Anatomy of a Regency Letter

VigeeLeBrunLetterDetail
Detail from Portrait of Comtesse de Cérès, Elisabeth Vigée -Lebrun, 1784. (Toledo Museum of Art)

When I first started looking at online images of letters from Jane Austen’s era last summer, I often felt confused about what I was seeing. Maybe it’s because I haven’t handled real letters from that period to get a first-hand sense of their size and how they were folded. Maybe it’s because different archives photograph their letters differently, making it hard to compare them. Maybe I just didn’t see an explanation that clicked for me. So, although there are many articles and blog posts about Regency letter-writing on the web (see links at the end of this post for some), I’m going to add another one- the post that might have helped me last summer. Do keep in mind that, while there are conventions, individual letter-writers practiced many different techniques in different situations: there are a lot of possible variations.

The Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge (YMBC&GUK) from 1815 has some simple, practical advice about writing letters.  Unfortunately, it takes a lot of basic knowledge for granted: “The most convenient form for a letter is, a sheet of quarto paper, written on three succeeding pages.”  What?? Let’s decipher that statement.

Paper

“Quarto” means a sheet of paper that is one quarter of a paper-manufacturer’s full sheet.  As Entick’s dictionary (1791) puts it, a quarto is “The size of a sheet when twice doubled,”  that is, folded in half twice.  So the size of a quarto sheet depends on the original size of the full sheet.  A wide variety of different sizes and qualities of writing paper was available to Jane Austen and her contemporaries.  Just take a look at the British statutes regulating duties on paper from the 1780s– full sheets of writing paper measured anywhere from 22 inches by 30 1/4 inches (“Imperial”) to 12 1/2 inches by 15 1/2 inches (“pott”)! One common size was Post paper, which measured 15 1/4 inches by 19 1/2 inches in the full sheet, so a quarto sheet measured 7 5/8 inches by 9 3/4 inches.  To put it simply, “quarto” letter paper could range in size from somewhat larger than standard 8.5×11 inch paper (A4 paper if you’re not in the US) to somewhat smaller.

Most paper was made of cotton and linen fibers which rendered it strong, soft, and less likely to turn brown and crumbly than later 19th century paper.  Fine writing paper was treated with a gelatin size and hot-pressed to make it smoother and less absorbent. In Jane Austen’s day, traditional paper-making techniques were used alongside new industrial processes. She used both “laid” paper, a traditional style distinguished by prominent textured  lines or stripes, and “wove” paper, a new style of smoother paper that lends itself to industrial production.  Today, only special artist’s papers and fancy stationery are at all similar to the paper produced at that time. Most modern paper is made of bleached wood pulp with lots of different sizing and coating agents, including clay.

There are so many variables in sizes and qualities of paper that it’s hard to make generalizations! Each of the different types of paper, from pott to foolscap to post, had different weights and different qualities- it would take a paper expert to tell them apart and describe them all. This variation can be helpful if you’re trying to recreate period letters, though- many sizes of paper are appropriate, including modern standard paper. And, depending on your time and place (before or after wove paper became common) many different kinds of fine stationery and artist papers are usable.

Writing the Letter

LettersPageDiagram2 copy

When you fold a quarto sheet in half, you have a little two-leaf pamphlet with four writing surfaces. If, as the YMBC&GUK says, you write on “three succeeding pages” the fourth page remains blank.  Envelopes as we know them don’t come into use until much later in the 19th century, and so to close the letter for mailing the writer simply folded the paper. That blank fourth page then becomes the outside of the letter, where the address is written and the letter is sealed.  Some of the archives that share images of letters photograph only the whole, unfolded sheet, so you can see the outside of the letter together with the first page. Other archives show images of each individual page of writing, without an overview of the whole sheet.

Jane Austen took pleasure in a long letter, and when she ran out of room on the usual three pages she would write on the parts of that fourth page that she knew would be folded inside the letter or covered by a flap.  If that still wasn’t enough room, she would “cross” her letter, turning the paper 90 degrees and writing right on top of the already-written page.  I get the feeling that writers would only “cross” letters sent to intimate friends and family- people who knew the writer’s handwriting well already and who were hungry for all the news that could be shared.  Why not add additional sheets? Postal charges in Britain during this period were relatively high. Charges were calculated by weight, distance, and number of sheets included. Two sheets of paper would double the price!

Folding and sealing the Letter

LettersFoldDiagram copyThe YMBC&GUK suggests one simple way to fold a letter, but also implies that many writers used more complicated folds to try to keep their letters private:

 In folding up a letter, the modern fashion is at once simple and sensible ; at the same time that if any part of the contents are to be kept particularly secret, they may be rendered quite inaccessible to the most prying curiosity. For it is obvious, that a person who is resolved to act so dishonourably, as to endeavour to discover the contents of a letter entrusted to his care and protection, will not be restrained from so base an action by the most intricate form in which the letter can possibly be made up. The most proper way to fold a letter, written on quarto paper, is to turn up two inches of the page, at top and bottom, and then turn over the inner margin which is double paper to within an inch and a half of the open outer margin, which folded down will give sufficient hold and space for the application of the wax or wafer.

If you tuck the larger bottom flap into the top flap, you can ensure that only one leaf of paper is caught by the seal. This is especially important since many people seem to have ripped or cut the top flap around the seal to open it.  That’s just one way to fold a Regency letter for mailing- I’m sure there are many more, proper and improper!

As you can see, it’s difficult to find order in the chaos of minutiae related to letter-writing.  It’s such an important and appealing part of Jane Austen’s novels and Regency life more broadly, but as an every-day practice for so many people it’s as varied as people are. But I hope I’ve been able to outline some of the main features, and maybe help clear up some confusion. Let me know if I’ve caused more confusion than I cleared up!

Paper links

Letter writing Links

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16 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Regency Letter

  1. What a wonderful post! I’m so glad someone posted a link to your site over in the Beau Monde Facebook group or I might not have found it. I’m going to put a link in my favorite blogs list on my literature and history site 🙂

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  2. Thanks for a really interesting article. You mention:

    “Why not add additional sheets? Postal charges in Britain during this period were relatively high. Charges were calculated by weight, distance, and number of sheets included. Two sheets of paper would double the price!”

    This is very true, particularly since before about 1840 the recipient was usually the one who paid for the postage. I imagine it would have been considered bad manners to send a letter longer than the standard number of pages unless there was a good reason.

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    1. Thank you! I think you’re right- it would have seemed rude to make the recipient pay extra for your letter. Sorry I took so long to approve and respond to your comment- it came in just after I took off for vacation. I’m glad you stopped by!

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