Letterlocking: How did you fold a letter in the early modern period and what did it mean?

First impressions are important. When I receive mail – physical items by post, that is – simply the size and shape of the envelope tells me something about the sender. A5-sized envelopes (well, C5-sized, but you know what I mean; ditto below) tend to be bills or notes from the bank, A6 and smaller are probably greeting cards and concentrate around public holidays and birthdays and the like; A4-sized envelopes are rarer, but can contain official papers as well as missives of condolences. There is cultural variation, of course, and the range of shapes and sizes of envelopes as well as their meanings vary between countries and continents.

Most people probably don’t stop to think about why we have a range of envelope shapes and sizes, although having to figure out which is appropriate for a specific purpose is probably a familiar task. Job application – A4; love-letter – a long and thin envelope, like an A5 folded lengthwise. But I’m not sure anyone today would be upset if they received mail in the “wrong” envelope – possibly puzzled, but not offended. (Having said that, it’s probably a safer bet to stick to instructions when posting job applications, though. The recipients might not take offense per se, but may well discard your application..)

envelope sizes
Some modern envelope sizes

In the early modern period, envelopes in the modern sense did not exist. Instead, letters would be folded to form their own covers. This skill was taught as a matter of course as a part of other letter-writing skills, such as learning the right opening and closing formulas, and how to write superscriptions (addresses). Jana Dambrogio has coined the term letterlocking for the practices of folding, securing and sealing letters. At this stage, we still know next to nothing about the vast field that is letterlocking. We have only begun to chart the myriad ways in which letters were folded, secured and sealed. We know very little about change over time from Antiquity to the present day, or about regional variation. And we have only vague conceptions about all the meaning that different types of letterlocking conveyed across time and space.

This is incredibly exciting: so much unexplored territory!

Research on epistolary materiality has already shown that material features can reveal social codes and meanings (see esp. James Daybell’s 2012 book-length overview). This applies not only to what letters are physically made of and how they are folded, but also to what I call textual materiality, features like layout or mise-en-page, and also more subtle aspects such as script and hand. Layout, being the most immediately visible  ..er, visual non-linguistic aspect of the text of a letter, naturally attracted the attention of scholars first, and thanks to scholars such as Jonathan Gibson (1997) the concept of significant space is now widely known.

Significant space refers to politeness and deference expressed as space on the page of a letter. Very simply put, the width of the margins, and particularly the amount of space at the top and bottom of the letter – between the salutation at the top and the main chunk of text, and between the end of the text and the signature at the bottom – can indicate deference by the writer to the recipient (cf. the image below). Scholars who have discussed significant space have looked at the letters of the elite social ranks, which abound in the minutiae of negotiating social status. In the letters of the aristocracy, how much space one left at the top of the letter could translate into fawning, respect, arrogance, or downright insult. This topic is excellently explored by Giora Sternberg (2009), who, following French scholars, calls it epistolary ceremonial.

French letter from 1598 with clear use of significant space
French letter from 1598 with clear use of significant space (TNA SP 94/6 f. 78r; photograph by author)

But to return to letterlocking.

What do we know about early modern letterlocking so far? Can we tell how recipients would have reacted to different ways in which letters were folded, secured and sealed?

Well, we have learned to recognize some of the more common types of letterlocking used in early modern England.

One of the most common varieties of letterlocking in the early modern period is usually called tuck-and-seal. This appears to be particularly frequent in personal correspondence, which makes sense as the folding requires little effort but the seal ensures security. In tuck-and-sealed letters, the letter is first folded (hiding the text) so that it forms an oblong shape, and then one end is ‘tucked’ into the other, and an adhesive – usually sealing wax – is applied over the seam and pressed with a signet seal; or then, as in the letter in the following images, the wax is placed between the layers of the tucked side, and the signet is pressed through the paper.

9 Ro Cecyll_1
Tuck-and-seal letter: Sir Robert Cecil to Sir John Peyton, 1603? (Folger X.c.439; images from Folger Luna, © CC BY-SA)

9 Ro Cecyll_2

Another, slightly more secure type of letterlocking is sometimes called slit-and-band. In this type, the letter is again folded into an oblong shape, but this is then folded over in two and the ends tied together by cutting a narrow slit through the entire end of the packet, and inserting a thin strip of paper through the slit and then securing it with sealing wax (note the short vertical slits near the edges of the paper in the following images). Instead of a band of paper, string was also commonly used to secure the packet.

Slit-and-band letter: Sir George Talbot to Bess of Hardwick, c.1575? (Folger ; images from Folger Luna, © CC BY-SA)

Talbot 1r

A third type of letterlock is usually seen as particularly intimate, and might be called (to coin a term) plait-and-floss. In this type, the letter is folded into a minute packet – possibly by plaiting (aka accordion folding) rather than folding the paper repeatedly over itself – and, as in slit-and-band, the ends of the resulting oblong are tied together, but this time using colourful floss or ribbon. The resulting packet was very small and could fit into a palm and easily be hid in a sleeve, making it perfect for passing surreptitious messages – or love letters. Heather Wolfe (2012) has explored these kinds of letters in a fascinating article.

Jane Skipwith to Lewes Bagot, 14 April c.1610 (Folger L.a.852)
Pleated letter fastened with silk floss: Jane Skipwith to Lewes Bagot, 14 April c.1610 (Folger L.a.852; images from Folger Luna, © CC BY-SA)

bagot 2

Comparison of plait-and-floss packet with modern envelope sizes: early modern folded letters could be tiny!
Comparison of plait-and-floss packet with modern envelope sizes: early modern folded letters could be tiny!

I could go on for longer, but will finish with a fourth type of letterlocking, another one which has gained a name, and has been called a blank margin lock. This type of lock is in essence a slit-and-band where the paper band is still attached to the letter it is used to secure. When such a letter is sealed with an adhesive, the resulting packet is practically impossible to open without damaging the paper (hence the long hole in the following images), and is essentially as secure as you could make a letter in the early modern period. (Secure in the sense that it cannot be opened without evidence of having been tampered with. Security in letterlocking is linked to being able to see if received letters have been opened en route; obviously any letter can be forced open.)

Blank margin lock: Simeon Fox to Sir Robert Cecil, 13 March 1602 (TNA SP 101/81 ff. 348-349; photographs by author)

SP 101.81.348v-349r

To date, the most systematic attempt to categorise types of letterlocking is being conducted by Jana Dambrogio and Daniel Starza Smith; Jana’s website lists 8 different categories (as I write this). You should also check out their Youtube channel for videos of how to fold, secure and seal these kinds of letters, and many others!

Being a member of a team of historical sociolinguists, I am by default interested in social variation. In order to see how different people locked letters in different circumstances – to try to understand early modern letterlocking practices and the meanings they carried – will require charting said practices across time and space, in order to identify any trends. Although recent years have seen large-scale digitized databases and catalogues of letters – from the commercial resource State Papers Online to the online catalogue Early Modern Letters Online – at present we lack editions, databases or catalogues which record such information.* A pioneering one can be found in Bess of Hardwick’s Letters, an online edition of the surviving correspondence of the countess Shrewsbury (compiled by Alison Wiggins et al.), which includes information about letterlocking. This is fantastic, and a great start – although the corpus is fairly small at only 234 letters, spanning 1552-1607, and with letterlocking information on 194 letters.

A recently launched project will expand the scope of our understanding of early modern letterlocking practices tenfold. The Signed, Sealed & Undelivered project is investigating a wonderful resource: a chest of some 2,600 letters from 1689-1707, being in essence the dead letter repository of a postmaster from 300 years ago. These letters come from across Western Europe from a wide range of letter-writers, and their study will allow for a fantastic synchronic overview of letterlocking practices. The most exciting thing about the project, or rather about their material, is that 600 of the undelivered letters in the chest remain sealed and unopened. Check out their wonderful website for more.

Chest of undelivered letters (image copied from brienne.org, with apologies and thanks)

For my part – since obviously I am blogging about letterlocking because it is something I work on too – I have working on the British State Papers from the early 1600s, and have started to see trends in the material. For instance, in the material I work on (mainly State Papers Foreign, Spain, c. 1600-1610), tuck-and-sealed letters are relatively uncommon, and most of the surviving letters have been sent as fairly large packets fastened at one end with a paper band or with string. This appears to carry similar meaning to other aspects of material respect mentioned above, such as significant space. That is to say, this type of letterlock appears to have been the expected form when writing in a (semi-)official capacity in early modern England – not unlike sending forms and documents in an A4-size envelope to your job centre today.

But at the moment, my findings – if you can call them that – are little more than impressionistic. As a (part-time) corpus linguist, I firmly believe in quantitative evidence, and am reluctant to identify trends unless I can see the numbers. But I mean to keep working on this and hope to publish in due course.

But let’s go back to the question I posed above: can we tell how people would have reacted to different ways in which letters they received were locked?

Next week, I will be attending the Epistolary Cultures conference at York, and a part of my paper touches on this very question. In the Cecil Papers, there survives a delightful sequence of letters between Sir Robert Cecil, Secretary of State for King James I/VI, and his teenage son William. In a letter dated 15 May [1607?] (CP 228/19), Cecil comments on his son’s developing letter-writing skills:

I haue also sent yow a peece of paper fowlded as gentlemen vse to write theire letters, where yours are lyke those that come out of a grammer schoole.

Explicit information or instructions regarding material practices of letter-writing in the early modern period are in fact quite rare. Passages revealing how contemporaries understood and interpreted said material practices are even rarer. Most of our information on letterlocking has to be reconstructed from surviving letters themselves, since passages like this one ultimately raise more questions than they answer. Having said that, I still think this is a great passage, and we can gather several points out of it:

  1. letterlocking was taught in grammar school;
  2. gentlemen folded their letters differently from what was taught in grammar school;
  3. this fact is significant enough for Cecil to want to correct his teenage son in his letterlocking practices.

But there are several things that we cannot immediately infer:

  1. how were children in grammar school taught to fold and secure their letters?
  2. how did gentlemen fold their letters?
  3. did William Cecil learn grammar-school-letterlocking in grammar school, or somewhere else? and why did he use it at all in writing to his father?
  4. and, to my mind most curiously, why did Robert Cecil enclose “a peece of paper fowlded as gentlemen vse to write theire letters” – instead of just folding the letter he says this in in the desired way??

For my answers to these questions, you’ll have to come to York next week!  ..But I hope to write this study up for publication anon. My fingers itch for a broader quantitative survey, but we also need lots of case studies in order to get at the nuances of early modern letterlocking practices.

ETA 13.3.2016:

I forgot to point to two posts about letterlocking on Collation, the wonderful Folger Shakespeare Library blog:

ETA 21.6.2016: some small corrections made to the text.


* One person who may have compiled a requisite database for a broad survey of letterlocking practices is Susan Whyman, who writes of having “systematically examined” numerous collections of letters for criteria including “paper, handwriting, spelling, outside address and title, stamps, docketing practices, franks, inside spacing and layout, margins, salutation, forms of address, closure and signature”, etc (Whyman 1999: 3). Whether she has charted letterlocking as well is uncertain; as is if this information will ever be made publicly available.


Daybell, James. 2012. The Material Letter in Early Modern England. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gibson, Jonathan. 1997. “Significant space in manuscript letters.” The Seventeenth Century 12(1): 1–9.

Sternberg, Giora. 2009. “Epistolary ceremonial: Corresponding status at the time of Louis XIV”. Past & Present 204: 33-88.

Whyman, Susan. 1999. ” ‘Paper visits’: The post-Restoration letter as seen through the Verney archive”. In Rebecca Earle (ed.), Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter Writers 1600-1945. Aldershot: Ashgate Press, 15-36.

Wolfe, Heather. 2012. ” ‘Neatly sealed, with silk, and Spanish wax or otherwise’. The practice of letter-locking with silk floss in early modern England”. In S. P. Cerasano & Steven W. May (eds.), In the Prayse of Writing: Early Modern Manuscript Studies. Essays in Honour of Peter Beal. London: The British Library, 169-189.

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