Letter-writing & More

There’s a host of practicalities behind the writing and posting of letters in the period covered by In the Words of Women that may be unfamiliar to 21st century readers. Was there letterwriting etiquette? Were envelopes and stamps in use? How were letters posted and delivered? Were there conflicting British and Colonial postal systems? This entry offers an overview of the process.

Of Pens & Pounce Pots
When women sat down to write to their husbands or friends, they picked up the writing implement of the time: a quill pen. Usually made from the primary flight feather of a bird’s wing—a domestic goose was the usual source—it was pared to a point and then slit. It had to be flexible when pressed in order to regulate the flow of ink (from the hollow center which served as a reservoir) to make the thin upward strokes and the thicker downward strokes that characterized the writing of the day. Interestingly, the word “pen” comes from the Latin word “penna,” meaning feather.

Speaking of derivations, did you ever stop to think about the origin of the word “penknife”? I’ll bet you know the answer now. It was indeed a small knife that was always at hand to sharpen the nib of the quill, or pen. Of course, the writer also needed paper and ink, the latter could be purchased or handmade, from walnut shells, for example. There might also be a “pounce pot”, which contained a powdered substance, like pumice, that was sprinkled on paper before writing to make it less porous so that the ink would not be absorbed. The best paper was rather smooth and glossy. When the letter was finished, it was blotted or sprinkled with sand to dry the ink. Even with careful washing after each use, a quill pen usually lasted only about a week. Women often complained about their pens. Sarah Jay wrote to her daughter Maria, “My pen is intolerably dull & my knife not better.” And to her husband: “I am writing with the stump of a pen that is as stiff as my knife.”

Sending Letters
Envelopes had not yet been invented in the years covered by In the Words of Women. So to make a letter fit to mail, the writer would fold the paper, seal it on the fold with hot wax and press a stamp into the cooling wax. When dry, the wax was brittle and would break when the letter was opened. The seal was often personal and thus authenticated the letter; it also served to forestall tampering. The address was written on the other side.

Postage was based on the number of sheets being sent, which explains why writers sometimes “crossed” their letters, turning the page 90 degrees and writing between the lines. Postage was also rated according to the number of miles to the letter’s destination. At the office of origin, postage was calculated and written on the letter by hand along with the name of the town and the date sent. The fee was often collected from the addressee, a safer option considering that mail frequently miscarried. Duplicates were often posted in case the original was lost. To keep track of correspondence, letters usually began with a list of mail recently sent and received.

Care was taken not to include personal information that would be embarrassing to the correspondents if made public; letters were routinely intercepted by censors and their contents published in newspapers. Political or strategic information that might be helpful to the enemy was likewise not discussed. Ciphers were used, and not just in diplomatic correspondence. Kitty Livingston frequently used a simple code in writing to her brother-in-law John Jay; various Roman numerals represented individuals. In most cases it is not clear to whom they referred.

The safest way to be sure that a letter reached its destination was to entrust it to a friend or relative who would deliver it personally or see that it reached the recipient.

The Style of the Times
For the well-to-do, personal letter-writing was considered a genteel pursuit, as important a reflection of one’s status, education, and accomplishments as was speech, dress or behavior. Learning to write a good hand was part of one’s education, and models of good letter-writing were studied for style and content.

Eighteenth century letters seem formal to us. And in many respects they were. Certainly stock phrases in the opening and closing of letters prevailed. In personal letters this was a reflection on the nature of the relationship between husband and wife as well as the role of the father as head of the family. In her letters, Sarah Jay always addressed her husband as “My dear Mr. Jay.” He addressed her as Sally but invariably signed his letters with his full name “John Jay”. (Lest she had forgotten the name of the man to whom she was married!) John Jay likewise signed letters to his children: “your father John Jay”. Lucy Flucker Knox, the wife of General Henry Knox, addressed her letters to him as other wives frequently did, “My Dearest Friend.” Within the letter, however, she does call him “my Harry.” Theodosia Bartow Prevost Burr was another of the few women who referred to their husbands by their first names, in her case “Aaron.”

Other expressions that regularly appear in eighteenth century correspondence include “I did myself the pleasure of writing to you …” and “I flatter myself that …” A letter was called a “favor,” as in “I thank you for your favor of the 12th.” Listing letters received and sent in the opening lines was standard practice. If the letter was received in the current month, the abbreviation “inst.” for “instant” was used; if in the previous month, “ult.” for “ultimo.” Below is an example of the formulaic style and deferential tone typically used in the closing of letters men wrote to each other; in this case the letter is from George Washington to John Jay.

Having a hard time deciphering the script which is full of abbreviations and superscript? It reads “Dear Sir Your most obedient and affectionate Servant George Washington.”

Women often used literary names in closing their letters to husbands or close friends. Abigail Adams was “Portia,” and Mercy Otis Warren signed herself “Marcia.” Information about family members was exchanged, but some topics were thought to be in bad taste and thus avoided, like medical conditions or pregnancy, for example. On the other hand, women sometimes took the opportunity to express thoughts or feelings in letters that were not likely to be discussed in conversation. Letters were sprinkled with literary, historical, and classical references often as a way for women (and men) to display their educational attainments. And Divine Providence was frequently invoked and deferred to in the face of trials and tribulations.

The Constitutional Post
With revolution imminent, a “constitutional post” was organized in 1775 to replace the existing Royal Post because of the fear that mail would be opened by the British and because the rates charged by the British were high and considered to be a form of taxation. This fledgling system operated from Maine to Williamsburg, Virginia, mail being collected or left at designated post offices or taverns by postriders. It was soon superseded by an official system established by the Second Continental Congress, and service was extended to Georgia. By the time the Constitution came into effect in 1789, there were 75 post offices and more than 2,400 miles of post roads. The post office in New York City during that year was at the home of William Bedlow, Number 8 Wall Street, where mail from Philadelphia and points South arrived three days a week and departed on alternate days. Mail from Boston arrived at 7 p.m. and left at 10 p.m. Stagecoaches came into use on certain routes.

In addition to surface mail, regular packet boats [commercial vessels] carrying mail sailed along the Atlantic coast between major ports. It is difficult to determine which was faster: mail sent by land or by sea. Roads were notoriously poor in winter, but packets were at the mercy of wind and weather. At any rate, the postal system grew rapidly: by 1800 there were 903 post offices and 20,817 miles of post roads.

Transatlantic Mail
For many years, maintaining contact with the mother country and kinfolk there was more likely to be of concern to settlers than was communication with neighboring colonies. With the advent of war and the stationing of American diplomats abroad, overseas mail took on added importance. Government correspondence was generally carried by warships or naval vessels; there was a packet service for regular mail. Packet boats, small fast brigs, usually armed, carrying little or light cargo to minimize turn-around time, and perhaps a few passengers, were commissioned to make regular round trips between ports in the United States and England and other European countries.

Needless to say, overseas mail was unreliable given the dangers of bad weather, privateers and enemy ships. The trip at best took six weeks, more likely eight, and often as many as twelve. If a vessel was in danger of being captured, the standing order was to weight bags containing mail and dispatches and throw them overboard. Private letters were often entrusted to friends crossing the ocean on merchant ships, who, upon landing, would find a way to forward the letters to the addressees. Alternatively they could be given to the ship’s captain for deposit at designated taverns or coffee houses for pickup. References to overseas mail in letters always included the name of the vessel and the captain. “By the Hope Captn Haley I have written to you,” noted John Jay to Sarah (August 16, 1794). Lists of vessels and their sailing dates and destinations were posted in public houses, and arrivals and departures were printed in newspapers. Vessels in crossing often “spoke” to each other, that is they made contact with ships sailing in the opposite direction, exchanged news and mail which passengers on board had written to family and friends they had left behind. When ships docked, mailbags had to be delivered to the post office before passengers could disembark or cargo was unloaded.

The letter shown, addressed to Miss Ann Van Horne, came from London to New York via Falmouth on the packet Speedy which left on October 6, 1788, and probably arrived in early January of 1789. The postage was prepaid as the London hand-stamp indicates. Because delivery was so uncertain letters were often marked with the initials Q.D.C. an abbreviation for Quem Deus Conserveat (May God Guide). There is a one shilling mark indicating the postage and a London Post Office stamp with the date October 1, 1788.

The information above has been adapted from Selected Letters of John Jay and Sarah Livingston Jay by Landa Freeman, Louise North, and Janet Wedge (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co. Publishers, 2005). The woodcut of the post-rider appears on the website of the National Postal Museum. For background about the Van Horne letter, click this PDF.


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