Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Guest Maria Grace on Regency Letter Writing

Today, my guest is fellow Regency author Maria Grace and her latest book, the Jane Austen sequel, Twelfth Night at Longbourn, Volume 4 of her Given Good Principles series. (Buy link here) Here she tells us about the way her characters communicated at a distance--letter writing.

Welcome Maria!

Maria Grace:

In the days before telegraphs or telephones, email or texts, Twitter or Facebook, the only way to maintain connections with distant family and friends was letter writing.  During the Regency, writing letters, reading them, and sharing the news they contained was an essential part of social life, a part 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 they did other social obligations. Though information in a letter might be widely shared, letters were considered very private.  One did not read another person’s letters. Select portions of letters might be read aloud to an audience. 

Letter writing was considered an art form and was taught to young ladies 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 and books of sample letters could be found to assist a letter writer in conveying an appropriate sentiment in just the right way.

‘Dashing off a quick letter’ was hardly swift or simple process by today’s standards. A number of expensive supplies and specialized equipment was needed 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.

Paper, sold at stationers, could be bought by the ream (480 sheets), the bale (ten reams), though paper 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. Foolscap, one of the most common (and smallest) paper sizes available, 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 common misconception was that people used parchment or vellum for everyday writing. The cost of these animal-skin based products what prohibitive for all but the most wealthy.  Even the richest individuals would have used it for only the most important documents.

Writing implements
Once the paper was ready, a pen (most likely) or pencil would have to be prepared.

Quill pens

During the Regency, the most common pen was a quill pen from goose, swan or crow feather. Not just any feather was suitable for a quill pen.  The best quills for pens were those from primary flight feathers taken from living birds.  A healthy goose could produce about twenty pen-quills a year. 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, the most commonly used ones, were used 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 in small, delicate lines.

Freshly plucked quills had to undergo extensive treatment before they could be used as pens. The process, called quill-dutching started with plunging the quills into hot sand to remove the inner and outer membranes and harden the barrel of the quill. A treatment of nitric acid might be used to improve their appearance, but some thought it made the quills too brittle, so not all quills were treated with it. Finally, quill dressers would trim away a section of the feathery ‘barb’ to make the pens easier to handle and take up less space for shipping. 

The pens would not be ready for sale until they had the attention of a pen-cutter. These professionals would 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 with a pen knife.  A pen could be re-cut several times before it was no longer usable.


Pens would be of little use without ink. That should be fairly easy, a little lampblack or charcoal and some water and we’re ready to go, right? No, not at all.  Ink was actually a very complex substance 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 to concentrate the ink, iron sulfate and acacia gum were introduced. 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 would darken to a very permanent, dark purplish black. The major drawback using this ink was that if the iron sulfate content was too high, it would disintegrate the paper over time.

Ink could be purchased at a stationer’s shop, along with quills and paper.  Some stationers would formulate their own ink, generating a certain kind of brand loyalty in their customers.

For those seeking less expensive sources, traveling ink sellers could be found in the streets, crying their wares along with sellers of fish, scissor grinders, and other tradesmen. They would carry their supply in small barrels and dispense it directly into the bottles supplied by their customers.

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.

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 use 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 would use sealing wax which provided a tamper-evident seal for their documents.  In general, people preferred red sealing wax and it was the most commonly seen wax. Black sealing wax was used for 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 would then be pressed into the soft wax so that any tampering with the seal would be 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 thirty seconds on a cell phone bears little resemblance to the production that penning even a brief letter would have been in the Regency era.

All About It:or: the History and Mystery of Common Things. New York: W. Townsend &Company, 1859.
Collins, Irene. Jane Austen, The Parson's Daughter. Hambledon (1998)
Copeland, Edward, McMaster, Juliet, The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Jeffers, Regina.  We Get Stacks and Stacks of Letters…  August 8, 2012  
 Kathryn Kane.  The Regency Redingote. Sealing … Wax? 16 November 2012 http://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2012/11/16/sealing-wax/
Kathryn Kane.  The Regency Redingote. The Precious Regency Pencil
Kathryn Kane.  The Regency Redingote. Ink — Regency Writing Fluid
Kathryn Kane.  The Regency Redingote. The Quill — The Regency Pen
Kathryn Kane.  The Regency Redingote. Parchment is NOT Paper! 21 August 2009  http://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2009/08/21/parchment-is-not-paper/
Kathryn Kane.  The Regency Redingote. Oh, foolish Foolscap! 31 October 2008
Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen's World. Carlton Books (2005)
Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams (2002)
Martin, Joanna . Wives and Daughters. Hambledon Continuum (2004)
Selwyn, David .  Jane Austen & Leisure The Hambledon Press (1999)
Todd, Janet M., Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Watkins, Susan.  Jane Austen's Town and Country Style Rizzoli (1990)

Uppermost two pictures provided by the author. Other pictures from Wikipedia.

Author bio
Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six cats, seven Regency-era fiction projects and notes for eight more writing projects in progress. To round out the list, she cooks for nine in order to accommodate the growing boys and usually makes ten meals at a time so she only cooks twice a month.

Contact her at:
email: author.MariaGrace@gmail.com.
 Facebook: facebook.com/AuthorMariaGrace
On Amazon.com: amazon.com/author/mariagrace
Visit her website Random Bits of Fascination (RandomBitsofFascination.com)
On Twitter @WriteMariaGrace, or http://www.facebook.com/AuthorMariaGrace


Joana Starnes said...

A remarkable post! Many thanks, Linda and Maria Grace!

Barbara Monajem said...

Very enjoyable! :)

Barbara Monajem said...

I forgot to ask -- Are those little jars to hold ink? I don't quite understand the picture. Is the middle jar for sand? Do the other two jars sit on either side of it, or what?

Denise said...

Very interesting, how the quills were chosen and from where. I love that inkstand set!

Linda Banche said...

Thanks, Joana, Barbara and Denise, for coming over.

Barbara, inkstands can hold any type of writing-related implements, such as ink, sand, wafers, quills or other things.

Here's the link for the picture, which gives a fuller explanation: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AChelsea_Porcelain_Factory_-_Inkstand_-_Walters_48842_%282%29.jpg

Carol McGrath said...

This is a fabulous post especially all the references.

Linda Banche said...

Carol, glad you found it useful.