Occasionally and with diminishing frequency, we still lament the lost art of letter-writing, mostly because of the degradation of the prose style we use to communicate with one another. But writing letters, in its long heyday, involved much more than putting words on paper: there were choices to be made about the pen, the ink, the stamp, the envelope, and before the envelope, the letterlocking technique. Though recently coined, the term letterlocking describes an old and varied practice, that of using one or several of a suite of physical methods to ensure that nobody reads your letter but its intended recipient — and if someone else does read it, to show that they have.
“To seal a modern-day envelope (on the off chance you’re sealing an envelope at all), it takes a lick or two, at most,” writes Atlas Obscura’s Abigail Cain. Not so for the likes of Mary Queen of Scots or Machiavelli: “In those days, letters were folded in such a way that they served as their own envelope. Depending on your desired level of security, you might opt for the simple, triangular fold and tuck; if you were particularly ambitious, you might attempt the dagger-trap, a heavily booby-trapped technique disguised as another, less secure, type of lock.”
Beginning with “the spread of flexible, foldable paper in the 13th century” and ending around “the invention of the mass-produced envelope in the 19th century,” letterlocking “fits into a 10,000-year history of document security — one that begins with clay tablets in Mesopotamia and extends all the way to today’s passwords and two-step authentication.”
We know about letterlocking today thanks in large part to the efforts of Jana Dambrogio, Thomas F. Peterson Conservator at MIT Libraries. According to MIT News‘ Heather Denny, Dambrogio first got into letterlocking (and far enough into it to come up with that term herself) “as a fellow at the Vatican Secret Archives,” previously featured here on Open Culture. “In the Vatican’s collection she discovered paper letters from the 15th and 16th centuries with unusual slits and sliced-off corners. Curious if the marks were part of the original letter, she discovered that they were indications the letters had originally been locked with a slice of paper stabbed through a slit, and closed with a wax seal.”
She and her collaborator Daniel Starza Smith have spent years trying to reconstruct the many variations on that basic method used by letter-writers of old, and you can see one of them, which Mary Queen of Scots used to lock her final letter before her execution, in the video at the top of the post.
Though we in the age of round-the-world, round-the-clock instant messaging — an age when even e-mail feels increasingly quaint — may find this impressively elaborate, we won’t have even begun to grasp the sheer variety of letterlocking experience until we explore the letterlocking Youtube channel. Its videos include demonstrations of techniques historically used in England, Italy, America, East Asia, and elsewhere, some of them practiced by notables both real and imagined. Tempting though it is to imagine a direct digital-security equivalent of all this today, humanity seems to have changed since the era of letterlocking: as the aphorist Aaron Haspel put it, “We can have privacy or we can have convenience, and we choose convenience, every time.”
via Atlas Obscura
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.