Valentine’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 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:
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.
“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.
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?
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!
- For more 18th and 19th century love tokens, check out my Papercraft Pinterest Board.
- My favorite period Valentines are also on Tumblr!
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.
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 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.
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.
I 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!
I missed this story when it first came out in July, but I think it’s far too interesting not to share! The video above was made by Christina Kobb, a Norwegian pianist who has been studying Viennese piano manuals from around 1820. She noticed that the instructions for the most basic aspects of technique- the posture of the body, arms, and fingers- were very different from those taught today. Based on her research, she re-trained herself to play piano using those historical techniques. What an accomplished lady!
My childhood piano lessons are far behind me, so I confess it is difficult for me to see in the video above exactly how her historical technique differs from modern styles. It’s clearest at about 10:00 and 15:00, when she plays the same pieces in two different ways. Dr. Kobb demonstrates that some movements required by early 19th century compositions are much easier using contemporary techniques. While what her performance gains from the historical practice is interesting, I’m struck by how similar the posture advised by music manuals is to the posture advised by writing manuals. In particular, the upright back with the elbow held close to the body matches the directions given in George Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant:
This advice is echoed in many of the other educational guides I’ve read from the later 18th and early 19th centuries. For writing as for piano-playing, this posture seems to place focus on the fine actions of the fingers rather than larger movements of the elbow and wrists. Ergonomic considerations aside, the preoccupation with posture in writing and music manuals is also a reminder of the role these accomplishments played in teaching deportment. The term deportment is usually used now as nearly a synonym for etiquette or manners (at least in the US), but its original meaning has to do with elegant management of the body. In this period, grace, poise, and controlled movements were important signs of a genteel, “well-bred” person. It’s obvious that dancing might show off how graceful and well-trained a person was, but writing, playing the piano, and even needlework were also opportunities for displaying elegant deportment through posture and the movement of the hands.
Christina Kobb’s research gained wider exposure this summer due to an excellent New York Times piece about the science of music. Rolf Inge Godoy, a musicologist at Oslo University, filmed Dr. Kobb’s piano-playing using motion-capture technology (the same techniques that allowed Benedict Cumberbatch play Smaug in the recent Hobbit movies). Dr. Godoy will use the data he gained to quantify how historical techniques affect the sound of the music Dr. Kobb plays.
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!
This week I was busy getting these letters ready to mail to 1814! I just took them to the post office this morning (swaddled in a boring modern envelope). I’ll share more details about the research and materials that went into them soon. I started doing some research on letter-writing in Jane Austen’s era last summer, so I jumped at the chance to dust it off and make something tangible with it. I may have gone a little overboard!
There’s still some time to write a letter of your own to the milliners and their friends at Mme. Bettinger’s shop in 1814- the cut-off date for mail is May 15. You don’t need to study period handwriting to participate- I did because that’s my thing! Also, I am over-the-top nerdy about this stuff.
Although I appreciate “a fine disregard for convention” in writers from the period, for my own project of learning to write like an accomplished young lady I feel the need for some guidance. The rules for writing in Jane Austen’s era were not as strict or uniform as they are in ours, but there were conventions (even if they shifted over time) and there were authoritative books to guide the learner. This week I’ll be looking at some of the aspects that puzzle modern readers most: the long s, capital letters, and today, spelling.
The Polite Lady, one of my guides to polite education, advises to learn spelling along with handwriting. In a letter exhorting her daughter to practice writing carefully, the mother says,
I have sent you Entick’s dictionary, to assist you in spelling: for, before you put pen to paper, you must resolve not to indulge yourself in the wrong spelling of a single word : and if you faithfully observe this rule for a short time, you will soon be able to spell any word without the help of a dictionary. Nothing indeed is more unworthy the character of a gentlewoman, than false spelling : and yet, in this respect, I am sorry to say it, most of our sex are shamefully guilty ; and some of them too, whom I know to be persons of excellent good sense and distinguished abilities : but this must have been owing to bad habits contracted in their youth, of which they were never afterwards able to get the better. It is therefore your part to prevent, what it is so extremely difficult to correct.
Many parents and students must have been of this opinion, for Entick’s New Spelling Dictionary went through several editions in both Britain and the American colonies after its debut in 1764. Many other dictionaries also rubbed shoulders with it. I have a particular fondness for browsing dictionaries of all kinds, and the various editions of Entick’s dictionary that are available on Google Books are no exception. I love seeing earlier definitions of words (chocolate: A nice liquor made of the cocoa-nut) and learning new ones (Shoulderclapper: one who affects a familiarity).
As you can see on the title page, Entick’s Dictionary advertises its usefulness for both writing and pronouncing correctly. In so many of the educational texts of this period, reading aloud is an essential accomplishment just like writing is, and pronouncing badly is just as grave a faux pas as spelling badly.
Because the focus is on spelling, Entick’s definitions are sparse- they usually consist of one short line. Many words and definitions are crammed onto the small pages, presumably to make it easier to find the word you want to spell- after all, if you don’t know how to spell it, how are you supposed to find it in an alphabetical list? In Entick’s dictionary, if you have some notion of what the first letters are you’ll be likely to come across the word you’re looking for within a page.
Perhaps that same difficulty led to the 1791 London edition including a list of homophones- words that sound the same but mean something different, and are often spelled differently as well. These lists suggest that a persistent problem for learners is the tendency to spell phonetically, or to transfer one known spelling to a similar-sounding word.
Examining these dictionaries, it becomes clear that while there is an ideal of good spelling, variations are more acceptable to Jane Austen’s contemporaries than to spelling sticklers of today. The 1791 edition of Entick’s dictionary gives two different correct spellings for many words, including “choose,” “scissors,” and “show.” Jane Austen often preferred the alternate spellings “chuse,” “scissars,” and “shew.” Conventions evolved in English-speaking countries over the course of the 19th century, and multiple spellings fell by the wayside as dictionaries became more prescriptive and intolerant of variation. In some cases, UK/Commonwealth English adopted one alternative and US English the other, as in the case of “grey”/”gray.” The London 1791 edition of Entick’s dictionary accepts both, but today the ‘correct’ spelling is “gray” in the US and “grey” in the UK and the Commonwealth.
Now that I’ve spent some time with spelling, I’m going to turn next time to a particularly baffling feature of 18th and 19th century writing- the long s.
Earlier 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.
It 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.
The 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.
The 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!