Texting. Facebook. Twitter. E-mail. These days it’s almost too easy to stay in touch, too easy to know what’s going on everywhere and what everyone thinks of it, to easy to get sucked into the latest news when one ought to be getting some work done (she typed with a guilty grin.)
This was not a problem 19th century teens had to deal with.
Up until the telegraph, letter-writing was the only way to stay in touch with far-flung friends. We talked a bit about letter-writing some time ago here and I thought it was time we addressed the topic a little more closely.
Letter-writing really was an art form, I think: not only your words, but your choice of paper, handwriting, and more could carry a subtle message as well.
First, there was the choice of paper one wrote on: thin or thick? Plain or decorated with a heraldic device (your family’s coat of arms) or with some other emblem? Scented with your favorite perfume or not? Was your family mourning the death of a relative? If so, time to pull out the box of black-bordered writing paper like that shown at right. And using more than one sheet of paper meant the letter would cost more in postage.
One’s choice of pen and ink also mattered. No gel pens or even fountain pens yet—at least not until the mid-late 19th century, when improvements in materials and inks made them more common (forms of the existed as far back as the early 18th or late 17th century) century. No, you probably wrote with a quill pen: goose and turkey feathers were most commonly used, though swan feathers were much admired. Contrary to what you might think, most of the feathery part of the quill was stripped away from the shaft of the quill; a small, sharp knife was always kept at hand to trim quills when they began to fray (hence the “penknife”). The main type of ink used was iron gall ink, made from iron salts and vegetable tannins (often derived from oak galls); though it made a nice dark ink, it is also very acidic and chemically unstable—which is why most of the writing in letters and documents from the 19th century and earlier have faded to brown.
Then there was one’s handwriting. Writing an elegant hand was an accomplishment much admired. However, if one was trying to conserve space in order to cram in as much news as possible into one page, then the flourished capitals and sweeping ‘y’ or ‘g’ at the end of words was best kept to a minimum. If you wanted to cram even more words onto a page, you could fill the page then turn it ninety degrees and fill it writing in that direction as well. “Crossing the page” often made for difficult reading, but it did save postage costs. (That's a letter written by Jane Austen herself, by the way, showing not only crossing lines but also other ways to shoehorn as many words onto one page as possible.)
If you were being cost-conscious, elegance of phrasing might also have to fall by the wayside. 19th century letters are full of abbreviations like wd and shd for would and should, vy for very and yr for your…sound familiar? However, I do not believe I’ve ever seen gr8 for great.
So your letter is written, on one side of the page only: you might sprinkle it with sand to help dry the ink or blot it with thick, absorbant paper, or just wave it around for a few minutes. When it was dry, you folded it carefully to conceal the writing and sealed it: envelopes did not come into widespread use until the middle of the 19th century (see Jane's letter above and note how it's folded). To seal your letter, you might use sealing wax (red was a popular color) or a wafer, which was a thin disc of glue and starch which was moistened and used to glue shut the letter (a forerunner of the modern sticker, though some objected to having other people's saliva mailed to them!), or both wax and a wafer. And so your letter was ready to send.
Nest week we'll look at how letters were sent. And don't forget, in two weeks we'll be having the inaugural meeting of the Young Bluestockings Book Club, discussing Patricia C. Wrede's Mairelon the Magician. Have you all been able to get your hands on copies?