How was writing letters in Regency times different to letter-writing today?
What did they write on?
I love reading Regency Romances myself, but sometimes I come across something that makes me think ‘that isn’t right’, and it pulls me out of the story. Something that I’ve seen more than once is a heroine writing a letter on vellum or parchment.
Parchment is made from animal skin, cleaned, bleached, stretched and smoothed. A variety of different animal skins can be used; vellum is parchment made from calf skin. Vellum is still used in the UK for printing laws, because it lasts much longer than paper. However our Regency heroines would have used paper. Some modern writing and drawing materials are referred to as parchment and vellum, but these are modern products made from plant materials.
Crossing the lines
Georgette Heyer sometimes referred to a letter having ‘crossed lines’. The cost of posting a letter depended not only on the distance it was sent, but also on how many sheets of paper were used.
To get more information onto a single sheet of paper, the letter writer would fill the page, then turn it through ninety degrees and write over the first set of lines.
The example here is from the early 19th Century. It is difficult to read mainly because we are not used to that style of handwriting, not because the lines are crossed.
Folding and sealing
Machine-made envelopes as we know them today were not available until 1845. Before then, most people would fold the sheet of paper they had written on, leaving a blank section on the outside for the address. There is an excellent blog post here about the types of paper used and how the sheet of paper was folded.
The folded letter could be sealed using melted wax* dropped onto the overlap. A seal was used to make an impression showing the sender’s initials or coat of arms.
The more common method for sealing letters was the wafer. This was a thin disc of dry paste, which could be bought or made at home. It was moistened and placed between the overlap and the paper beneath. There is a lot more detail on wafers in a blog post here.
Reading up on sealing wax and letters led me to another fascinating Regency Redingote article on wax-jacks and bougie boxes. I’d never heard of either of these things. Briefly, a wax-jack was a long coiled taper (a wick coated in wax) in a holder, used to provide a small flame for melting sealing wax. This was more controllable than using the larger, hotter flame of a candle. A bougie box was similar, but with the end of the taper poking out of a hole in a sealed container.
Correction: After writing this article, I came across this Facebook post from author Francine Howarth, pointing out that parchment made from sheep or goat skin wasn’t as rare as we might think, and anyone wanting to demonstrate their wealth or make a really good impression might well have written on parchment.
However I (mostly!) stand by what I wrote at the top – most of our heroines would write on paper, only very rarely on parchment or vellum.