Cutting Paper Valentines with Elizabeth Cobbold

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

Elizabeth Cobbold, painted by George Frost (BBC)

Elizabeth Cobbold of The Cliff

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

Excerpt from Cliff Valentines, 1813 (Google Books)

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

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

“Some Degree of Neatness”

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

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

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


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


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

Project Notes

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

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

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




Posture at the Fortepiano, c. 1820

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:

Detail, plate 5 of Bickham’s Young Clerk’s Assistant (Google Books)

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.


Making (and Faking) Wafers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Wafers: Ingredients and Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recipe for Sealing Wafers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faking wafers

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

Faking Wafers: Flying SaucersFlying Saucers aka Satellite Wafers

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

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

Faking Wafers: Wafer PaperWafer Paper

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

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

Making Wafer Seal

Making or Faking a Wafer Seal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent at Little Things: a conversation in letters about letters 2015-05-29 00-09-59Now 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:

SealingLettersA copy
The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1795, p. 904. (Google Books)

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:

The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1795, p. 998 (Google Books)

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:

Letter 23, “Letters to a Young Clergyman” by Job Orton, 3d. ed., 1805. (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.”

Writing a Running Hand

RunningHand1 copyLast 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!

RunningLowerCase copy

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!

RunningHand2 copy

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.

RunningCapitals2 copy

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.”

The Academical Instructor- Currency

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!

Letter-writing for Ladies

Detail from “La Réponse à la lettre” painted by Jean-Augustin Franquelin, 1827. Musée du Louvre.

“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 booksThe 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).

Detail from Portrait of Marie-Thérèse, Princesse de Lamballe, painted by Anton Hickel, 1788. (Liechtenstein Princely Collections)


For some more detailed advice about writing lady-like letters, I turn to the long-running periodical, The Lady’s MagazineLetter-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

Nestor1 copyUh-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

Nestor2 copy

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

Nestor3 copy

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.”

Nestor4b copyJane 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

Nestor 5 copyJust 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

Nestor6 copyI’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!

Nestor 7This “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!

Miss Bingley’s Envelope

Two Young Women - Henri-Francois Riesener
Detail from Two Young Women, painted by Henri-François Riesener. (Source: Sotheby’s)

Envelopes as we know them- ready-made paper enclosures for cards and letters- were not in use until much later in the 19th century. But Jane Austen uses the word  ‘envelope’ in Volume 1, Chapter 21 of Pride and Prejudice, when Caroline Bingley sends a farewell letter to Jane Bennet after the Netherfield Ball:

   Soon after their return a letter was delivered to Miss Bennet; it came from Netherfield, and was opened immediately. The envelope contained a sheet of elegant, little, hot-pressed paper, well covered with a lady’s fair, flowing hand. . .

What does she mean? I came across this definition for the noun envelope in Sheridan’s dictionary, 1804 edition: “A wrapper, an outward case.”  It seems that the word did not yet have the very specific definition it has today.  Austen probably meant us to imagine a separate sheet of paper wrapped around the letter.  Why would Caroline Bingley bother to wrap her letter with an extra sheet of paper when so many letter-writers of this period work so hard to keep their letters to one sheet?

No detail in Jane Austen’s novels is superfluous- that envelope adds an important, if tiny, nuance to the scene.  The Young Man’s Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge gives some helpful context:


In other words, English letter-writers are caught between etiquette and the postal system- if they are writing a formal, respectful letter, they can signal their intention by adding a “cover” to their letter. But that additional sheet of paper doubles the entire charge for mailing it.  Since ordinarily the recipient of the letter pays the postage, an ‘envelope’ condemns the addressee to pay an exorbitant price for that respect.

Miss Bingley’s entire letter is a carefully crafted statement. Her “elegant, little, hot-pressed paper, well-covered with a lady’s fair, flowing hand” shows off her wealth with its expensive paper and her accomplishments with its refined handwriting.  The letter’s contents celebrate her exalted social circle in the city, far beyond country-mouse Jane’s reach.  Miss Bingley’s use of the formal envelope may be ‘respectful,’  but it is not friendly.  The letter is designed to show Jane that they will not be intimate in the future. That extra piece of paper, as much as the contents of the letter itself, leads Jane to say “Does it not expressly declare that Caroline neither expects nor wishes me to be her sister. . .?”

That leaves me with the question- was Miss Bingley so cruel as to send this two-sheet letter by post, making the Bennets pay double for the privilege of breaking Jane’s heart? Austen’s wording isn’t explicit, but it suggests to me that even Miss Bingley did not stoop so low- she had her servant deliver this poisonous little missive from Netherfield by hand.

Anatomy of a Regency Letter

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

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

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


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

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

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

Writing the Letter

LettersPageDiagram2 copy

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

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

Folding and sealing the Letter

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

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

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

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

Paper links

Letter writing Links

Letters for Mme. Bettinger

Letters for Mme BettingerThis 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.

Learn more at Kleidung um 1800: Letters Part ILetters Part II

Letters For Mme Bettinger Back

Writing with Violets: Parlour Chemistry c. 1800

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

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

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

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

Step One: Juice the Violets


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

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

Step 2: Prepare the paper


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

Step 3: Amaze your friends!

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

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

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

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