Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Txt, 19th c stl: Pt 1

Texting. Facebook. Twitter. E-mail. These days it’s almost too easy to stay in touch, too easy to know what’s going on everywhere and what everyone thinks of it, to easy to get sucked into the latest news when one ought to be getting some work done (she typed with a guilty grin.)

This was not a problem 19th century teens had to deal with.

Up until the telegraph, letter-writing was the only way to stay in touch with far-flung friends. We talked a bit about letter-writing some time ago here and I thought it was time we addressed the topic a little more closely.

Letter-writing really was an art form, I think: not only your words, but your choice of paper, handwriting, and more could carry a subtle message as well.

First, there was the choice of paper one wrote on: thin or thick? Plain or decorated with a heraldic device (your family’s coat of arms) or with some other emblem? Scented with your favorite perfume or not? Was your family mourning the death of a relative? If so, time to pull out the box of black-bordered writing paper like that shown at right. And using more than one sheet of paper meant the letter would cost more in postage.

One’s choice of pen and ink also mattered. No gel pens or even fountain pens yet—at least not until the mid-late 19th century, when improvements in materials and inks made them more common (forms of the existed as far back as the early 18th or late 17th century) century. No, you probably wrote with a quill pen: goose and turkey feathers were most commonly used, though swan feathers were much admired. Contrary to what you might think, most of the feathery part of the quill was stripped away from the shaft of the quill; a small, sharp knife was always kept at hand to trim quills when they began to fray (hence the “penknife”). The main type of ink used was iron gall ink, made from iron salts and vegetable tannins (often derived from oak galls); though it made a nice dark ink, it is also very acidic and chemically unstable—which is why most of the writing in letters and documents from the 19th century and earlier have faded to brown.

Then there was one’s handwriting. Writing an elegant hand was an accomplishment much admired. However, if one was trying to conserve space in order to cram in as much news as possible into one page, then the flourished capitals and sweeping ‘y’ or ‘g’ at the end of words was best kept to a minimum. If you wanted to cram even more words onto a page, you could fill the page then turn it ninety degrees and fill it writing in that direction as well. “Crossing the page” often made for difficult reading, but it did save postage costs. (That's a letter written by Jane Austen herself, by the way, showing not only crossing lines but also other ways to shoehorn as many words onto one page as possible.)

If you were being cost-conscious, elegance of phrasing might also have to fall by the wayside. 19th century letters are full of abbreviations like wd and shd for would and should, vy for very and yr for your…sound familiar? However, I do not believe I’ve ever seen gr8 for great.

So your letter is written, on one side of the page only: you might sprinkle it with sand to help dry the ink or blot it with thick, absorbant paper, or just wave it around for a few minutes. When it was dry, you folded it carefully to conceal the writing and sealed it: envelopes did not come into widespread use until the middle of the 19th century (see Jane's letter above and note how it's folded). To seal your letter, you might use sealing wax (red was a popular color) or a wafer, which was a thin disc of glue and starch which was moistened and used to glue shut the letter (a forerunner of the modern sticker, though some objected to having other people's saliva mailed to them!), or both wax and a wafer. And so your letter was ready to send.

Nest week we'll look at how letters were sent. And don't forget, in two weeks we'll be having the inaugural meeting of the Young Bluestockings Book Club, discussing Patricia C. Wrede's Mairelon the Magician. Have you all been able to get your hands on copies?


QNPoohBear said...

I'm experienced at reading diaries and I just love the way people wrote in the 18th and 19th centuries. They may have shortened words but they used more words than we do to convey a single thought. Their handwriting is mostly easy to read, at least for me. I hate 20th century handwriting and can;t read it easily.

I love the way iron gall ink looks and feels. It often crumbles all over my hands and clothes though along with the rotting leather and dust but I wouldn't have it any other way!

Sarah said...

Very interesting post! Thank you :)

bethany said...

my mom and I love the patrica wrede books so much.
I know this is not on topic but I have been wondering lately. how would a young lady curtcy? how would one hold a gentelmen's arm when asked for a dance? how would one answer when asked for a dance?
please tell me if you can. I will be going to a ball in march and would like to know how to act.

Marissa Doyle said...

Bethany, are you going to a ball that has a historical 19th century theme? If so, what year/era?

Movies/DVDs like the Pride and Prejudice miniseries can be a valuable source of information like that--a picture is definitely worth a thousand words.

Michaela MacColl said...

what a useful post. In my upcoming novel on Victoria (not due out until the Fall) I have a scene where Victoria receives a letter from a former servant of the house. To save money, the servant had written at "cross-purposes". Victoria finds it very frustrating!

The Jane Austen letter demonstrates this brilliantly! May I borrow the image?


Rhett said...

I think I would never write a letter back in that day for my hand is not what it should be. Any letters I sent would have no response and I would feel abandoned by all of my friends thinking that they no longer held me in high esteem. My self esteem would plummet. Though the reason for their lack of response would simply be because they could not understand my hand writing. I would therefore leave the letters to my wife for her hand is far superior to mine.

Sara Leslie (Dragonfly Reviews) said...

That was a really interesting post! I would love to know all this - but then, that's the point of this site :D

Best wishes,

Sara x

bethany said...

We call the ball a vintage ball. You can come in whatever era you wish (last time I was post revolutionary war, but the host's family prefers the Civil War era.) The dances are of a wide variety the only ones I can remember the names of are the virginia reel and the grand march. I wish to come as someone from around 1809. The dance is with the homeschool group I belong to so it is not really formal.

Marissa Doyle said...

Michaela, if you Google "crossed line letters" or permutations on that, you can find a lot of interesting images!

Rhett, my husband would probably have done the same thing. And he makes me read notes from his mother as he can't read her writing, so i guess he comes by it honestly. :)

Brittany, in that case I would definitely suggest watching some of the great Jane Austen adaptations that have been done recently to get a feel for ballroom etiquette. The Pride and Prejudice miniseries would be at the top of my list, particularly as there are a couple of dancing scenes. Your party sounds fun!!

So glad you've enjoyed this topic!

ChaChaneen said...

Hi Marissa!
Great post! I always lurve it when you share something about stationary and pens... sigh.... swoon! ha ha

Yep, I've got my book and looking forward to next week!

Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed your post. I like to write letters to friends, although I usually reserve them to special events and use the more "modern" methods that we are all so familiar with today.

I have a pen and ink set and have often considered trying to locate or create an authentic quill pen.

Thank you for the wonderful tutorial on regency writing.