Letter Writing in Jane Austen’s Time

Adapted by Anne Flinders, dramaturg, from Vic Sanborn

Much of the communication between characters in Pride and Prejudice happens in letters. In fact, it is suspected by some scholars that First Impressions, Jane Austen’s first draft of Pride and  Prejudice, was an epistolary novel. Here are some interesting facts about how letters were written and sent in Georgian England.

  • Until the rise of the fountain pen in the mid-1800s, writing implements included the quill pen, an inkstand filled with ink, pen knife, and sometimes a writing box.
  • Quill pens, most commonly obtained from the wing feathers of a goose, had to be sharpened often with a pen knife. The average quill pen lasted for only a week before it was discarded.

    Quill pen in an inkwell with sealing wax and a parchment letter.

    Quill pen in an inkwell with sealing wax and a parchment letter.

  • Creating quill pens was an art, since the nib had to be carefully cut with a knife so that the hollow core would hold just the right amount of ink and release it steadily under pressure.
  • Writers dried wet ink by sprinkling grains of sand over the words. In the 19th century, roller blotters made their appearance.
  •  If the writer wrote for any length of time, fingers on the writing hand would often become ink stained.
  • Letters were written on sheet of paper that was folded and sealed. The recipient of the letter had to pay for the delivery.

    A cross-written letter, circa 1800.

    A cross-written letter, circa 1800.

  • The fee to send a letter was based on the size of a letter and the distance it traveled. Therefore, the fewer pages used, the less expensive the cost.
  • To keep the letter affordable, people wrote in a cross letter style (as shown above).
  • Envelopes were not used. They would have added an additional sheet of paper and cost more for the recipient.

    Addressed letter with wax seal, 1830.

    Addressed letter with wax seal, 1830.

  • A sender would seal the letter with a custom wax seal stamp, which in some instances bore the family crest or the sender’s initials.
  • The address on the outside directed the bearer of the letter to the city or town, street, and the name of the receiver.
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