This 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.
Like 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.
My 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?
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!
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.
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.
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:
Flying 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.
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 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.
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!
I haven’t shared any of my penmanship practice for such a long time, I thought I’d do so today. I’ve had my fill of the moral maxims that are usually recommended for practicing English Round-hand, so I was delighted to find a different sort of text in The Accomplished Tutor or Complete System of Liberal Education by Thomas Hodson (3rd ed, 1806). Most of the chapter on penmanship is nearly identical to other Young Man’s Companion books- plagiarism and piracy were apparently common in this sort of publication! The “Copies for Round Hand” provided for Round Hand practice stands out, however. Rather than a collection of wise sayings on vices and virtues, it’s a doggerel verse with advice about penmanship practice! Each verse starts with a different capital letter:
Changing from a large copy hand to a style suitable for letter-writing was a challenge, so I decided to use these verses to practice writing Round-hand at different sizes. Students who made school pieces for showing off their penmanship often demonstrated their versatility with several different sizes of writing. I followed their lead and wrote the first couplet on each page quite large, then made each successive couplet smaller.
It took me a little bit to understand what that bracket means connecting the three verses starting with I, J, and K. The rest of the poem is in couplets, but these three lines make a trio! I suspect that an earlier version of the poem left out a verse starting with J. That’s pretty common in the alphabetical exercises I’ve seen, perhaps a holdover from a time when J was just a variant form of I. Someone decided this poem needed a line about J, so they wrote a line that sort of rhymed with the I and K verses and just stuck it in there.
Without the J verse, the poem would have had an even number of lines because the original writer also left out a line about X. I can’t blame them, since there’s just no way to write about penmanship with words starting with X! Most other alphabetical exercises resort to names from Greek history: “Xenocrates was learned” or “Xenophon was a great captain as well as a philosopher.” George Bickham hit upon an odd solution. He used words that start with Ex- and put a capital X in front of the line: “X, Excess kills more than the sword” and “X Examples sway more than Precepts.”
When I compare these lines to the last time I shared my copy-book hand, I’m happy with my progress! I can see a lot of room for improvement, however. Somehow I see many more flaws in the photographs than I did when looking at the pages themselves!
Earlier this week, I described the humble wafer– a dry paste disk that provided a quick and easy alternative to sealing wax. With two different methods for sealing letters available, how would a letter writer choose between them in Jane Austen’s era? What did the choice of sealing wax or wafer mean to the recipient of a letter? That’s what I’ll be looking at today!
Deference and Disrespect
Letter-writing manuals, like the Complete Letter-Writer of 1778, suggest that sealing wax, along with other fancy stationery, shows deference when writing to someone of higher class status:
Letters should be wrote on Quarto fine gilt post paper to superiors ; if to your equals or inferiors, you are at your own option to use what sort or size you please, but take care never to seal your letter with a wafer unless to the latter.
(See my post on the Anatomy of a Regency Letter for info on paper terms like ‘post’ and ‘quarto’) So, when Jane Austen was writing to her beloved sister Cassandra- an equal in status as well as a beloved family member- she sometimes chose a wafer, sometimes sealing wax. In Maria Edgeworth’s 1814 novel Patronage, this point of wafer etiquette is at the center of a political contretemps!
One of the central characters of the novel is the politician Lord Oldborough, who is excellent at administration but “sometimes guilty” of “trifling failures in etiquette” that might offend influential people who take pride in their high rank. On one occasion, Lord Oldborough accidentally offended the conceited Duke of Greenwich, his social superior (chapter 8):
Lord Oldborough had sent his grace [the Duke] a note, written in his own hand, sealed with a wafer. The clerk, who was present when the note was received, said that the Duke’s face flushed violently, and that he flung the note immediately to his secretary, exclaiming, ‘Open that, if you please, sir—I wonder how any man can have the impertinence to send me his spittle!‘
Ew! The spittle that moistened the wafer, it turns out, is not the real cause of offense, but the lack of respect that Lord Oldborough’s informal note implies. Commissioner Falconer, a wily man who is trying to curry favor with Lord Oldborough, comes up with a sneaky way to soothe the displeased Duke (chapter 8):
When Commissioner Falconer had thus sagaciously discovered the cause of the noble duke’s displeasure, he with great address applied a remedy. Without ever hinting that he knew of the offensive circumstance, having some business to transact with the Duke, he contrived, as if undesignedly, to turn the conversation upon his friend Lord Oldborough’s strange and unaccountable negligence of common forms and etiquette; as a proof of which he told the Duke in confidence, and in a very low voice, an anecdote, which he heard from his son Cunningham, from Lord Oldborough’s own secretary, or the commissioner protested that he would not, he could not have believed it—his lordship had been once actually upon the point of sealing a note with a wafer to one of the royal Dukes!—had the wafer absolutely on his lips, when Cunningham felt it his duty to take the liberty of remonstrating. Upon which, Lord Oldborough, as Commissioner Falconer said, looked with the utmost surprise, and replied, ‘I have sealed with a wafer to the Duke of Greenwich, and he was not offended.’
Falconer calms the Duke’s wounded pride by explaining that Lord Oldborough did not single him out for disrespect with his wafer-sealed note, but is unaware of standard conventions. He also subtly implies that Lord Oldborough has more respect for the Duke of Greenwich than for the Royal Dukes, the King’s younger sons. Strictly speaking a Royal Duke has a higher rank than the Duke of Greenwich, but in Falconer’s story Lord Oldborough seems to say that if a wafer is good enough for the Duke of Greenwich, it’s more than good enough for a Royal Duke! Falconer’s well-crafted anecdote does help reconcile the two politicians, and Lord Oldborough takes greater care with his correspondence to the Duke in future. In fact, he seals his next letter in wax with a special private seal: “—a seal that is always locked up—a seal never used to any common letter, never to any but those written by his own hand to some private friend, and on some very particular occasion” (chapter 38). I don’t want to spoil the novel for you, so I’ll just say that these choices about sealing letters have far-reaching consequences!
Speed and Slovenliness
A quite different story shows a related aspect of wafer usage: since they are so easy and quick to use, a letter sealed with a wafer looks hurried and messy compared with an elegant wax seal.
In James Stanier Clarke and John M’Arthur’s 1809 biography of Horatio Nelson, the great hero of the Royal Navy, they describe letters that brought an end to the Battle of Copenhagen in April 1801. After the British had decisively gained the upper hand, Nelson wrote a note to the Crown Prince of Denmark offering a truce to prevent further bloodshed and destruction. In this version, all that is said about the seal is this:
and in order to shew that no hurry had ensued upon the occasion, he sent for a candle to the Cockpit, and affixed a larger seal than usual.
Nelson did not have any candles in the stern gallery where he was writing since open flames were carefully controlled in a ship of war, especially during a battle when gunpowder was in use. No mention of wafers here, but like all stories about Lord Nelson there are many variations in contemporary sources! A more elaborate version of the story is found in Robert Ker Porter’s book Travelling Sketches in Russia and Sweden, excerpted in the Edinburgh Review in April of 1809. There may well be earlier sources for this version, but this is the first I could find.
Whilst his Lordship was writing with all the calmness of a man in his study, he desired Colonel Stewart to send some one below for a light, that he might seal his dispatch. Colonel Stewart obeyed ; but none appearing with a candle ; when Lord Nelson had nearly completed his letter, he inquired the reason of such neglect, and found that the boy who had been sent for it was killed in his way by a cannon shot. The order was repeated : upon which Colonel Stewart observed ‘Why should your Lordship be so particular to use wax? why not a wafer? The hurry of battle will be a sufficient apology for the violation of etiquette.’ ‘It is to prove, my friend,’ replied Lord Nelson, ‘that we are in no hurry ; that this request is not dictated by fear, or a wish on our part to stop the carnage, from the least apprehension of the fate of this day to us, that I am thus particular. Were I to seal my letter with a wafer, it would still be wet when it reached the shore ; it would speak of haste. Wax is not the act of an instant ; and it impresses the receiver accordingly.’ The reasoning of the admiral was duly honoured by the result. The Danes acceded to his proposal ; and a cessation of hostilities was the consequence.
Colonel Stewart speaks of a “violation of etiquette”, since the Crown Prince of Denmark is definitely Nelson’s social superior. But Nelson isn’t thinking of etiquette. Even though he is actually in a bit of a hurry – cannon shot is killing people on his ship while he’s writing! – he takes extra time to make an especially large and impressive seal to show that he’s in control of the situation.
Amongst the other contents of the writing-desk I must notice the white wafers, which are very useful for fastening loose sheets of paper together, though some people employ them for closing the envelopes of letters; but this, except in the ‘hurry of business’ is a slovenly practice.
It seems that wafers have moved down the social scale and are no longer appropriate to use even when writing to “equals and inferiors,” unless the writer is in haste. “Hurry of business” sounds a touch disdainful of tradesmen and other businesspeople, doesn’t it? The author, Thomas Griffiths, goes on to tell another version of the Nelson story (naming no names) and gives a clear account of how wafers are made and coloured, so they are definitely still an essential part of the writer’s tool-kit however down-market they may be!
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the humble wafer. Next week I’ll write about how I have made some wafers and wafer substitutes for sealing letters.
When we think of the romance of Regency letters, we think of sealing wax. Using it seems like a ritual that brings past times before our senses: the flickering candle, the smell of melting wax, the richly colored puddle impressed with a coat of arms or initials. But so many of the resources I’ve been looking at refer to two alternative ways of sealing letters in one breath: “wax or wafer.” I had to learn more about the wafer. I was astonished to learn how ubiquitous sealing wafers once were, and how nearly forgotten they are now!
What is a Wafer?
Wafers are difficult to research for a number of reasons. The word “wafer” can mean many different things in different contexts: a biscuit like a thin waffle, a communion host, or a silicon base for making computer chips, to name just a few. In addition, different methods for sealing letters proliferated over the course of the later 19th century, including embossed and decorated gummed labels or stickers- also often called “wafers”. Even now, “wafer ‘ is a term for the translucent stickers used to close brochures and sales flyers for mailing! Entick’s dictionary of 1791 gives three basic definitions that illustrate this problem:
What I want to focus on is the last wafer in Entick’s entry: “paste made to close letters.” This was sometimes called the “common wafer” to distinguish it from fancier variants. The common wafer was very simple: a thin disk of dry paste that becomes sticky when wet.
How wafers were made gives us a sense of their properties. Recipes for making wafers at home are readily available in the many “receipt-books” that borrowed (or pirated?) from each other. Here’s one from the New Family Receipt Book of 1811:.
To make WafersTake very fine flour, mix it with the glair (or whites of eggs) isinglass, and a little yeast; mingle the materials, beat them well together, spread the batter, being made thin with gum water, on even tin plates, and dry them in a stove; then cut them for use. You may make them of what colour you please, by tinging the paste with Brazil or vermillion for red ; indigo or verditer, &c. for blue ; saffron, turmeric, or gamboge, &c. for yellow.
In other words, a starchy flour paste is combined with other sticky ingredients and colorants to form a thin batter, which is baked as a thin sheet and then cut into small pieces. While I haven’t found detailed descriptions from my period of how the commercial product was made, the encyclopedias of the later Victorian era (a great age for encyclopedias!) fill in the picture. Charles Tomlinson’s Cyclopedia of Useful Arts of 1866 describes a process that sounds like a scaled-up version of the home recipe, using the same ingredients with more specialized tools and techniques:
(If you’re interested in the fancy wafers of various kinds, Tomlinson describes some of those too). The toxic “mineral colours” mentioned probably include vermilion, now known as mercury sulfide. It gave sticks of sealing wax (and apparently some wafers) their typical vivid orangey scarlet red color. I can imagine that if you’re making a product out of flour with some grease on your tools (some recipes recommend butter!), it would be convenient to include a toxic ingredient as a kind of preservative to keep vermin away. But, really, if the scraps from industrial wafer production were sold as rat poison, who would want to lick a wafer to stick it on their letter? Apparently, no one was worried!
Once I started looking for wafers, I found mentions of them all over publications from this period. In a tutorial for copying drawings in that same 1811 New Family Receipt Book, wafers are used to stick paper to boards and to other papers. An 1847 book of craft projects for girls describes making rosettes out of bits of wafer to decorate baskets. A 1799 book of home remedies advises using “The common wafer made use of for sealing letters” to remove corns from the feet. The treatment sticks on the problem area by itself! All these different uses suggest that wafers were ubiquitous- the reading public was expected to have them on hand.
Sealing letters with wafers
To use a wafer, a letter writer folded up the paper as usual (see my post on the Anatomy of a Regency Letter for one letter-folding technique). Then the writer took a wafer from his or her writing desk or the “wafer box” that sometimes stood beside the ink-pot in a desk stand or standish. After licking it well, the writer stuck the wafer to the letter and folded the flap closed.
Once I knew what to look for, I found wafers on many letters from Jane Austen’s era- on letters Jane wrote, no less! Even if you’re looking at images online that don’t show the whole letter in detail, the perfectly round shadow of a sealing wafer is often very distinctive- even expert sealing-wax users rarely make a perfect circle of wax. Another thing to look for is the tell-tale mark of the “wafer seal”. While the wafer was still moist, a cross-hatched tool was often pressed into the paper to help it bite into the softened paste. The waffled seal impressed a distinctive pattern of little points or diamonds in the paper.
Many antique desk seals and seal fobs have this “hob-nail” pattern instead of an elaborate (and expensive) engraved insignia, and sometimes etuis or travelling inkwells were marked with the pattern, like this elegant silver penner. A wafer seal could easily be used on sealing wax as well. Occasionally I’ve seen letters where a more elaborate seal was used to press down the wafer, leaving a faint trace of the initials or arms- this may have inspired the fancy embossed stickers of later years. In any case, even when the letter’s seal has been ripped or worn away, sealing wax and wafers can sometimes be distinguished because of their placement on the page: sealing wax was daubed across the flap of the letter, while the common wafer was slipped under the flap.
When was it socially appropriate to use a wafer on your letter? How can YOU make (or fake!) wafers to use in your own period letters? I’ll cover those topics in upcoming posts!
My Pinterest Board on Sealing Wafers: Since wafers are so ephemeral, this board includes examples of wafers from later periods. Also tools used with wafers and some letters sealed with them.
Now that I’ve been thinking about letters in Jane Austen’s era, I’m seeing them everywhere! It seems that for writers of both fiction and non-fiction, letters were a natural choice for formatting their work. Magazines and other periodicals were no different: a huge portion of their content takes the form of letters. Even long essays might be presented as letters, beginning with a salutation like “Dear Sir” and ending with “Yours, etc.”. Many more pieces are similar to the “letters to the editor” you might see in modern magazines and newspapers- they are from ordinary readers and often comment on the content of the magazine or offer suggestions. Such letters from readers sometimes create little conversations over several numbers. When I was looking for information about letter-writing, I came across just such a conversation in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1795.
The first part of the conversation appears in the issue for November 1795. A reader signing himself J. Feltham had some pet peeves to share with”Mr. Urban”, the pen-name of the editors of the magazine. One of them was about sealing letters:
Mr. Feltham is pointing out one of the annoying quirks of the way letters were folded and sealed. If you’re puzzled by letters from this period, check out my post on the basics, Anatomy of a Regency Letter. Since the paper a letter was written on was usually folded up to form a neat packet without an additional envelope, part of the writing might end up under the seal. Many modern sealing waxes pop off the paper without too much trouble, but it seems that things were different in Jane Austen’s era- most letter-readers ripped or cut the paper flap rather than trying to break the seal or remove it from the paper. This meant that a small part of the 3rd page of a long letter could be lost. Mr. Feltham recommends leaving a space in your writing on that part of the paper to avoid confusion.
In the December issue of the Gentleman’s magazine, a reader who signs himself “Z.” concurs with Mr. Feltham’s recommendation (which had appeared on p. 904) and adds a note on the topic from the book he’s been reading:
It took me a little pondering to figure out exactly what Mr. Job Orton was recommending when he says “turn to the next. . . and not to go on obliquely”. I think he is suggesting that the letter-writer use both sides of the first leaf of his letter, rather than skipping page 2 and going straight on to page 3 (as I have numbered them in my diagram). Mr. Orton then goes on to echo Mr. Feltham’s advice about reserving space on the page where the seal will go. I had to laugh when I read about the unintelligible letter he got- can you imagine getting a message with a page and a half of preliminary fluff, only to have the single most important words blotted out by a seal or wafer?
Z. left out from his quotation the best part of Mr. Job Orton’s letter, which I found in an 1805 edition on Google Books:
What a great excuse for being particular about details! There’s my aspiration for this blog; that a great lady might give me the character of being “excellent at little things.” I agree with Mr. Orton, that “there is more in this than most people are aware of.”
Last week I shared some 18th century letter-writing advice aimed at ladies which told me that I needed to “learn to write a fluent and ready hand.” I’ve been practicing English Round-hand from copy-books like George Bickham’s The Young Clerk’s Assistant, but that “large copy-hand” is less useful for familiar letters. So what model should I follow to write more fluently? I looked to George Bickham, 18th century penman and engraver, and he came through for me again.
Bickham’s most famous work, The Universal Penman, includes not only many spectacular examples of the penman’s art, but also a plate of “Specimens of the Running Hand,” a more flexible, fluid handwriting style that is closely related to Roundhand. The Universal Penman isn’t available in its entirety online, but a fine paperback reprint is available from Dover (Google Books Preview). The plate I’m working from is numbered 163 in the Dover edition, and was first published in 1739. Let’s look at how this hand runs!
First, my rendition of the lower case letters. Note how many variations Bickham includes! If you look at his models for Roundhand, just a few letters there have variable forms. In the running hand, most of the letters have options. This suggests to me that even though Bickham has made a copy-book plate of this running hand, it’s a more dynamic, less rigid style than Roundhand. Different writers can choose different forms for different purposes. Just look at the three different forms of “r” in the second line!
Another feature I noticed while preparing this sample was how easily each letter flowed into the next. To get the precise turns and hairlines of Roundhand, I often lift my pen off the paper. The ‘joins’ between some of the Roundhand letters seem a little artificial, like I’m drawing in a connection that doesn’t flow naturally from the writing. Running hand, however, prioritizes forward motion and more natural connections. The q, for example, stops dead in Roundhand, but runs ahead to the next letter in this style. The loops in the uprights (like the Ls and Bs in ‘legible’) similarly help the line flow rather than being constrained in sharp angled lines. And although Bickham’s Running hand specimens still have a lovely contrast between thicker downstrokes and thin hairlines, the difference in width is much smaller than in Roundhand. That means a smaller cut of the nib and a lot less careful rolling of the nib when writing. Nonetheless, Running hand still feels like it belongs to the Roundhand family- the slant is the same, the heavy strokes and hair-strokes are in the same places.
Capital letters also show a lot more variation in Running hand. I enjoy how flamboyant some of them are, but most of them prioritize that sense of forward motion. Some of these different capital forms may have special uses in business, since Running hand was often used for writing statements of debt, credit, and other transactions of money. In fact, a 1799 copy-book I found recently refers to Running-hand as “Currency”! Where the Roundhand alphabets are followed by moral maxims for practice, the Running-hand plates have phrases like “Borrowed at 4 1/2 Per Cent from Mr. John Connor £512” and “Sold Joseph Champion 2701 Pounds Maryland Tobacco.”
That copybook, titled The Academical Instructor, is a bit of a puzzle. Although its author is proudly designated as “Duncan Smith of London” and all of the text is in English, the book was printed in Nürnberg in Germany. The Google Books scan comes from the Bavarian State Library, and not a lot of other libraries seem to hold copies (according to WorldCat). This is unfortunate for many reasons, one of them being that the Google Books scan is of terrible quality. I was overjoyed to discover a new copy-book from right in the middle of my chosen time-period, but my joy diminished significantly when I saw how low-res this scan is.
George Bickham says that “a legible and free Running hand is indispensibly Necessary in all Manner of Business,” but its fluid lines should also speed my letter-writing. All this business-talk did worry me a little – maybe Running hand isn’t lady-like? So I turned back to The Polite Lady for reassurance. Her advice was to learn Round-hand first, as I have done, “for when you are a mistress of that, you may, with great ease, learn either a neat running, or Italian hand; but if you begin with the latter, you never can arrive at any degree of perfection in the former.” A neat running hand it is!
“Everybody allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female” says Mr. Tilney to Catherine, heroine of Northanger Abbey. He soon reveals his satirical side, though, when he continues: “the usual style of letter-writing among women is faultless, except in three particulars. . . A general deficiency of subject, a total inattention to stops, and a very frequent ignorance of grammar.” Ouch! How is a lady supposed to learn to write “agreeable letters”, but avoid those stereotypical pitfalls? Let’s turn to some lady-focused literature to find out.
To start with, I want to turn back to one of my favorite 18th century conduct books, The Polite Lady. An epistolary work itself, The Polite Lady embeds letter-writing advice in a long missive on making good use of one’s time and avoiding the pernicious vice of idleness (Letter 28). At this point in the volume, the daughter, Sophy, has left school and is paying a long visit to her aunt in London. Portia, the mother character, is concerned that Sophy erroneously thinks her learning is complete because her formal schooling is over, and so recommends a vigorous course of revision and study alongside the pleasures of town. After exhorting Sophy to read history, plays and novels (only the most blameless kind), Portia turns to letters. Such extensive reading will not only entertain,
. . . they will likewise give you a natural, easy, and elegant manner of expressing your self, whether in speaking or writing. This, my dear, though seemingly a trifling accomplishment, is, in reality, a most necessary part of polite education ; and it is as great a shame for a young lady not to be able to tell a story with ease and fluency, or to write an elegant and genteel letter, as not to know how to dance a minuet.
Portia goes on to recommend reading “a collection of familiar epistles,” of which the best examples are in French. Only then does Portia advise her daughter to try writing to her friends to practice the good style she’s soaked up from her reading. As in everything, “practice is the only means to arrive at perfection.”
As always, Portia gives very little practical information about how to write a letter. The one hint she does provide echoes oft-repeated advice to write as if you were speaking face-to-face with your correspondent:
There is only one general advice I would give you in this case ; When you are going to write a letter, sit down and compose your mind ; disengage yourself from every other care and concern ; recal[sic] to your memory the idea of your absent friend ; represent her to your imagination, as if she were actually present, and were talking and conversing with you ; and after you have heated your fancy, and warmed your heart, by this imaginary conversation, then give full scope to the natural overflowings of your soul ; take the pen, and write down whatever comes uppermost in your mind, without ceremony or restraint. By this means you will write with greater ease, elegance, and propriety, than if you should sit for hours together, musing, and studying, and racking your brain, for turns of wit, and flights of fancy.
The Complete Letter-Writer (1772 edition) expresses the same idea thus: “When you sit down to write a Letter, remember that this Sort of Writing should be like Conversation ; observe this and you will be no more at a Loss to write, than you will be to speak to the Person were he present ; and this is Nature without Affectation, which, generally speaking, always pleases.” Jane Austen, in her Jan. 3, 1801 letter to Cassandra, refers to this ideal: “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth. I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter” (Texts of JA’s letters online).
For some more detailed advice about writing lady-like letters, I turn to the long-running periodical, The Lady’s Magazine. Letter-writing is the topic of one in a long series of “Occasional Papers Addressed to the Ladies,” attributed to the editorial pseudonym “Nestor.” Other topics in the same year, 1790, often overlap with the ethical concerns of The Polite Lady– the cultivation of virtues and rejection of vices, the benefits of good conversation, proper amusements for ladies.
Nestor muses that letter-writing is especially important for ladies: it “is a very useful accomplishment, and to the fair sex particularly so, because they have not always, or so often, those opportunities of meeting their friends which the men enjoy.” He goes on to contrast the pain and sadness of parting with the happy intimacy that correspondence can foster. Nestor has several “precepts” to help his “fair readers” write letters easily and pleasantly.
1. A fluent and ready hand
Uh-oh, I’m already in trouble! The English Roundhand writing style I’ve been working on is definitely “a large copy-hand,” that is, a hand modelled on copy-books like The Young Clerk’s Assistant. When copying moral maxims, I do “spend so much time on a word” that I “forget the thought!” I’ll have to work on adapting what I’ve learned to “the pen of a ready writer.”
2. Learn to Spell
Nestor sounds a bit like Henry Tilney here when he says “the great objection that has been made time out of mind to the letters of women” is “that they are wrong spelt.” I’ve already spent some time thinking about the slightly more flexible spelling rules of this era, so with some luck I won’t embarrass the fairer sex in the eyes of censorious gentlemen!
3. Respond Immediately
Oh dear. I’ve often been guilty of procrastinating in the past even when corresponding via email, a spontaneous medium mercifully free of inkwells that need filling and quill pens that need mending.
4. Never delay
Yes, Nestor, I heard you the first time! He make some good points about the perils of procrastinating in the age of postal delivery: ‘when the post is just going out’ it is much better to have only to fold up your letter, than to write it.”
Jane Austen mocks the use of this sort of excuse in “Amelia Webster,” an epistolary spoof in the first volume of stories she wrote as a young girl. After one short sentence, the heroine concludes her letter: ” I have a thousand things to tell you, but my paper will only permit me to add that I am yr. affect. Freind, Amelia Webster” (JA’s Fiction Manuscripts Online).
5. Conversational Subjects
Just as The Polite Lady, The Complete Letter Writer, and Jane Austen herself advised, Nestor also compares good letters to conversation, in this case the “infinite variety” of subjects that both admit.
6. Avoid Imitation
I’m so glad Nestor diverges a little from The Polite Lady here. While Portia considered letter-writing primarily as a way of practicing the style one has absorbed through copious reading, Nestor urges his readers to cultivate their own genius, “no matter how small or great.” He still suggests that we should read “the best letters” in English and French, but only to learn “how neatly and elegantly these authors begin and close their letters” and not in order to copy them.
7. Practice, Practice!
This “Occasional Paper” closes on a note of encouragement that once again echoes The Polite Lady: “Frequent practice, so far from exhausting, will increase your resources.” You won’t be sorry, old Nestor assures us! Armed with this advice, I feel a little closer to writing a letter that Henry Tilney would not sneer at. I’ll let you know how I progress!
Pssst: Do you want to know more about The Lady’s Magazine? You’re in luck! There’s an ongoing research project at the University of Kent called “The Lady’s Magazine (1770-1818): Understanding the Emergence of a Genre.” Check out the project blog or follow it on twitter!
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.
“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
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
The 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!
The Book of Trades: The Paper-maker – This 1807 children’s book provides simple descriptions of contemporary trades; a good introduction for modern readers since it doesn’t assume you have prior knowledge!
About Wove Paper – on James Whatman’s invention of “wove” paper in the 18th century.
Cyclopedia of Useful Arts (1852-4) – almost 40 years too late for Jane Austen’s period, but the paper sizes discussed are similar to the earlier data and are presented in a simple chart.
How to Post a letter, 19th century style– The Acasta’s blog shared this link in a post about their mail packet project. It shows another method of folding a letter, based on a real example. Great step-by-step How-To!
If you’ve spent any time with 18th century literature as it was printed in the period, you’ve probably stumbled over the “long s” or ſ. In some typefaces, it looks so much like a lower case f that when I read it my mental voice sounds like it’s lisping. One reason the long s can be puzzling is that there are two rules in effect during this period, one for handwriting and one for printing.
Long S in Print
In printed books during most of the 18th century, ſ appears at the beginning and middle of words, while the now-familiar ‘short’ or ’round’ s only appears at the end of words. The Complete Letter-writer of 1778 expresses this rule slightly vaguely as:
The 1798 edition of The Polite Ladydisplays this use of long and short s, as you can see in the image below. The long s appears in the middle of words like “blush,” “modesty,” and “pleasing,” and at the beginnings of words like “smile” and “so.” The short s only appears at the end of words like “virtues” and “perhaps.” The word “possessed” has two sets of double long s, but when the double s ends the word, like “confess”, the first s is long and the last s is short.
But that edition of The Polite Lady was behind the times- the long s was already going out of fashion. Some London printers in the 1790s were already using new typefaces that lacked the long s, and by the early years of the 19th century it was disappearing rapidly.
Long S in Handwriting
However, handwriting from the 18th and early 19th century follows a slightly different rule, as do engraved plates that imitate master penman’s writings (like those in George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant). In writing, the long s is only used as the first letter of a double s, at any point in the word. The following image is from George Bickham’s Moral Maxims in Roundhand. Wherever there is a double s, it is composed of a long and a short s (happiness, blessing). Every other lower case s, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of the word, is a short s (choicest, modest, is, finds).
To see these rules in real handwriting, I turned to Jane Austen’s fiction manuscripts, which are all viewable online in a “digital edition.” Here’s a short passage from Austen’s 1813 “Plan of a novel, according to hints from various quarters,” now in the Morgan Library.
This snippet reads “The Heroine a faultleſs Character herself —, perfectly good, with much tenderneſs& sentiment, & not the least Wit-” Austen uses the short s at the beginning of “sentiment” and in the middle of “least,” and only uses the long s in the double s of “faultless” and “tenderness.” I find the written long s much less confusing and f-like than the printed version. And when I practice my English Roundhand writing, I relish a double s! It’s very satisfying how the swooping loops of the long s resolve into the compact curl of the little s.
Learning these rules has helped me parse 18th century sources more easily, and I hope they will help you too. However, I still have to concentrate very hard to keep my mental voice from saying “f” when I see “ſ”!