Tag Archives: letterlocking

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

The following text was originally posted by Sam on: Copious but not Compendious

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. […]

(to continue reading, click here to see the original post)

CA: Epistolary cultures (18-19 March 2016, York)

Title of conference: Epistolary cultures – letters and letter-writing in early modern Europe
Organisers: Dr Freya Sierhuis (freya.sierhuis@york.ac.uk); Dr Kevin Killeen (kevin.killeen@york.ac.uk)
Date: 18. – 19. 03. 2016
Location: The Tree House, Berrick Saul Building

Description: From the place of Cicero’s intimate letters in the development of Renaissance humanism, to the knowledge networks of merchants, collectors and scientists, to the role of women in the republic of letters, recent years have seen a flowering of studies on the practice of letter-writing in Early Modern Europe, as well as major editing projects of early modern letters – Hartlib, Comenius, Scaliger, Casaubon, Browne, Greville, and the EMLO and Cultures of Knowledge projects. This conference will explore the many aspects of early modern epistolary culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in its Latin and vernacular forms. It will consider topics such as the intellectual geographies of letter-writing, the connections between vernacular and Latin letter cultures, questions of genre, rhetoric and style, as well as the political, religious, and scientific uses of letters.

This conference brings together speakers, both established and emergent, from around the globe, who are working on early modern letter writing and its networks, whether professional, for personal and intimate communication, or within scientific and humanist cultures. Strands of the conference will explore the material forms of writing, letter writing theory, and the importance and use of existing collections. Speakers come from a multitude of disciplines and one key goal of the conference will be consider how these disparate areas respond to early modern letter writing theory and practice.

The conference includes a workshop, which involves hands-on reconstruction of early modern letter writing devices for ‘letter-locking’ using paper, wax and seals, led by a team from MIT and Oxford.


This information was originally published on the website of the Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies, University of York (CREMS); a conference programme and further information can be found there.

Jana Dambrogio on ‘Letterlocking: the art and security of letter writing’ (guest post)

What is ‘letterlocking’?
Letterlocking refers to the process by which a substrate has been folded and secured shut to function as its own envelope. Letterlocking is part of a 10,000 year-old information security tradition, ranging from Mesopotamian clay bullae to internet Bitcoin. Locked paper documents have been used in cultures throughout the world since the late Middle Ages by regents, their secretaries, spymasters, soldiers, and the general public. Oftentimes the same person used more than one letterlocking format, some more secure than others. Why? Documenting the physical evidence – the tiny slits, folds, and cut-off corners – of well-preserved ‘opened’ original manuscripts helps to define their different ‘closed’ locking formats. Collaboration with experts in allied professions helps to figure out the significance of letters as artifacts in a specific moment in history.

A note on Jana Dambrogio
Jana Dambrogio is the Thomas F. Peterson (1957) Conservator for Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. Her work with Dr Daniel Starza Smith of Lincoln College, Oxford, on John Donne’s letterlocking techniques brought her to Oxford for Smith and Dambrogio’s participation in the international symposium ‘What is a letter? An interdisciplinary approach’ in Oxford this past July.

Workshops on letterlocking and further information
Jana lectures and teaches workshops internationally on her process of making models to understand the physical nuances of historic letters and archival bindings and discusses how conservators preserve their function and format for access and interpretation. Workshop participants have a hand at ‘un-locking’  and securing shut models of several types of locked letters with varying levels of built-in security devices based on historic examples. Resources are available on a letterlocking website and a YouTube channel which feature a growing reference collection of documents and bindings in motion.

PS from MI Matthews-Schlinzig: There is another great blog post on this topic, ‘Let’s make a model’, which was co-written by Dr Heather Wolfe (Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library) and Jana Dambrogio.


The photos in this post were all taken at the letterlocking workshop Jana Dambrogio and Dr Daniel Starza Smith gave at the symposium ‘What is a letter? An interdisciplinary approach’.