Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Letters & Seals

Here is a description of the writing practice of the military in 1775, from a website:


It describes letter writing details that they apparently still engage in today as a form of 'living history.' In particular, the issues relating to postage and black sealing wax are discussed. Black wax was used in matters related to death, and assured expedient service through the post.

"There were no envelopes (or postage stamps), and any mention of an "envelope" is merely another sheet of paper folded around the rest (there could be writing on one side of the "envelope", as well as on the part of the other side that didn't end up on the outside of the letter).

It did not bode well to have handwriting as being too large, -- at the time, letters were charged according to the number of sheets of paper, so the smaller you could make your writing, the more you could fit in. To save postage, letters were frequently "crossed": i.e. after a sheet of paper had been written on, it was turned 90°, and further lines were written crossing the original writing. It was the recipient, rather than the sender, who paid the postage. Some original references to this matter are lifted from actual letters below:

"I will endeavour to make this letter more worthy your acceptance than my last, which was so shabby a one that I think Mr. Jones could never charge you with the postage."
"Your letter was a most agreeable surprise to me to-day, and I have taken a long sheet of paper to show my gratitude."
"Do not be angry with me for not filling my sheet, and believe me yours affectionately,..."
"I thank you for yours, though I should have been more grateful for it if it had not been charged 8d. instead of 6d., which has given me the torment of writing to Mr. Hall on the occasion."

Franking (Frank) was a term applied to the superscribed signature of a person, such as a member of Parliament, entitled to send letters free of charge. A Frank was a letter bearing such a superscription.

Each quill feather pen, hand cut as it were, was like no other, and some reacted to the task much better than others. Cutting a pen properly is still an art, and good ones are difficult to find today.

Laid paper was the most common for letter writing, especially for formal correspondence. Parchment was reserved for certificates, &c.

As there were no envelops to be had, sealing wax was used to hold the letter's pages intact. This was usually a red wax, although examples of blue is to be found, as other colours more rare. The seal was likely the initial of the Surname, or in the case of a title holder, government or Crown seal, the engraved symbol of that entity. The use of Black wax was reserved for the notification of death in the family, more so to speed the letter in the postal system than to give the receiver advanced notice upon receipt."

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