It’s difficult in these days of instant communication, of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to imagine a time when the writing and sending of a letter could be a time consuming and complicated affair.
Let’s say you were sending a letter in the early 1800’s; you would certainly need to be literate, which many weren’t and also comfortably off as it wasn’t a cheap exercise. Firstly you would need to buy paper.
That would be hand made laid paper, made from soaking rags in order to separate cotton or linen fibres which would be dredged with a rectangular page- sized wire mesh frame to collect a fine layer of pulp which when dried would leave one sheet of paper. A better quality product was available by coating the paper with gelatin size giving a smoother writing surface. It wasn’t until 1807 that newly invented machinery could start to mass produce wove paper, more like the paper that we know today.
Next, what to write with. Quill pens, made from swan, goose or even crow feathers had been in use for many centuries. These had to be heat treated to harden the ends and then regularly cut to a point using a sharp knife (from where we get the word pen knife) Gradually the use of steel nibs, at first hand made, improved dramatically from 1822 with the introduction of mass production methods.
Then, what about ink ? The ink used in the early part of the nineteenth century was what was known as “iron gall ink” made from iron salts and tannic acid, usually obtained from oak galls (oak apples) This would write in a pleasing purple-black colour which unfortunately faded to a rather weaker brown. Also being acidic it had to be sold in sealed glass bottles and was corrosive when left to dry naturally, hence the staining to be found in Regency porcelain inkwells often resulting in the need for restoration. This state of affairs was largely solved in 1822 by Dr. Henry Stephens with the invention of his “blue black writing fluid”, similar to the ink that we know today.
So, back in Georgian England, with our fine Worcester or Coalport porcelain inkstand with its inkwells and taperstick, surrounded by our penknife for sharpening our quills or scratching out our mistakes, our pounce pot for restoring the surface of our paper, our sander for drying ink, our sealing wax, our wafers and more…….we are ready to start our letter.
TO BE CONTINUED