Well, ladies and gents!
The civilized man has always had the need for communication. While large cities were created, people were geographically distant, and this led them to the need to find ways for distant communication.
Nowadays, we mainly use mail, telephones, cell phones, social media and other forms of communication. But long before that, and for thousands of years, people were communicating via hand-written letters.
In Regency era, like everything else, the letters had their own etiquette rules. Writing a letter required a kind of professionalism. Each letter had a unique dynamic and value, both for the one who wrote it and for the recipient.
In this article I will talk about the tools people used to write letters during our favorite era. These implements were stored together in a little box inside a desk.
Stay with me, will you? 🙂
The first step to writing a letter was preparing the paper. During the Regency Era, paper was scarce and therefore an expensive commodity. Because of that, a writer would not waste paper by leaving large spaces empty. People of the era respected an object that wasn’t taken for granted.
The paper was so valuable that they had developed the “cross-writing” technique. In order not to leave much empty space, letters would be crosswriten. It took some practice to learn how to write or read such documents.
The most common pen of the time was the quill pen. The best quills come from the primary flight feathers. Generally, feathers from the left wing of an animal were favored by the right-handed writers because the feather curves away from the sight line, over the back of the hand. Same goes with the left-handed, who preferred pens made from the right wing.
Each quill pen had its own logic and use. They used quill pens from goose, swan or crow feathers. Many times, geese were raised for the sole purpose of producing feathers for quill pens. Goose feathers were used primarily for writing pens, swan pens produced very broad lines and crow feathers produced very fine, flexible pen nibs. Artists and ladies of the era who wrote with small, delicate lines preferred crow feathers.
Ιn order for a feather to be used as a pen it had to undergo a certain process, which was called quill-dutching. The first step was to place the wing on warm sand in order to remove the rough membranes. The warm sand gave the wing the cruelty it needed to become a pen. The next stage was to improve the appearance of the wing. They did this by using nitric acid or some other acid. The last step was to trim away the nose in order to have the appearance of a pen.
This was usually done by a professional, but when the pen was bought the pen’s owner could do it. This was done again and again until the quill pens needed to be replaced. Imagine something like scratching pencils today.
Very important for writing a letter was ink. Creating ink was no easy task. To be precise, it looked more like chemical processing than just making a raw material.
The most common ink was iron gall ink, made from oak galls, iron sulfate and acacia gum. Its processing was particularly demanding. Firstly, the galls were pulverized, then soaked in rain water for seven to ten days. Then boiled half volume and after that the iron sulfate and acacia gum were added. Sometimes they added sugar, salt or brandy to the infusion. When ready, the fluid was stored in a tightly stoppered stoneware jug and kept warm to ferment for two weeks. After that it was strained and ready for use.
Many stationers of the time created their own ink recipes generating a brand loyalty in their customers.
Another writing tool—secondary but of equal importance—was the pen knife. Some were extremely ornate, some plain, and some with folding blades. Highly decorated models were difficult to be found at the stationers and it was more likely that they come from a jeweler.
The knives were necessary to recut quill pens when they couldn’t write well from the user. They were also indispensable for maintaining the pencil. Something similar to the sharpener of our era. They were not, though, used in trimming paper.
A writing tool that has survived nowadays was the pencil. At that time, however, it did not have the form it has today.
There were solid sticks of graphite which they hooked with metal or wood handles in order to be ready for use. These were all handmade, thus they were very expensive. But as machines were later developed to do this job, they became affordable to common folk. The exact date that graphite was encased in wood to create a cased pencil is not known.
They also invented ‘rubber’ cubes to rub out marks made by pencils. They became known as ‘rubberd’.
Folding and Sealing
The envelope, as we know it today, did not exist back then. People of the time had to find other methods for ensuring the privacy of their letters. The least expensive alternative was to use a pre-formed wafer made from flour and gum. Letters were folded to form an envelope and the writer would lick the wafer to stick the paper shut.
Those who could afford more elegant means used sealing wax. They would melt the end of a stick of sealing wax, then snub the pliable resin onto the envelope and press it with a seal or signet ring to ensure against tampering.
Each maker tended to have their own special formula and despite its name, sealing wax contained little or no actual wax. Some formulas included beeswax, olive-oil, rosin and Venice turpentine while others included rosin, sandarac, shellac, pitch or mastic.
During the Regency era, sealing wax came in only three colors; red, black and green. In general, people preferred red sealing wax and it was the most commonly used wax. Green was used by the Office of the Exchequer, the courts, and the Church. And black marked letters bearing the news of death and during periods of mourning.
After what has been said above, we should recognize the difficulty in the art of writing at that time. Each specialized tool was created under difficult circumstances. Especially if you combine this with the fact that they definitely needed elaborate graphic desks and office kits for writing letters.
It is clear that our idea of typing a quick text in seconds on a cell phone has little resemblance to the production of even the shortest letter during the Regency era.
Well, that’s it, sweetie!
Thank you for reading this article of mine! Please let me know your thoughts about it—did you enjoy it?
If there is anything else you’d be interested in reading about the Regency Era, feel free to let me know…
…and who knows? Maybe you will read about it soon!
Written by Olivia Bennet