My passion for paper and writing accoutrements manifested early in my life, probably set off by a penmanship award (a true accomplishment for a lefty), which I received at the impressionable age of eight. The prize was a blue and silver PaperMate refillable pen, with the trademarked little hearts on the clip — and so began my love affair with the mystical experience of handwritten language.

Unfortunately, this initial triumph was not a guarantee of unqualified success as a scribe. My teenaged attempts to teach myself the fine art of calligraphy were fraught with inky frustration. However, to this day, stepping into a stationery store is a thrill like no other: the scent of endless possibility lures me through the aisles, past the crisp thoughts concealed in the neatly stacked paper and the saturated inks swirling with emotion.

Over the years I have amassed assorted writing paraphernalia. I have collections of letter-openers, antique postcards, and paperweights. I make my own cards, which necessitates assorted inks, pens, and what might be described by the unenlightened as a horde of paper. I’ve even taken a few bookbinding classes, which produced notebooks so pretty I can’t bear to write in them.

All of this documentary confession is to introduce you to an extended exposition of papery snippets. My next few columns will examine several related historical aspects of language and paper craft. Written language allows us to bridge time and space, and what better way to begin this examination than to start with letters? 

Back in March 2016, I wrote about a treasure chest of 17th-century letters in a Dutch museum. Known as the Brienne Collection, they include 2600 locked letters — missives that had been intricately folded and sealed so that any tampering would be detectable. (The envelopes we are familiar with were not invented until the 1830s.) Of these antique letters, 577 have never been opened. Preserving the letters with their seals intact is important, because even their seals and patterns of folds hold information.

An online exhibit about these letters is loaded with interesting details about the collection, and the research that has been conducted to unlock the letters’ secrets. This five-second video shows a computer digitally unfolding a sealed letter. Of course, this is a hugely complicated feat, as a whole new mathematical method had to be developed to piece together all the digital scans of the letter; the science is explained here.

You can learn more about letter-locking and how to do it yourself. A group of enthusiasts produced several YouTube videos early in the pandemic encouraging people to be creative and mail cheerful messages. They have many more videos on their channel showing complicated letter locks of several historical types; examples include replicas of letters sent by various royalty, such as Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, and Marie Antoinette. You will even find replicas of documents from the Harry Potter films, illustrating a modern use of this old technique. They have also studied and replicated the oldest English valentine, dating from 1477!

If reading old love letters appeals to you, the British National Archives produced a virtual exhibit this year about the various written expressions of love they hold in their collections. A short video serves as an introduction and further detail is provided on separate webpages. Examples include Catherine Howard’s letter to her lover (which resulted in her execution by her husband Henry VIII), and the formal document of Edward VIII’s abdication (which allowed him to marry Wallis Simpson).

Lately, we have come to appreciate human contact more than ever. In addition to digital communication and virtual meetings, there is a more tangible way to connect with others. The time is ripe for the old-fashioned letter to experience a renaissance. Now if I could only decide which lock to use for my next letter …

This article was originally printed in THE BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.

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