The lost art of letter writing

An example of a lettersheet from Springhill House collections

When it comes to communicating with friends and loved ones, instant messaging tools such as WhatsApp, Messenger, email and video calling are the norm for many of us today. As a result, we have slowly lost the art of letter writing. Geraldine Hammond, a long-term volunteer at Springhill House rediscovers the joy of putting ink to paper.

Considered to carry the same importance as architecture, clothing, travel and writing, receiving letters was an expression of your social standing within society. By the mid 19th century the exchange of regular letter writing had become an art form and a daily undertaking for many. Indeed, such familiar things like Valentine, mourning and celebration cards, fashionable stationery and writing instruments exist because of the fashion of written communication.

A postal service for everyone

The introduction of the civic service, named the 'Penny Post' in 1840 enabled an affordable postal communication system, available for all classes and destinations for a penny stamp. This superseded the old postal system that was unregulated, the price was inconsistent and determined by the number of miles the letter travelled (not always by the quickest route) and the sheets of paper used.

The old postal system saw the burden of payment falling on the receiver and not the sender, it being seen as a social slur if a pre-paid letter was delivered to your door! If the recipient could not pay on receipt of the letter, it was returned. Therefore, only the select few had the privilege of written communication and it is easy to see how people lost touch who couldn’t afford the price of receiving a letter when living in different towns and villages. The Penny Post basically revolutionised the postal system as it allowed for all classes of people to send their mail, not just the social elite.

The letter collection at Springhill House

Springhill House holds a diverse mix of miscellaneous archive such as military, personal and business correspondence that have been accumulated by generations of the Lenox-Conyngham family tree. Only very recently have I had the privilege of transcribing a file that contained lettersheets from a branch of the family dating around the mid 19th century.

The Lettersheet was a piece of paper that was written on, folded, wax sealed and delivered without an envelope. Commonly used in the 18th and 19th century before the reform of the postal system, these were one of my favourite types of correspondence held within the Springhill House archives.  

This complicated style of crossed writing saved space and paper
a single page written horizontally then turned at an angle to be additionally written over crossways to save paper
This complicated style of crossed writing saved space and paper

Born from the desire to reduce postal costs, a single page was written horizontally then turned at an angle to be additionally written over crossways. It was then cleverly folded over itself, addressed and sealed with a wax stamp, thus evading the extra charges for additional sheets of paper and the use of an envelope.

The lettersheet can be challenging to transcribe due to its interwoven text, however it is also one of the most fascinating pieces of our historiography and a skill in itself to re-create.

Make your own lettersheet

Step one: lay out your sheet of paper landscape

Step one: Lay out your sheet of paper landscape
a sheet of paper laid our landscape
Step one: Lay out your sheet of paper landscape

Step two: fold each end to join in the middle

Step two: Fold each end to join in the middle
sheet of paper with either end folded up to join in middle
Step two: Fold each end to join in the middle

Step three: fold each end over again in a similar fashion

Step three: Fold each end over again in a similar fashion
a sheet of paper being folded
Step three: Fold each end over again in a similar fashion

Step four: tuck each end of the sheet into another to produce a neat envelope. The address was written on the opposite side of the folded paper.

Step four: Tuck each end of the sheet into the other to produce a neat little envelope
paper being folded into a envelope
Step four: Tuck each end of the sheet into the other to produce a neat little envelope

Step five: wax is melted and stamped to form a seal.

Step five: wax is melted and stamped to form a seal
a lettersheet being waxed and stamped
Step five: wax is melted and stamped to form a seal