Tysdal, artist/master penman, Glyndon, MN.



·        Patrick W. Costello. In Portrait  and Biographical Record of Lackawanna County, PA  (1897) pp. 571-72. New York: Chapman Publishing Co.

·        Lupfer, E. A. (ed) (1935). America Loses One of Her Most Skillful Engrossers. The Educator, 41(1), p. 2. Columbus: Zanerian College of Penmanship.

·        McCann, C. R. (1930). Breaker-Boy. The Business Educator, 35 (9). Columbus: Zanerian College of  Penmanship.

·        Passing of Talented Artist, P. W. Costello, Is Regretted. (1935, May 22). The Scranton Republican, p. 7.

·        P.W. Costello Taken by Death, Well Known Artist Succumbs in Wheeler Ave Home. (1935, May 21). The Scranton Republican, p.11.

·        P.W. Costello is Dead Following 3-Year Illness, Widely Known Penman Succumbs at Family Home on Wheeler Avenue, Was 69 Years Old. (1935, May 20). The Scranton Times, pp. 3, 24.

·        P.W. Costello is Laid at Rest in Grave at Moscow, Scores of Sorrowing Relatives and Friends at Solemn Rites for Former City Controller. (1935, May 23). The Scranton Times, p. 3.

·        Scranton City Directories (1887-1935). New York: R.L. Polk & Co.

·        Sull, M. R. (1989). Penman’s Hall of Fame, Masters of Distinction (Patrick W. Costello). In Spencerian Script and Ornamental Penmanship, Volume One (pages 146-68). Prairie Village, KS: LDG Publishing.

·        Tysdal, D. (1984). Penmanship and Engrossing: Patrick W. Costello. Calligraphy Idea Exchange, Spring, p. 42.

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