The Art of Letterlocking: The Elaborate Folding Techniques That Ensured the Privacy of Handwritten Letters Centuries Ago

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 Eng­landItaly, Amer­i­caEast 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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lewis Carroll’s 8 Still-Rel­e­vant Rules For Let­ter-Writ­ing

6,000 Let­ters by Mar­cel Proust to Be Dig­i­tized & Put Online

Jane Austen Writes a Let­ter to Her Sis­ter While Hung Over: “I Believe I Drank Too Much Wine Last Night”

How to Jump­start Your Cre­ative Process with William S. Bur­roughs’ Cut-Up Tech­nique

How the Mys­ter­ies of the Vat­i­can Secret Archives Are Being Revealed by Arti­fi­cial Intel­li­gence

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.

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