Cutting Paper Valentines with Elizabeth Cobbold

PenBowDetailValentine’s Day has finally provided me with some inspiration and motivation to get back to my writing desk! Many of today’s holidays were celebrated very differently in the Georgian and Regency periods, but Valentine’s Day is an exception. Then as now, it gave an opportunity for sweethearts and friends to exchange tokens of love. Last year I looked at folded and decorated puzzle purses, and made some of my own. This year I am captivated by the delightful valentines made by one very accomplished Regency lady, Elizabeth Cobbold. I just had to try making some myself!

Elizabeth Cobbold, painted by George Frost (BBC)

Elizabeth Cobbold of The Cliff

Elizabeth Knipe was already a published poet and novelist by the time she married her second husband, brewer John Cobbold, in 1792. Around 1806, she began to hold an annual St. Valentine’s Day ball at their home in Ipswich, Cliff House. As part of the festivities, Elizabeth devised a fortune-telling game on the theme of love and marriage which made use of her talents for two lady-like accomplishments: poetry and paper-cutting. These “Cliff Valentines” became famous enough that she published two slim volumes of the poetry from these games in 1813 and 1814, so we have a description of the process in her own words:

Excerpt from Cliff Valentines, 1813 (Google Books)

The poetry in the published books is divided into one section of verses for gentlemen, which foretell the personality traits of the men’s fated brides-to-be, and another section for ladies that describe their destined husbands. There is also one poem in each section titled “The Prize.” While each verse purported to give a glimpse of a future spouse, Cobbold says that The Prize foretold an engagement or marriage in the year to come.

“For you all the Choicest of Birds in the Air,” Cut Paper Valentine by Elizabeth Cobbold (Live Auctioneers)

“Some Degree of Neatness”

Cobbold’s modest description of her poetry and her cut-paper work really doesn’t express the intricate playfulness in her designs! Although familiar valentine images of hearts and cupids appear, Cobbold didn’t limit herself. She chose themes as varied as the Fairy Queen Mab, a Chinese Landscape, an Indian Boat, even a pyramid covered in hieroglyphs! We’re so lucky that any designs of these ephemeral party favors survive at all, and amazingly enough some of them survive in two different formats. Two extant copies of Cobbold’s Cliff Valentines 1814 contain pen-and-ink drawings attributed to Harriet Cobbold- possibly Elizabeth’s daughter. Fortunately for us, UC Boulder Libraries, which holds one of these hand-illustrated books, has digitised it and made it freely readable! Read Cliff Valentines 1814 and admire Cobbold’s designs here. One of my favorites is this “Lacerta Chameleon”, which must have shocked the gentleman who drew it out of Mrs. Cobbold’s basket! The verses explain that the recipient’s bride-to-be will not be a scaly lizard, but she will be a gentle creature that changes her emotional color to match her husband’s, just like the chameleon.

Lacerta Chameleon, ink drawing by Harriet Cobbold in Cliff Valentines 1814 (UC Boulder Libraries)

Many examples of the actual cut-paper valentines with verses on them also survive and even occasionally come up for auction. One gorgeous cache of Cobbold’s work is now in the Johns Hopkins University Libraries’ Special Collections: an album of 123 paper cuts, some of which match the verses and designs in Cliff Valentines! The album is a recent acquisition and is not yet in the library catalog, but several images of the valentines have been made public on Flickr. That’s where I found it, and I am grateful to JHU Special Collections Outreach Librarian Heidi Herr for filling in more details on the album for me. And guess what? Our friend the Lacerta Chameleon is there! I was also delighted to find some Valentines on the theme of accomplishments, and those are the valentines I decided to try reproducing myself.  I’ve linked to the original valentine on Flickr at the beginning of each description.


This Valentine must be for a gentleman, as it uses typically feminine textile “implements” to predict that the lucky recipient will have a “meek domestic bride.” I love how the scissors, thimble, and netting tools seem to be spilling out of the unrolled sewing case or “housewife”. On the lower edge, you can see a bodkin for threading eyelets or drawstrings, along with what I think might be a tambour needle.


I was intimidated by this intricate Valentine, but since it featured a quill pen so prominently I felt I had to make the attempt to copy it! The other tool is a porte-crayon, a brass holder for chalk or graphite. Together they symbolize the arts of writing and drawing. While they may hint at a gentleman’s talents or professions, the verses are rather coy: “The Pen and the Pencil your Valentine true,/ With Garlands of Roses has circled for you / But deems not, presumptuous, their Magic combin’d / Can picture the Charms of his Valentine’s Mind.” My reading is that this valentine was meant for a lady, and she should expect to marry a talented artist and poet who would idolize her for her character and intelligence. What do you think?

Project Notes

I broke my own rules for this project, I’m sorry to say. I was so eager to try out these designs that I didn’t work from primary source instructions or experiment with the tools of the period- I turned straight to an exacto knife and a plastic cutting mat. I have a lot more research to do on the craft of paper-cutting as it was practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it before long.

I chose a tough art paper for cutting, since I wanted it to stand up to lots of handling. Although Cobbold seems to have used mostly smooth wove paper in the JHU album, I worked with a laid-texture paper that I happened to have on hand. I free-hand sketched the designs with a soft pencil on tracing paper while looking at the Flickr images. Then I flipped the tracing paper over onto my art paper and rubbed over the pencil lines with a bone folder. I used the resulting lines as a guide for cutting from the back-side of the paper, while the front of the paper remains clean and white. As I worked on those delicate vines and flowers, I found that they weren’t as difficult to execute as I thought they would be. Each flower is formed out of simple petal shapes that are filled in with finely-cut lines. The vines are formed of repeating three-leaf motifs. All the extant valentines attributed to Cobbold are glued to red or pink paper, although in her description of the Valentine Lottery she only mentions wrapping them in “blue demy paper.” I have left mine unmounted for now, but I placed them on bright paper to get the best contrast for photos. I had so much fun with these two designs, I might just have to try out that Chameleon. I’ll share it if I do!

Thanks to all my readers for your patience as once again a short hiatus turned into a long gap in posting, especially if you sent me an email or comment while I was away. I’ll get back to you soon!




A Peek at My New Writing Desk

WritingDesk1I am already on my way to Louisville, Kentucky to a meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America.  But I’m so excited I just have to share a few pictures of this amazing project that my husband just finished. You may remember that he made me some small tools to help with my historical handwriting. For the past few months he’s been working on a much bigger object- a reproduction writing desk!

WritingDesk2bThis reproduction is based on pictures of Jane Austen’s own desk, now in the British Library. Another important reference is the many detailed pictures on the Hygra website. We chose a green baize writing surface because it was a very common feature of historical desks, although Austen’s now has a leather surface.

Under the green writing surfaces are compartments for holding paper, letters, and other odds and ends, accessed by pulling up on the grey ribbon loops. A network of green ribbon on the flap helps organize the contents.

WritingDesk3Like Austen’s desk, it also has an extra feature. Hidden in that open compartment is a little reading stand which can be pegged into the lid of the box. A brass prop folds up so you can adjust the angle of the book you’re reading.

WritingDesk4My husband not only did all the woodwork, he also fabricated most of the brass parts! The handles, main hinges, and key are the only components he bought ready-made. He even made the lock! If you can’t tell, I’m over the moon and just so impressed with his craftsmanship.  I am itching to use it, but also anxious about the first inevitable scratch or ink-blot- rather like a new car!

According to the records of Ring Brothers in Basingstoke, Jane Austen’s father  bought “a Small Mahogany Writing Desk with 1 Long Drawer and Glass Ink Stand, Compleat” on December 5 in 1794- just in time for Jane’s birthday on December 16! The price he paid was twelve shillings. Now how can I scrape together 12 shillings these days? 


Captain Wentworth’s Letter

Captain Wentworth's Letter
“He begged their pardon, but he had forgotten his gloves, and instantly crossing the room to the writing table, he drew out a letter from under the scattered paper, placed it before Anne with eyes of glowing entreaty fixed on her for a time, and hastily collecting his gloves, was again out of the room, almost before Mrs. Musgrove was aware of his being in it: the work of an instant!” Persuasion, Chapter 23

I’ve been thinking about Jane Austen’s Persuasion lately- maybe because autumnal weather puts me in mind of Austen’s most autumnal novel, or maybe because I’m heading to North America’s largest meetup of Jane Austen fans and scholars later this week.  Since I worked on letter-writing this summer, I decided I just had to make my own version of the famous letter that reunites Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliott.

It’s one of my favorite scenes in all the novels: Anne’s conversation with Captain Harville, passionately defending women’s constancy in love – Wentworth covertly writing what he feels while he listens to her words – the sudden change in Anne’s feelings as she realizes that he has understood her and has finally broken his silence about their shared past.

Miss A. E.
“The revolution which one instant had made in Anne, was almost beyond expression.  The letter, with a direction hardly legible, to “Miss A.- E.-,” was evidently the one which he had been folding so hastily.  While supposed to be writing only to Captain Benwick, he had been also addressing her!  On the contents of that letter depended all which this world could do for her.  Anything was possible, anything might be defied rather than suspense.  Mrs. Musgrove had little arrangements of her own at her own table; to their protection she must trust, and sinking into the chair which he had occupied, succeeding to the very spot where he had leaned and written, her eyes devoured the following words . . .”

And of course the letter itself is a joy to read, with unforgettable phrases like ‘I am half agony, half hope.’  Captain Wentworth’s writing is a means of participating in the conversation he overhears, and Austen’s representation of the text suggests that he begins the letter without any of the usual formalities. He just puts his pen to paper and pours out his heart.  I chose a running hand for my version of his letter. It seemed most appropriate for a Naval captain who writes so many logs, ledgers, and official reports.

"'I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. '"
“‘I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. ‘”

I tried to express Wentworth’s speed and furtiveness with my increasingly messy writing- at one point he adds “I can hardly write.” He does finish his letter a little more conventionally than he begins it, with his initials and a post-script.

Wentworth's Letter, Page2
“‘You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.'”

The physical features of the letter itself are only barely described- we only learn that it’s hastily folded, hastily sealed, and almost illegibly addressed. I decided to seal this letter with one of the yellow wafers I made, since that is the hastiest and least conspicuous means of sealing a secret love note.

WentworthWaferI haven’t opened the seal, but when I do I will imagine myself in Anne Elliott’s place, devouring the words of this most romantic of letters.  For now I will tuck it in my writing desk as a little Persuasion keepsake.  Do you have a favorite letter from Jane Austen’s novels? One which you would most like to receive for yourself? Let me know in the comments!

Making (and Faking) Wafers

Making Wafers CoverLast week I described common sealing wafers and discussed some of the social rules about using them to seal letters in Jane Austen’s era. After learning about these once-ubiquitous little pieces of Regency life, I just had to try making my own.

It’s been quite an adventure, let me tell you!  The extant recipes for wafers, like many culinary recipes of this period, don’t provide measurements and are short on detailed instructions. They are not aimed at people like me who don’t already know exactly what a wafer should look and feel like. I have done a lot of experimentation with different tools, techniques and formulations that I won’t detail here- I’m going to focus on what has worked best for me so far. It’s still a work in progress!

“To Make Wafers” from the New Family Receipt Book, 1811.

The recipe in the New Family Receipt Book of 1811 (NFRB) has the most detail and was often reprinted in other collections. I compared it to other recipes and descriptions from various time periods, and it seems to be a bit of a “kitchen sink” recipe: it includes all of the ingredients mentioned elsewhere and more. The most basic formula for wafers appears to be simply flour and water- the same recipe as the wheat paste still used by conservators and crafters for sticking paper together today.

See, for example, this 1902 book about making all kinds of adhesives. The author admits that wafers “are articles comparatively unknown to the present generation,” but provides a little information about making them anyway- out of flour, water, and coloring alone. He has vivid childhood memories of eating a bunch of colored wafers and seeing the doctor afterward due to the variety of poisonous colors used in them!

Anyway, my hunch is that the expert techniques and specialized tools of the industrial wafer-makers allowed them to get good results with the simplest recipe. I would guess the more elaborate NFRB recipe was designed to help DIY enthusiasts get results at home. I decided pick and choose additional ingredients from the NFRB recipe based on their properties rather than using them all.

Making Wafers: Ingredients and Tools

Flour: I used the unbleached All-Purpose flour I have on hand for baking (1 in the picture above). It’s the one ingredient (besides water) that every recipe has in common.

Gum Water: Gum arabic is a plant-derived gum that gets sticky easily with moisture, so it’s a good addition to a lickable adhesive. Since gum arabic was sold coarsely ground or in lumps in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was commonly dissolved in water before being added to other recipes- like the “gum water” in the NFRB recipe. I used finely ground gum arabic (2), so I didn’t need to make gum water first. Gum arabic is used today to thicken ink, add gloss and body to watercolors, and in some cosmetic formulas, so it’s not hard to find from caligraphy suppliers, art stores, and natural cosmetics suppliers.

Isinglass is a very pure form of fish gelatin, originally derived from the swim bladders of sturgeon. It has a long history of use as glue as well as a clarifying agent in the beer and wine industries. Like gum arabic, dry isinglass glue rehydrates quickly. Since both ingredients seem to have similar properties, I decided to use gum arabic (which I have on hand) and omit isinglass (which I don’t). If you want to try it, check your local home-brew supplier.

Glair or egg white is often used by illuminators to help stick gold leaf to manuscripts (after it has been aged- I skipped that step). Since I want to “cook” my wafers like the professionals did rather than slowly dehydrating them, I don’t think egg will add useful stickiness. But after some experimentation, I decided to whip the egg white to a foam and use it to incorporate stable air-bubbles into the paste mixture, making the finished wafer lighter and easier to moisten (3).

Yeast: Although no rising time is indicated in the NRFB recipe, it’s possible that the yeast was added to lighten the batter with bubbles of gas. I decided to leave it out and let my egg white foam do that job.

Colors: I decided right away not to use toxic mineral pigments like the traditional vermilion, especially since I’m making wafers in my home kitchen! I tried a few different methods of non-toxic coloring, including yellow turmeric from my spice rack, red pigment based on iron oxide (4), and food coloring (5). They all worked well, although the combinations could get odd. When I used both turmeric and red iron oxide to try to approximate the brilliant orangey red of vermilion, I ended up with a batter that smelled vaguely of blood and curry. That experiment also included a lot of unbeaten egg-white that made the resulting wafer very rubbery. I dubbed that batch “the weirdest pancakes ever made”.

Tools and Techniques: The NRFB recipe suggests drying the mixture on flat tin plates in an oven, while the professionals used hinged “wafer tongs” heated over a fire. The tongs probably looked a lot like waffle irons of the same time period. I wanted my wafers to look like the professionally made ones, but a wafer iron is not easy to find! There are some stove top irons for making pizzelle and ostie (Italian pastries closely related to wafers), but none without some kind of waffley pattern. I eventually hit upon a makeshift solution: my own trusty cast iron skillet and a cast iron bacon press with a flat bottom (6). I heated both of them on my electric stove set a little above “Low”, greased them with butter, and used them to make thin pancakes that cooked quickly and had shiny, crisp surfaces on top and bottom (7). Higher heat browned and then burned the pancakes.

Since industrially made wafers were circular, I used round leather-punches (8) to cut individual wafers out of the pancakes.  The wooden block pictured is a handy surface to punch into.  Many sizes of wafer were available in the period- according to a conservation report on an Irish archive of documents dated 1818-1853, the wafers used ranged from 1.3 cm to 3 cm in diameter, or about half an inch to 1 1/8 inches. I used a 5/8 inch punch and a 7/8 inch punch. I found that if I let the pancake get too crispy, the wafers would crumble when I tried to punch them out. I had the best luck with thin pancakes that retained a little bit of moisture. I punched the circles out while they were still warm and then let them finish drying out on paper towel, which also absorbed any remaining grease.

Here’s the recipe that has worked the best with my tools and techniques, although I will continue to fine tune it:

Recipe for Sealing Wafers

Makes 3-4 thin pancakes, which yield a few dozen wafers (depending on the size of your punch)

1. Mix 3 Tbsp white flour with 1 Tbsp gum arabic powder (and any dry pigment you want to use).

2. Combine thoroughly with 3 Tbsp water, then let sit for at least a few hours to let the gum and starch hydrate.

3. Stir in any liquid coloring you’re using.

4. Separate one egg, discarding the yolk. Beat the egg white until white and foamy and the whisk makes soft peaks. Take 3 Tbsp of egg foam and gently fold it into the batter.

5. Pre-heat the skillet and bacon press to between Low and Medium Low (you’ll need to experiment with what’s right for your stovetop). I cover a second burner with foil and heat it up as well, then place the bacon press there to stay hot while I’m working with the batter.

6. Wipe a little butter on the pre-heated skillet with a paper towel and spread a heaping Tbsp of batter in the middle. Wipe a little butter on the bacon press and press it down onto the batter. Cook until the thin crepe has a crisp surface on both sides, but isn’t hard all the way through. If it begins to brown or burn, your temperature is too high. Punch or cut wafers from the pancake while still warm.

Faking wafers

Does making wafers from scratch seem too involved, but you still want to give them a try? I admit it is a little odd to put so much time and effort into recreating an item that was the cheap, quick and easy alternative to sealing wax! I also experimented with a few methods of “faking” wafers with modern materials. Here are two which worked:

Faking Wafers: Flying SaucersFlying Saucers aka Satellite Wafers

The word “wafer” can refer to a number of confections and pastries, some of which are very closely related to sealing wafers. Flying Saucers, also sold in the US as Satellite Wafers, are one of those confections! They aren’t very common in the US, but are popular in the UK and the Netherlands. I caught sight of these candies (1) at my local international market and had to see if the wafer they’re made from would seal a letter- and it does! The saucer shape is made up of two domed sheets of light, starchy wafer that melt in your mouth. Inside is sour sherbet powder or candy beads.

To make sealing wafers, I use scissors to cut the seam holding the saucer together (2), then I eat the candy inside (3)- this is much more fun than blood-and-curry pancakes! I use the same leather punches to cut perfect circles from the wafers (4), but you could also use scissors. The domed shape of the saucer is more obvious with the large wafer (5), so I prefer making smaller ones (6). The light wafer moistens very quickly when licked, and sticks beautifully! The pastel colors are not the most typical choices for wafers of the 18th and early 19th centuries, but they’re not implausible.

Faking Wafers: Wafer PaperWafer Paper

If you’ve seen cookies or cakes decorated with a painting or a photograph, you’ve probably seen wafer paper in action. It’s a very thin, white version of the same starchy wafer that Flying Saucers are made of. Traditionally used as a base for other candies like Italian torrone, wafer paper is now printed with food-safe inks to make those vivid, intricate decorations. I bought a package of blank sheets from an online store that specializes in wafer paper decorations, Fancy Flours. It’s so thin it will practically disappear into moist icing, which makes it a little tricky to use as a sealing wafer. One lick and it turned to goo on my finger! I got better results by doubling up the wafer paper. I brushed one square with a very small amount of water (1), then placed another square on top and rubbed it to get a good seal.

White wafers are perfectly period, but I wanted to try coloring the wafer paper too. Since it reacts so quickly to moisture, brushing on wet food coloring just made the paper melt. In the end, I resorted to alcohol ink (2), which added a lot of color without melting the paper (3). However, alcohol inks are not food-safe so wafers colored with them are not lickable. I used the same leather punches to cut out circles (4), but I imagine paper-punches for scrapbooking would work equally well.

Making Wafer Seal

Making or Faking a Wafer Seal

As I mentioned last week, people who used wafers to seal their letters often applied pressure to the moist wafer with a wafer seal. The distinctive hob-nail or waffle pattern of the wafer seal helped the paper bite into the paste. The pattern could be filed into lots of different tools made out of different materials- you can see some antique tools on my Pinterest board about sealing wafers. My husband and I cobbled together a convincing seal with brass parts designed for other purposes and a wooden handle he turned on his lathe. If you’re feeling crafty, you can use a triangular file to add this pattern to a blank seal, a hardwood dowel, or a piece of metal stock.

Luckily, there’s also a historical alternative to the wafer seal! When I look at images of Georgian and Regency letters online, I keep my eyes peeled for the tell-tale marks of the wafer seal. I did a double take when I saw this 1803 letter on ebay: instead of the diamond hobnail pattern, the wafer was pierced several times with a needle or pin! That this was not an uncommon practice is confirmed by an etiquette book of 1833 which states:

It is only conscripts, and peasants, who fold a letter like an apothecary’s packet, who omit to press the wafer with a seal, or secure it by pricking it in every part with the point of a pin.

An American travelogue from 1838 describes a reading a lady’s letter from the 18th century that was sealed in this way:

One little thing about the exterior of her letter bespeaks its feminine authorship, and carries us back as by a magic power, through a hundred years. Some thirty or forty pin-holes are stuck into the wafer of the letter, the fair and worthy writer apparently not having a seal at hand.

A wafer certainly is a “little thing,”  but for me it’s those littlest details that carry me “back as by a magic power” through the 200 years that separate us from Jane Austen’s era. However you choose to seal your letters, I hope you’ll give some thought to the humble wafer!

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

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.


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!

Writing with Violets: Parlour Chemistry c. 1800

As fascinating as I find dictionaries and the long s, I was worried that this blog just didn’t have enough color this week.  I decided to change that with the help of my backyard full of violets and a chemistry experiment in the guise of a party trick from about 1800.

I was inspired in part by this blog post about 17th century scientist Robert Boyle and violet syrup.  Violets contain similar pigments to litmus, a lichen-derived dye that changes color in the presence of acids and bases. I remember using litmus paper in long-ago chemistry classes, but violets? It’s true! Violet syrup and violet juice have similar properties as pH indicators and were readily available to chemists (and amateurs) of the 18th and 19th centuries, at least in spring-time.

From Select Amusements in Philosophy and Mathematics by M. L. Despiau, translated from French by C. Hutton, 1801. (Source)

This “receipt” for a spectacular color-changing ink comes from an 1801 book with the charming title Select Amusements in Philosophy and Mathematics: Proper for Agreeably Exercising the Minds of Youth.  It’s an English translation of a French book with “additions and improvements,” so it’s hard to know where this ‘amusement’ originated.  Certainly the concept of changing the color of violet juice with acidic and basic substances is much older. In any case, this same recipe was later disseminated widely in collections with titles like A Manual of Useful Knowledge and  The New Family Receipt Book as well as copycat collections of scientific amusements. Since I’ve been working on my English Roundhand handwriting, it’s the perfect amusement for me to try.

Step One: Juice the Violets


The receipt offers no information about making violet juice, so I improvised. First, I gathered a lot of violets from my backyard- I estimate about two hundred flowers(1). Then I plucked the purple petals from the flowers(2) and rubbed them on my ceramic ginger grater(3). A mortar and pestle would probably be more appropriate, if I had one. Then I squeezed the mashed violets in a small square of muslin(4) to produce a little bit of intensely purple juice(5).

With the addition of a few drops of gum arabic, my violet juice became a beautiful purple ink.

Step 2: Prepare the paper


Next, I washed one section of watercolor paper with an acid and another section with a basic substance.  The acid recommended by my receipt is “diluted spirit of vitriol,”  now known as sulfuric acid.  Not having any on hand, I tried using distilled white vinegar.  I didn’t have any basic “salt of wormwood” (aka potash) either, so I used baking soda mixed with warm water. I used a watercolor brush to lay down a generous stripe of each chemical, washing my brush carefully in between. I let the paper dry, then brushed off some baking soda that remained on the surface of the paper.

Step 3: Amaze your friends!

Time to get out the quill pen and write with violets! First, I wrote an appropriate moral maxim on a plain, untreated section of paper. Then I continued writing on the paper treated with chemicals. As promised, my purple violet juice changed colors “immediately” when it contacted the treated paper.

Look at all the pretty colors! My substitute ingredients did not give exactly the same results predicted by my receipt. Instead of a “beautiful red colour,” the vinegar turned my purple violet juice blue. It’s difficult to see in the picture (purple doesn’t show up well in digital photos), but in person the difference is more marked.  It’s much easier to see the “beautiful green colour” the violet juice took on when written over the baking soda solution.

WWVDetailHere’s a detail. The little pen flourish at the top crosses the boundary between plain paper and paper washed with the baking soda solution, so it’s partly purple and partly green!

I hope your mind is agreeably exercised by this philosophical amusement- I know mine is! I feel ready to deal with black-and-white topics again next week.

My dear this heart that you behold

MyDearThisHeart1Earlier in the week I got into the Valentine’s Day spirit by examining museum images of three folded paper “Puzzle Purse” Valentines from c. 1790 – 1800. I felt moved to put my accomplishments to use and reproduce two of them. It was a lot of fun, and I learned more about the museum examples in the process!


First, the simpler valentine, modelled on an example in the British Postal Museum. Since the pictures of the original show only the finished, fully folded form and the unfolded sheet, I was especially interested to see what this valentine looked like in the intermediate stages of unfolding.

PuzzlePurse2 copyIt was really nice to see how the two hearts and the x-shaped “cross” described in the poem came together, since the museum images don’t show them folded together. Unfolding them breaks the cross and reveals the four linked hearts at the center. The original has several verses of earnest love poetry in the center as well. You can read all of it in transcription at the museum’s site if you wish- it’s full of romantic sentiment and foresees that “pale Death must be my fatal friend” if the recipient of this valentine doesn’t agree to marry the sender! I decided to include only two slightly less feverish couplets in my version.

PostalMuseumDetailThe inscriptions in these valentines are my first attempt at translating what I’ve learned about English Round-hand into an every-day “running hand”  like most people used to write their letters and diaries.  My practice to date has been a ‘copy-book’ hand of the kind taught by writing masters and used for more formal documents.  Rather than trying to imitate the handwriting of the original valentines, I tried to loosen up my copy-book hand and write it more quickly, to achieve a cursive hand that maintained traces of the lessons of the writing-masters.  I need to practice more, especially since I found it easy to lose the slant I’ve tried so hard to cultivate.  Most handwriting I’ve seen of this period has a very consistent slant, as if that habit was deeply ingrained from childhood lessons.

Next, I made a copy of a valentine in the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia.  In the process, I came to appreciate how elaborate and detailed this example is. The original is truly a work of art.

PuzzlePurse1 copyThe front edges of the original Valentine are so worn that it’s hard to read the verses that surround the heart, so I substituted the verses that seem to be traditional for Puzzle Purses. Specifically, I used the wording from another American puzzle purse, Sarah Newlin’s love token in the American Folk Art Museum. So in a sense this is a composite reproduction, but I used the design features of the Free Library example throughout.

As I worked on this project, I kept coming back to the pictures of the original and finding new details I hadn’t noticed. Puzzle purses have space for three layers of decoration: 1) the outside when fully folded, usually decorated with a large heart; 2) The “pinwheel” formed when the flaps decorated with the large heart are unfolded; and 3) the central area of the sheet that’s exposed when the pinwheel is unfolded.  This puzzle purse fills all three layers with distinctive decoration and poetry, but no part of the unfolded sheet of paper has decoration on both sides. It’s organized very carefully and cleverly.


It was only as I began to decorate the pinwheel parts that I realized that each of the four ‘fins’ has a different floral design.  The pairs of hearts are all surrounded by a multitude of tiny dots- I had to sharpen my quill to a pin-point to imitate them.  I think I see traces of pencil lines under the red paint of those identical hearts on the original, so I decided they were probably traced from a paper template.  That certainly helped me get every heart the same size and shape.


I love the innermost layer of this valentine- the verses and the squared circle layout are such a nice little secret hidden inside the puzzle. Much of the central circle in the original has been damaged – it seems that the iron-gall ink and the green pigment used for leaves both corroded the paper. I used creative licence to fill in the circle with more flowers and squiggles like the ones remaining, but originally it could have looked very different.

It was as I was writing the verses in the square that I realized that this valentine was probably made by a woman! Both the other examples I looked at were almost certainly made by men for women.  The British Postal Museum example describes the recipient as a “girl,” “maid” and “loving bride to be,” while the Folk Art Museum love token names the recipient, Sarah Newlin.  The verses on the Free Library valentine aren’t so overt: “My heart is true to none but you /My heart I hope you will pursue.”  In the promise to be true, the writer takes on a relationship-role considered feminine in this time period, and hopes that the recipient will pursue her, a more masculine role.  I can’t be certain, nonetheless it makes this reproduction valentine an especially appropriate gift for me to give to my husband this Valentine’s day.

Project Notes: Materials and Tools

(See the links at the bottom of my previous Valentine post for instructions and templates)


I used a thin laid-textured artist’s paper made by Strathmore. It comes in 25 inch x 19 inch sheets, and I cut it down to get two 12.5 inch square sheets for folding puzzle purses. The museum examples range from about 12.5 inches to 14 inches square. A folded purse measures one third of the unfolded sheet along each dimension, so my versions are about 4 1/6 inches when fully folded.

If you’re making your own puzzle purses, I recommend choosing a thin, tough paper that will take well to folding. I tried using some nice watercolor paper at first, and it proved too thick to fold comfortably and cracked along all the folds.  If you want to make modern puzzle purses, thin scrapbooking paper is ideal since it’s already 12 inches square!



I used a quill pen cut to a fine point for writing all the verses. For the straight lines, I used my ebony straight-edge and a different kind of dip pen- a ruling pen.  Although mine has a black plastic handle, the ruling pen has a long history and is frequently seen in 18th century sets of drawing tools. As its name suggests, it’s designed for use with a ruler to make smooth, straight ink lines.  For the central circles in one of the valentines, I used a ruling pen attachment for my compass. Again, my tool is modern, but the technology is old.  My mechanical pencil is all modern, however! The bone folder is used to crease the folds crisply.

The paper heart cut-outs are templates that I drew around to make sure all my hearts were the same size. Above them is my dish of iron-gall ink. Since I used this traditional ink, the valentines I made are likely to become corroded along the ink lines just like the originals, given enough time!

I used modern watercolors for all the painted details.  Only red, yellow, and blue are required – I chose Rose madder, Gamboge, and Indigo colors to try to match the originals, but my paints are imitations and don’t contain those natural historical pigments (I have much more to say on that topic later).

Happy Valentine’s Day!