How I Wrote Letters to 1814

BettingerLettersFronts copyA little while ago I teased you with some images of letters I sent to 1814. I thought I’d share more details about my process, both research and production. The goal was to write a letter that might have been sent to a Westphalian milliner’s shop in 1814, so a lovely group of re-enactors can include it in their up-coming presentation.  If you’ve been following the project at Kleidung um 1800, you know that the milliners and their friends at Mme Bettinger’s have quite a large mailbag to read at their event!

This was the perfect opportunity to put my handwriting skills to use, but what could I write about?  Even though my focus is on lady-like accomplishments, the formal, English handwriting styles I’ve been practicing are also suitable for business correspondence.  I decided to write a business letter from manufacturers that might have provided some of England’s famous industrial products to Mme. Bettinger. Of course, that decision meant I had to do some more research to carry my plan out- I don’t know much about British manufacturers, and even less about how they carried out business abroad! In the end, I found enough interesting material to write two quite different letters.

Letter 1: Shipping Muslins to Menden

TurnerBentLetter copyWhen I was looking for inspiration, I found more than I expected at Eunice Shanahan’s postal history site– a letter sent from Mitholm (near Halifax in England) to a Tyrolese tradesman concerning a shipment of cotton goods via Altona in the summer of 1814.  It’s in bad French- apparently the best means of communication between an English businessman and one whose native language was either German or Italian!  The letter seemed so perfect as it was that I borrowed the text, changing only the date, place, and addressee to suit Mme. Bettinger’s context.  The original letter is described here, including a transcript.  Here’s a rough translation of my version, provided by my husband (who has much better French than I do):

Mrs Bettinger, Menden     Near Halifax, 20 May

     We wrote to you the 23d of last month, since which we have not received any of your valued [letters]. This present [letter] we are to submit an invoice & Samples of your order dispatched to Hull to be embarked for Altona to the address of Messrs. H. Vander Smissen & Son with directions to receive them at once and send them on immediately to Menden we have no doubt that you will receive them in good time for your need & we have every confidence that you will approve their qualities, the Samples for the most part are coming in a separate package to be dispatched by coach from Altona to Menden It is always our pleasure to receive your new orders & to serve you as well as possible.                

We send you cordial salutations,                                    Turner Bent & Co..

I figured that if Altona, near Hamburg in modern Germany, was the sea-port of choice for a package going all the way to Bolzano (now in northern Italy), it would be the right port to send a package destined for Menden, only 340 km distant. I wonder if Turner Bent & Co. used Altona as a shipping hub during the long war with Napoleon in order to detour around hostile France? Peace was settled in the spring of 1814, but more direct trade-routes may not have been re-established to places like Bolzano by the time the original letter was written.

The first page is an invoice for goods shipped from Halifax to Menden via Hull and Altona, as described in the body of the letter. Most of the invoice is nonsense, I’m afraid, since I couldn’t find many complete models to follow. Please don’t check my math- I am totally baffled by non-decimal currency! I need to add arithmetic to the list of accomplishments to acquire in the future. In place of Thicksett and Velveret listed in the original invoice, I put in some fabrics more suitable for fashionable summer ladies’ gowns.

TurnerBentInvoice copy

Since the letter mentioned accompanying samples, I pinned a few pieces of fine cotton to the invoice- but forgot to take a picture before sealing them up in the letter. I had written some picturesque color-names on the invoice before I realized I didn’t have any samples of those colors to include, so we’ll just have to pretend that the jonquil and cocquelicot samples will be in the package sent by coach!

The postal marks on the outside are based on the ones on the original letter with the dates adjusted (see the image at the top of this post). Some of them were hand-written in ink or pencil, and so were easy to copy.  If anything, I should have made them rougher and harder to read! Next time, I’ll use my most-worn quill and scrawl more haphazardly.  Other marks were stamped on at the post office and required some ingenuity and modern materials to replicate. If you’re interested, I may post more about that technique another time.

Letter 2: Regarding Your Bill . . .

HobdayLetter1 copyThis letter is not based on any particular letter from the past, but I did borrow phrases from 19th c. letter-writing manuals.  I was also inspired by something I read on a website about 18th century Birmingham manufacturers and their continental trade.  Some letters are known which document a 1763 trip through Europe by a travelling agent for hardware merchants Glover & Chamot: “Wherever he went, he took orders for goods which he sent back to Birmingham, checked out what the competition was doing, sent back market research, ran status checks on new customers, cajoled old customers whose accounts were overdue (being careful, of course, not to offend them so that they did not place a new order) – all the tasks generally associated with a sales job then and now, in fact.” (Shena Mason at revolutionaryplayers.org.uk).

I don’t know for certain that English manufacturers were still using travelling agents like that almost 50 years later in 1814, but I liked the idea so much I made this letter focus on the upcoming visit of a similar agent.  It was fun trying to strike a balance between “Pay the rest of your bill” and “We’re nice, please buy more from us.” I wanted to leave the re-enactors free to decide what goods Mme. Bettinger bought from this Birmingham manufacturer, so I didn’t mention any specific products in the letter. I got the name of the company (Hobday Biddle & Ryder) from a trade-card in the V&A’s collection that also doesn’t mention what the company actually traded in! Since my French is even worse than the clerk’s at Turner Bent & Co, I left this letter in English. Here’s a transcript:

Mesdames,                            Birmingham, May 16

I duly received your favour of the 27th ultimo inclosing a payment of 100 pounds, for which I thank you. I have no wish to be troublesome to any customer, and so I propose the following arrangement concerning the balance of your account, which I trust you will find both convenient and expedient.

Our agent Mr. Ryder, who gave such a good report of the flourishing state of your business at his visit last October, is at present on the Continent again and will return to Westphalia at the end of June. The uncertain state of the roads do not allow me to name the day of his arrival in Menden more exactly. Be assured, however, that he will not fail to call on you with my best compliments and those of Mr. Biddle. Mr. Ryder carries with him samples of our latest manufacture, which I flatter myself you will find to be the most elegant ever yet produced at the price. Should these samples meet with your approval, Mr. Ryder will be most happy to take a new order, provided you will be so good as to settle the balance of your account with him directly. I remain, Mesdames,

your humble servant,

Tho[ma]s Hobday

I used similar postal marks on this letter, adjusting the dates and the costs. Let’s pretend that both letters were placed in the same mail bag in the Foreign Section of the General Post Office in London and made their way to Menden together.

BettingerTeaser2

Materials and Techniques

I tried to make each of these letters a little different- in part to disguise that these letters were both written by one person!  I used two different papers that have a textured “laid” finish, like many writing papers of the time. I’ve fallen in love with one of them, a soft creamy text-weight sheet made by Hahnemuhle. I got it at John Neal Booksellers, but it’s available elsewhere too.  It is soft but strong and has a pleasing texture that reminds me of old paper.  The other paper I used is called Canson Ingres (also from John Neal). It is a very pretty brighter white, but I found the surface felt harder and the laid texture much more pronounced. On the textured side of the paper, my quill snagged and skipped over the laid lines. The sheets I bought were large, and I considered trying to match the dimensions of early 19th century writing-paper. But in the end, there were so many variables and choices among those sizes I decided to cut each sheet into quarters to get the most out of each one.  The resulting “quartos” are well within the recorded size range of writing papers for the period.

I used quill pens and iron gall inks to write both letters. I wrote with a “Running hand”, but I made slightly different choices on the two letters to help suggest that they were written by two different people. For example, I used rounded capital Ms in one letter, and pointy Ms in the other. The English letter had lots of terminal ds which I finished with exuberant swoops!

Finally, I used slightly different letter-folds and I sealed one letter with sealing wax and the other with a wafer.  Wafers have come up alongside sealing wax over and over again in descriptions of letter-writing- I shall have to write more about them soon!

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