Letter-locking

Discussion in 'Skills and Smarts' started by Artifex, Nov 12, 2020.

  1. Artifex

    Artifex Familiar Face

    Messages:
    90
    Location:
    Nottingham, GB
    Admittedly, this is nowhere near the Golden Era, but I hope equally of interest to anyone who takes enjoyment from doing things in the difficult, old-fashioned style.
    (I make the usual apology to any moderator who thinks this is in the wrong forum!)

    The story is that before flat-rate postage and cheap envelopes, a letter would be folded in on and around itself to form a closed packet. It would then be sealed, often with wax, and often with a distinctive design identifying the author.

    The part that I didn't know, and seems largely to have been forgotten until recently, is that the letters were often cut and folded in especially intricate ways to foil interceptors. For example, a thin tail of paper might be cut out of the letter, then threaded through a slit in the other sheets before sealing, binding them tight. Other techniques used ribbon or string, also sealed with wax.

    There's a group of academic enthusiasts working through a collection of hundreds of seventeenth century dead letters, and doing their best to catalogue them, and promote interest in the topic. They run a website at letterlocking.org, from which I've borrowed these photos:

    ll1.png
    ll2.png

    Besides the historical significance of such techniques, it seems an excellent fit for the growing hobby of recreational letter-writing. The personal and tactile quality of a handwritten, sealed letter is what makes them worthwhile, so I'm going to have a go at learning to lock any letters I write as well.

    Has anyone else around here come across the idea, or tried it perhaps?
     
    Edward likes this.
  2. Edward

    Edward Bartender

    Messages:
    22,403
    Location:
    London, UK
    Interesting website. I've used sealing wax for cards on and off for years; I also have a traditional Chinese chop somewhere that I had made in Beijing. This is the first time I've heard of 'letter locking', though. Interesting idea, as that would make it all harder to reassemble if the seal was broken. (I know one trick with seals was to use the seal as a mould to make a plaster of Paris replica and then use that to reseal an intercepted letter.) It's always fascinating to read about these various pre-digital 'encryption' and security methods.
     
  3. Artifex

    Artifex Familiar Face

    Messages:
    90
    Location:
    Nottingham, GB
    Have you come across any other descriptions of ways sealed letters were traditionally tampered with? I could imagine using a hot knife to cut the seal away from the paper, but couldn't say if it would work well.

    It also occurs to me that the form of the letter-lock could itself act as a signature. It would be difficult to reproduce without careful inspection of an opened sample, and there are a lot of possible variations
     
    Edward likes this.
  4. scotrace

    scotrace Head Bartender Staff Member

    Messages:
    14,322
    Location:
    Small Town Ohio, USA
    VERY interesting! Thanks for sharing.
     
  5. Edward

    Edward Bartender

    Messages:
    22,403
    Location:
    London, UK
    By my own experiments, sealing wax (assuming the stuff available now is the same as once was) can, with care, be 'broken' off the paper. It does leave a little mark, but if you were to cover that sufficiently with new wax and replace the seal, it should be possible. I clearly recall I read about *someone* historical doing it many years ago - Countess Batheroy? - but for the life of me can't remember the details.
     

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.