In June, The West Harlem Art Fund and the Humanities and Arts Division of City College are co-producing the outdoor exhibition In Dialogue. One of the installations is called Closer Conversation and features a series of mailboxes for visitors to submit various messages. This prompted the curator to look at letter writing in light of the fact that most Americans use hand held devices to communicate as well as texting that forces users to abbreviate most words. Making this discovery was quite nice.
Letter writing traditions
The invention of inks paralleled the introduction of paper. The early Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and Hebrews used papyrus and parchment papers. One of the oldest pieces of writing on papyrus known to us today is the Egyptian “Prisse Papyrus” which dates back to 2000 B.C. The Romans created a reed-pen perfect for parchment and ink, from the hollow tubular-stems of marsh grasses, especially from the jointed bamboo plant. They converted bamboo stems into a primitive form of fountain pen. They cut one end into the form of a pen nib or point. A writing fluid or ink filled the stem, squeezing the reed forced fluid to the nib.
By 400 A.D. a stable form of ink developed, a composite of iron-salts, nutgalls and gum, the basic formula, which was to remain in use for centuries. Its color when first applied to paper was a bluish-black, rapidly turning into a darker black and then over the years fading to the familiar dull brown color commonly seen in old documents. Wood-fiber paper was invented in China in 105 A.D. but it only became known about (due to Chinese secrecy) in Japan around 700 A.D. and brought to Spain by the Arabs in 711 A.D. Paper was not widely used throughout Europe until paper mills were built in the late 14th century.
The writing instrument that dominated for the longest period in history (over one-thousand years) was the quill pen. Introduced around 700 A.D., the quill is a pen made from a bird feather. The strongest quills were those taken from living birds in the spring from the five outer left wing feathers. The left wing was favored because the feathers curved outward and away when used by a right-handed writer. Goose feathers were most common; swan feathers were of a premium grade being scarcer and more expensive. For making fine lines, crow feathers were the best, and then came the feathers of the eagle, owl, hawk and turkey.
Quill pens lasted for only a week before it was necessary to replace them. There were other disadvantages associated with their use, including a lengthy preparation time. The early European writing parchments made from animal skins, required much scraping and cleaning. A lead and a ruler made margins. To sharpen the quill, the writer needed a special knife (origins of the term “pen-knife”.) Beneath the writer’s high-top desk was a coal stove, used to dry the ink as fast as possible.
Plant-fiber paper became the primary medium for writing after another dramatic invention took place: Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with replaceable wooden or metal letters in 1436. Simpler kinds of printing e.g. stamps with names, used much earlier in China, did not find their way to Europe. During the centuries, many newer printing technologies were developed based on Gutenberg’s printing machine e.g. offset printing.
Articles written by hand had resembled printed letters until scholars began to change the form of writing, using capitals and small letters, writing with more of a slant and connecting letters. Gradually writing became more suitable to the speed the new writing instruments permitted. The credit of inventing Italian ‘running hand’ or cursive handwriting with its Roman capitals and small letters, goes to Aldus Manutius of Venice, who departed from the old set forms in 1495 A.D. By the end of the 16th century, the old Roman capitals and Greek letterforms transformed into the twenty-six alphabet letters we know today, both for upper and lower-case letters.
When writers had both better inks and paper, and handwriting had developed into both an art form and an everyday occurrence, man’s inventive nature once again turned to improving the writing instrument, leading to the development of the modern fountain pen.
Secret codes and Spy Writing during the American Revolution
British and American spies used secret codes and ciphers to disguise their communications. A cipher is when letters, symbols, or numbers are used in the place of real words. In order to decode a cipher, the recipient of the letter must have a key to know what the coded letters, symbols, or words really mean.
In the letters to the left, Benedict Arnold used a cipher to deliver his messages secretly to John André. The cipher’s key was a standard published book, either Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England or Nathan Bailey’s Dictionary. When Arnold composed his letters, he first found the word he wanted to write in the key. Instead of writing the word directly in the letter, he wrote down the page number, the line number, and the number of the word counting over from the left. Therefore, each secret word was represented by a series of three numbers. For example, the second word in the letter of July 12, 1780, is “293.9.7” which stands for “wrote.” André explained these methods in a letter he wrote on May 10, 1779.
American spies also used this method. After some letters were captured in 1779 by the British, Benjamin Tallmadge created a code using Entick’s Dictionary for the Culper Gang.
Arnold and André also used other sneaky ways to hide the real content of their letters. Arnold and André pretended to be merchants. Arnold deliberately did not disguise some words with the cipher so that the letters seemed to be about normal business transactions. Anyone who intercepted these letters would see such business language and think the letters were part of routine commercial deals.
Civil War writing
One of the many treasures from the American Civil War is the vast amount of personal writings that have survived. There are literally thousands of personal letters and journals are still available today for study. These personal accounts help add a tremendous amount of depth to the core material. It is one thing to read about a battle, it is totally another to see it through the eyes of the soldiers that fought and died in it.
Paper was a valuable commodity to soldiers. Many letters in the Civil War collection have additional writing in the margins or have a torn section after the signature. This was probably done to save the unused portion for another purpose. There are letters that have been written on twice, once in a normal left-to-right horizontal pattern and again with the paper having been turned 90°.
Often, letters are meant to be for one person or a particular set of individuals — a family, a group of friends. The reception of a letter was an event shared by all. One correspondent addresses his letters to “Dear friends” or to multiple family members. Not only was this to save paper, but to insure that those who were illiterate had the chance to “read” the letter.
With all of the hardships of battle, mail delivery continued to exist in the United States during the Civil War. Although channels of communication between the battlefield and home remained tenuous, the mail that did get through was readily welcomed on both sides. As one soldier wrote to his sister and brother-in-law in February 1863, “I sit myself upon my folded blankets with my portfolio upon my knee to pen a few lines in answer to a more than welcome letter just recd. from your hand & which I haste a reply.”