Before telegraphs or telephones, email or texts, Twitter or Facebook, letter writing was the only way to maintain connections with distant family and friends. During the Regency era, writing letters, reading them, and sharing the news they contained was an essential part of social life, one largely slated for the women of the household.
Typically, women would write letters in the morning, before breakfast. They kept track of the letters they received and to whom they owed letters as carefully as other important social obligation like dinner invitations and entertaining. Though the information in a letter might be widely shared, one did not read another person’s letters. Select portions of letters might be read aloud to an audience. Sometimes the correspondent would indicate what could be read aloud by underlining passage. Otherwise, letters were considered very private and kept in locked boxes and drawers to preserve them from prying eyes.
Letter writing was considered an art form. Young ladies learned it as part of their necessary accomplishments. Governesses or boarding schools would teach handwriting, spelling and grammar, and the construction of suitable phrases to use in correspondence. Collections of letters by famous figures were often published. Similarly, books of sample letters could be found to assist a letter writer in conveying an appropriate sentiment. Phrases might even be copied directly from such books to insure a beautiful turn of phrase.
Not only could it be complicated to craft just the right words to convey a desired message, the very act of penning a letter was far more complex than sending off a quick text message today. ‘Dashing off a quick letter’ was hardly swift or simple process by today’s standards. A correspondent required a number of expensive supplies and specialized equipment to produce a proper letter.
The first step to crafting a letter was preparing the paper. Paper was an expensive commodity during the Regency, not like today when hundreds of note pads of various shapes and colors litter drawers, desks and countertops all over my house.
In the 1700’s, paper makers began standardizing paper sizes and watermarking them according to size. Foolscap, one of the most common (and smallest) paper sizes, was typically used for printing and letter writing. Even so, at 16 1/2 inches by 13 1/4 inches it was often too large for a specific task and was often trimmed to size. A writer would not waste paper by leaving large spaces empty. To fit more on a single sheet of paper, letters wold be crosswritten, sometimes several times. It took some practice to learn how to read such documents.
Paper, sold at stationers, could be bought by the ream (480 sheets) or the bale (ten reams. It was most commonly sold by the quire (1/20th a ream, 24 sheets). In some cases, particularly for specialty paper, like drawing paper, it was sold by the sheet.
Once the paper was ready, a pen (most likely) or pencil would have to be readied.
By far the most common pen was a quill pen from goose, swan or crow feather. Goose quill pens enjoyed the greatest popularity.
Not just any feather was suitable for a quill pen. The best pens quills were those from primary flight feathers taken from living birds. A healthy goose could produce about twenty pen-quills a year. Large flocks of geese were maintained for the sole purpose of producing pen-quills. Feather from the left wing were favored because the curve made them easier for right-handed writers to use. Left handers preferred pens made from the right wing. Goose feathers were used primarily for writing pens. Swan pens produced very broad lines. In contrast, crow feathers produced very fine, flexible pen nibs, favored by artists and ladies who wrote with small, delicate lines.
Freshly plucked quills had to undergo extensive treatment before they could be turned into pens. The process, called quill-dutching started with plunging the quills into hot sand to remove the inner and outer membranes. The heat treatment also hardened the barrel of the quill and made it transparent. A treatment to nitric acid might be used to improve the appearance, but some thought it made the quills to brittle, so not all quills underwent this procedure. As a final step, quill dressers would trim away a section of the feathery ‘barb’ of the feather to make the pens easier to handle and take up less space in shipping. Bundles of twenty five or fifty quills were baled together and shipped to stationers’ shops.
The pens would not be ready for sale until they had the attention of a pen-cutters. These professionals used a small, sharp pen knife and cut the quill down to a usable writing nib. A well cut pen, if treated correctly, could be used for quite some time before needing to be recut, something typical done by the pen’s owner. A pen could be re-cut several times before it needed replacement.
Pens were of little use without ink. That should be fairly easy, right, a little lampblack or charcoal and some water and we’re ready to go. No, not at all. Ink are very complex substances to create.
The most common ink was iron gall ink, made from oak galls, iron sulfate and acacia gum. The galls were pulverized, soaked in rain water for seven to ten days, boiled half volume, then the iron sulfate and acacia gum were added. Sugar, salt or brandy might also be added to the infusion. The fluid was stored in a tightly stoppered stoneware jug and kept warm to ferment for two weeks. Finally it was strained and ready for use.
When first applied to paper, iron gall ink would be light grey, but after exposure to air, it darkened to a very permanent, dark purplish black. Although a useful, all purpose ink, if the iron sulfate content was too high, it would disintegrate the paper over time.
Red, blue, yellow and green writing inks were also available, each as complex to make as iron gall ink. Stationer’s made these inks available along with quills and paper. Some stationers would formulate their own ink, generating a brand loyalty in their customers.
For those seeking less expensive sources of ink, traveling ink sellers made their way through the streets, crying their wares along with sellers of fish, scissor grinders, and other tradesmen. They carried their supply in small barrels and dispensed it directly into the bottles supplied by their customers.
Pen knives, some extremely ornate, some plain, and some with folding blades, were another necessary implement for letter writing. Ordinary models might be acquired at the stationer’s while highly decorated models might come from a jeweler.
The knives were necessary to recut quill pens when the tips degraded from use. They were also indispensable for maintaining the other Regency era writing implement, the pencil. They were not, though, used in trimming paper.
Though we take it for granted today, the pencil was the first truly portable, use anywhere, on almost anything writing instrument. Its introduction freed artists and writers from the constraints of quills and ink.
At first, solid sticks of graphite were wrapped in string or paper to make them cleaner to use. By the 17th century, various wood and metal holders, like chalk holders used today, had been developed. The exact date that graphite was encased in wood to create a cased pencil is not known. At first, these were all handmade and very expensive, but as machines were developed to do the job, they became affordable to common folk.
Plant sap, known as gum elastic could be used to rub out marks made by pencils. It was so effective it became known as a ‘rubber’. These ‘rubber’ cubes could be purchased at a stationer’s right alongside pencils. They were not actually attached to pencils like they are today until the end of the 19th century.
Sealing wax and wafers
Since envelopes did not come into general use until 1840, Regency era writers had to resort to other means to keep their correspondence sealed and private. The least expensive alternative was to wafers of flour and gum. Letters were folded to form an envelope and a person would lick the wafer to stick the paper shut.
Those who could afford more elegant means used sealing wax which provided a tamper evident seal for their documents. Despite its name, sealing wax contained little or no actual wax.
Art and science were required for the production of a high-quality sealing wax. Each maker tended to have their own special formula, and some included wax, while others did not. A formula from The Encyclopedia Britannica (1773), included beeswax, rosin, olive-oil and Venice turpentine. Other formulas included shellac, sandarac, rosin, pitch or mastic. “Spanish wax” contained shellac, mastic, turpentine, chalk or gypsum, color and fragrance.
In general, people preferred red sealing wax and it was the most commonly used wax. Black sealing wax marked letters bearing the news of death and during periods of mourning. Green was the only other color available during the Regency era, used by the office of the Exchequer and the courts, of both the government and the Church.
Sticks of sealing wax were about seven to eight inches in length and did not have a wick. They would be held over a candle to soften, then pressed down on the paper to be sealed. A seal or signet pressed into the soft wax made any tampering with the seal evident.
With all the specialized tools and supplies for letter writing it is little wonder that elaborate writing desks and desk sets to store everything were common in the era. Clearly our concept of dashing off a quick text in seconds on a cell phone bears little resemblance to the production that penning even a brief letter would have been during the Regency era.
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