43rd Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, May 16, “Unlocking the Secrets of Letterlocking to Reseal the Letters of John Donne and Other Early Modern Letter Writers", Jana Dambrogio

Jana Dambrogio, Thomas F. Peterson Conservator, MIT Libraries, presented the first of three sections in this talk – an introduction to the work she and others have been doing to discover letterlocking.
As letterlocking models were handed out to the audience, Jana began by defining letterlocking as “the folding and securing of any object so that it becomes its own sending device”. This is a 10,000 year tradition, Jana said, dating all the way from Mesopotamian clay tablets to Bitcoin.
Examples of letterlocking Jana showed included the letters of Tomaso di Livrieri at the Vatican secret archive and the letters of Queen Elizabeth I. Queen Elizabeth used more than ten techniques in her letters, often with two techniques per letter.
Jana described how letters of this type have traditionally been viewed simply as two-dimensional objects. But as a result of this research conservators and scholars are beginning to look at them as 2D/3D hybrids, and they must be treated accordingly.
Jana and her colleagues have been constructing models of the locking techniques based on evidence in the original letters. Jana believes that making models of letterlocking techniques is helpful because they are both a learning tool and a teaching tool for discovering and sharing the patterns.
If the goal in conserving these letters is to preserve their past function conservators are faced with the decision of what to repair and what not to repair, and the question of how to preserve the evidence.
During her talk Jana highlighted recent collaboration such as with Nadine Akkerman of Leiden University in The Hague, with Daniel Starza Smith of The University of Oxford, and with Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library.  See links to various demo videos, blogs and publications that have resulted from these collaborations at the end of this post.
Daniel Starza Smith spoke about applying letterlocking to literary history.
Normally scholars look only at the text they can see in letters. But now they are learning to look for folds, seals, and intentional damage – the damage that occurs as a result of opening a letter. These days Daniel asks himself ‘what other messages are there than just who the letter is from and to?’
He took us through some basic background on the development of the writing and sending of letters, from a manual for letter-writing, The English Secretary published in 1586 by scholar Angel Day, to the relatively modern invention of the commercially-produced paper envelope in the mid-19th century.
Daniel noted that the word “secretary” itself comes from the idea of secret keeping. A secretary is one entrusted with secrets, and literary scholars such as Daniel are occupied with revealing secrets and unpacking texts – now in a physical sense.
Delving into the letters of John Donne, Daniel revealed that Donne would use as many as four techniques in locking his letters. Why would you need four ways of locking? For various different purposes, including security and aesthetics. In fact there was even a class difference in the way letters were folded; your folding technique said something about you as a person. Some methods were simple and some were complicated – even “fantastically difficult” – and this reflected on your own sophistication and status.
Daniel concluded his talk with the following three main take-aways:

  1. Tiny bits of evidence are key in deciphering the folding/locking patterns, and these details are revealing about the history of communication.
  2. This research has the potential to reach further than just scholars
  3. The collection of Donne letters – from which much of this research has stemmed – numbers only thirty-eight. More data is needed, and this starts with conservators.

At the beginning of her portion of the talk Heather Wolfe emphasized three points that have come to light during this project.

  1. The importance of a three-way dialogue between curators, conservators, and scholars.
  2. This dialogue leads to discoveries, and informs decision making in conservation when considering whether or not to treat
  3. The need to standardize letterlocking vocabulary, referring to physical details. This is especially important in treatment documentation, and also for catalog searching.

In what Heather described as the “pre-envelope era” a letter was a single leaf that was transformed into a packet. Tearing was required in order to open the letter, and this is the damage we can see today that aids in reconstructing the locking patterns.
Communication with Jana was informative for interpretation of the collection at the Folger – Heather noted that the type of evidence in question tends to me more visible to conservators. For example, Heather no longer refers to the area bearing the address as the “address leaf” of the letter, but rather the address panel of the original packet. Heather went so far as to say that physical evidence such as the folds and intentional damage contains information critical to the interpretation of the letter itself.
She reiterated Jana’s remark that it is very difficult to imagine the folding and locking patterns without practice, and this is the reason they decided to make models.
In letters from the 16th-17th centuries there is evidence of hundreds of riffs on just a handful of basic techniques, such as the pleated letter genre, and the papered seal genre in which a strip is harvested from the letter itself to use as the locking mechanism. The many riffs tend to be associated with specific people.
Finally Heather took us on a whirlwind tour of these various letterlocking genres, but particularly highlighted the technique of binding a pleated letter with silk floss, first used by Queen Elizabeth I. Heather pointed out that while many letters would have been written in the hand of a secretary taking dictation, the nature of this technique suggests more intimacy. Letters of this type were usually written in the hand of the person composing the letter on high quality thin Italian paper.
Question and answer
Q: Have you seen any evidence of postal censors opening letters?
Heather said that she had not seen this specifically. But in the same vein she noted that a distinctive triangular-shaped 20th century Russian letter from the WWII front that was invented due to adhesive being forbidden.
Daniel pointed out that in the early modern period, people would sometimes employ a seal forger, in order to open and re-seal letters; he has seen some examples of this.
Q: Are you presenting these findings to archivists (specifically for the purpose of standardizing vocabulary? Where will you be publishing the vocabulary?
Heather said that the vocabulary is still in development, but that there are currently a lot of resources online, such as the MIT TechTV videos, the youtube letterlocking channel, and blogs. Heather has written in a recent British Library publication on pleated letters, and Jana has a forthcoming article.
Demo videos
Check out the video demos of letterlocking, hosted by MIT TechTV.
Blog posts etc:
A post by Heather and Jana at the Folger
Jana’s letterlocking website
Jana Dambrogio guest post on whatisaletter.wordpress.com
‘Neatly sealed, with silk, and Spanish wax or otherwise’, a chapter by Heather Wolfe in the British Library’s In the Prayse of Writing