Oh, For the Love of Letters! Collecting Personal Handwritten Correspondence (16-21st Centuries)

This is the text I wrote for the 2008 A. Dean Larsen Book Collecting Conference booklet.  To see the complete booklet go to  2008 booklet.To read about the 2009 conference see ADL Conference.

The Motto of this seminar is Littera Scripta Manet, Latin for “The Written Word Remains,” taken from the motto of the Worshipful Company of Scriveners (scribes) of the City of London. This hands-on seminar is a primer for collecting and caring for personal correspondence.

Prior to telegraphs, telephones, computers and the World Wide Web, the hand or typewritten letter was the best means available for communicating with both semi-local and distant parties.  The act of letter writing could involve a dinner napkin and pencil stub, or the selection of stationery (fine papers, envelopes, etc.), writing tools (quills, fountain pens, ballpoint pens, typewriters, pencils and brushes) and postage (postmarks, seals or adhesive stamps).  In this seminar, we will examine a plethora of personal correspondence across three centuries, including the letters to and from kings and magistrates, famous Europeans, Englishmen and Americans (some literati, some glitterati), everyday folk, forgers and scalawags, frontiersmen and pioneers, Mormon missionaries and LDS Church leaders. The seminar will offer the tools, websites, and insights needed to collect, acquire, store, and enjoy these wonderful artifacts.

There is a second purpose for this seminar.  Today with our love of emailing and blogging, the U.S Postal Service has largely become the province of bills, catalogs, and advertisements; with handwritten letters, written and received, becoming something of an anomaly.  This seminar hopes to launch a counter attack by inciting or rekindling the letter writer in you.  Before I start the seminar, allow me to mention where to begin in writing your personal correspondence.

Recommended Stationers:

Selected Examples to be shown from the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library:

Note: The list below is only a portion of what will be shown in the seminar. Correspondence to be shown but not listed below includes letters from Brigham Young, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker (naturalist and Antarctic explorer), Florence Nightingale, John Ruskin, Anthony Trollope, Queen Victoria, Diana Princess of Wales, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Robert Eric Anthony Evans (a deceased personal friend) and Eva Louise Tucker Kauffman (my grandmother)

Philip II, King of Spain (b. 1527-1598); Letters 1591-1597 (MSS 504) This letter is from a collection of letters held by Special Collections documenting Spain’s naval wars against England (Anglo-Spanish War 1585 – 1604). The king writes of his concern about books found on board a ship taken by Spanish privateers. Phillip orders that the cache of books be taken to Spain, to be turned over to the Inquisition for their inspection. The Inquisition was an ecclesiastical tribunal or institution of the Roman Catholic Church, established to combat or suppress heresy.

Autograph Letter, signed; Hyrum Smith to Hannah Grinnel, 16 March 1839, one leaf with writing recto and verso. Located in the Joseph Smith Sr., Family and Hyrum Smith Papers (Eldred G. Smith donation)  One of four known letters wrote by Hyrum Smith from Liberty Jail (Liberty, MO.) during his and his brother, Joseph Smith’s incarceration. The prisoners were held in dank unheated basement jail for most of the winter of 1839. This letter is a personal note to Grinnel, thanking her for caring for his children in his long absence. The second half of the letter includes Smith’s counsel to each of his children.

Counterfeit letters (autograph letters, signed); Mark Hofmann; Joseph Smith to Josiah Stole; 15 June 1825 and Peter and David Whitmer to Bithel Todd; 12 August 1828. Mss. 1571, Box 5, fd. 15-19 (Mark Hofmann Case Collection, 1985-1989, by David J. Whittaker)

Autograph Letter, Signed; A.P. Whitmer (Union Solider) to John Whitmer, October 4, 1864, 1 leave, 3 pages; Mss. 1224.

Copybook letter, N.G. Larsen (superintendent) to the proprietors, Windsor Hotel (Denver,CO), June 5 1884; Provo Cooperative Association Letterpresscopybook, 1883-1885; Mss 1220. The letter offers bulk quantities of trout from Utah Lake, presumably caught in nets. The fishing stock would have included Bonneville cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki Utah — a survivor of ancient Lake Bonneville), subspecies later eliminated from the lake. The railroad came to Provo in 1879, opening Provo to trade beyond Utah. Perishable foods, such as fish, were transported in railroad ice cars and could be shipped to a destination such as Denver in less than 24 hours. Alas, by the 1900, the lake once brimming with freshwater trout had been largely fished-out.

Autographed Letter, signed; Emmeline B. Wells, Secretary, National Women’s Relief Society to Mary A. White, President, Beaver County Women’s Suffrage Association; January 14, 1895; 2 leaves, three pages, Mss SC 48, fd. 2.

Letter and tintype photograph; Judge John S. Hough to Edwin L. Sabin, September 13, 1910, regarding the writer’s association with Kit Carson (1809- 1868); 1 leaf on letterhead + tintype of Carson and his son, under glass and copper matting (n.d.); Mss. SC 1072 and Mss P222. BYU has the good fortune of possessing some wonderful research collections created by amateur and hobbyist historians, who documented the American West prior before World War I. Sabin was one such historian, who wrote on Western personalities, including Kit Carson. Sabin’s research into Carson became Kit Carson Days (1914). The tintype was sent by a Judge Hough, in response to Sabin’s questions regarding Carson. The photo sent by Hough is one of the earliest known photos of the mountain man, expedition guide and Indian friend. See also collections under the names Fred Rosenstock, Robert S. Ellison, Earl Alonzo Brininstool and Charles Kuhlman.

Boutwell, John (b. 1874, U.S. Geographical Survey employee, mining engineer and entrepreneur) Papers (Mss. 1647, Box 46 preliminary order; correspondence 1890s to 1910s); Mss 1647, Box 46, 1890s to 1910 folders. This gathering shows the variety of correspondence, typical for middle-class, profession and educated men and women during the latter quarter of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. Items selected include printed wedding announcements, personal calling cards, social and professional stationery/ correspondence, telegrams, railroad and hotel guest’s stationery/ correspondence, postcards and holiday greeting cards.

Autograph Letters, Signed; Johnson, Rolla V. (b. 1889) to Lozella “Zella” Kirby Johnson (b. 1897), 1915-1917, Mss. 3273/ Two or three of 51 letters written by Rolla to his young wife Zella (who was caring for their infant child) while Rolla served two plus years as a LDS Church missionary in the Northern States Mission. The letters document the encouragement and hopefulness, along with angst and insecurities encountered by a young married couple during an extended period of separation.

Typed Letter, Signed (on letterhead); Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) to John Arthur Taylor, 2 leaves, ca. 1960s, in progress without a call number A personal and newsy letter sent in reply to an admirer, who wrote to the artist about specific works of Parrish’s. The recipient is a current member of the Friends of the Lee Library Board.

A Beginners Basic Glossary Related to Letters, Correspondence, Stationery, etc.

This glossary was constructed using the following sources:

(1) Bookpoi: A Guide for Identifying Rare and First Edition Books: http://www.bookpoi. com/glossary_of_book_terms.html

(2) Houstonbooks.com: http://www.houstonbooks.com/glossary/

(3) International Paper Knowledge Center: http://glossary.ippaper.com/default.asp?req=glossary/

(4) Bookbinding and the Conservation of Books: a Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology: http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/don/toc/toc1.html

(5) Free Dictionary by Farlex http://www.thefreedictionary.com/

See also The Manuscript Society’s criteria for describing manuscripts and documents at: http://www.manuscript.org/criteria.html.

General Terms/Concepts:

  • Philography — The hobby of collecting autographs.
  • Stationery — writing materials — paper, pens, pencils, and envelopes.
  • Stationery wardrobe – a complete complement of stationary (calling card, monogrammed note cards and envelopes, party or social event invitations, letterhead paper and envelopes, etc., may also include writing utensils, pre 1950s men and women had different wardrobes).
  • Stationery Specs or Specifications — a complete description of the features of a product or stationery, such as type size and style, ink colors, paper type, quantity to be produced, and other special features.

Descriptive Terms:

  • Autographed – Handwritten, typically by the author (as opposed to typed, or a copy from a printer, a press or a signature machine).  It does not mean signed
    by the author, unless the description specifically indicated this.  For further description see: http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/autograph
  • Autographed Letter (AL) — A handwritten letter.
  • Autographed Letter, Signed (ALS; also signed, autographed letter) — Autograph letter signed, letter handwritten by the person signing the letter as opposed to LS, which is a manuscript letter written by someone other than the signer.
  • Chain of Custody — Refers to sequence of owners of a document, rare book, collection, artifact, etc., demonstrated by the physical evidence, defensible testimony and associated documentation that proves a sequence of sales, transfers, and custody.
  • Holographic — Hand written, not printed, usually produced by the author of the work.
  • Inscribed Photograph Signed (IPS)– holographic writing on a photograph with a signature included.
  • Laid In – A letter or other sheet(s) inserted but not glued or sewn into a book.
  • Leaf (leaves) — The single sheet of paper, consisting of two pages, one page being on the front or recto of the leaf, the other page being on the back or
    verso of the leaf.
  • Letter signed (LS) — A letter written by another, usually a secretary, but signed by the correspondent, as opposed to an ALS which is a letter written entirely in the hand of the correspondent.
  • Manuscript (ms, Ms or Mss) — The original text of an author’s work, handwritten or typed. It is also an unpublished primary source usually housed in a library, archives or museum. Also refers to a book or document written before the invention of printing. The term manuscript encompasses a broad array of documents and records of numerous formats and types.
  • No Date (n.d. or nd) — no date is on the top or in the body of the document.
  • Ephemera – From the Greek work “ephemeron,” meaning something that is fragile, not made to last, something that will disappear quickly.  Examples are – manifestos, broadsides, programs, magazines, paper toys, menus, tickets, playbills, etc.; often included with correspondence or in a portfolio of letters.
  • Portfolio — A portable case used to protect loose papers, plates, pamphlets, and the like.  It usually consists of two boards with a wide cloth or paper joint forming the “spine.”
  • Provenance– The creator or collector’s source or order of a particular group of manuscripts (leafs, folder, boxes, etc.).  It is usually associated with the person(s) or organization responsible for creating, assembling, or altering a collection prior to its being placed in an institution.
  • Recto — the front of a leaf (opposed to Verso).
  • Signed – Bearing the holographic name of, unless otherwise stated, the author.
  • Typed Letter (TL) — A letter written digitally via a mechanical or electronic machine that stamped a series of individual type on paper; invented circa 1870s, pervasively used in business and organizational correspondence after the 1890s.
  • Typed Letter, Signed (TLS/TLs/tls) — Typed letter signed, as opposed to ALS, a handwritten letter signed by the writer.
  • Typescript (TS or ts) — A typewritten copy of a work. It may be the author’s original copy, a typewritten copy of the manuscript, or a typewritten copy
    done by a professional typist.
  • Verso — The back page of a leaf, the opposite of the front or recto page of a leaf.

Descriptive Terms Related to Condition:

  • Browned — The severe discoloration of paper by poor storage and age.
  • Foxing — A pattern of spotting or speckling on paper, usually brown or yellowish in tone and often more or less circular in shape. Its cause is not fully understood, but generally it is believed to be a slow process caused by microorganisms, enabled by impurities in the paper and damp or warm storage conditions that are damp and warm enough to facilitate the process.
  • Water stain — Stain on leaves caused by water or other liquid; may cause discoloration and sometimes shrinking.

Terms Related to Printing, Illustrations and Writing:

  • Calligraphy — Fancy penmanship used in inscriptions, diplomas, manuscripts, legal documents, etc.
  • Engravings – -An illustration or decoration printed from a metal plate or wood block.
  • Engraved Stationery (also called “hand engraved”) — stationery with finely detailed, raised letters with slight indentation on the reverse side of the paper. A printing method using a plate, also called a die, with an image cut into its surface.  The plate or die is a hardened metal engraving stamp used to print an inked image. A printer may reserve a client’s engraved plates for restocking stationery.
  • Embosser — The device (usually hand-operated but sometimes operated by air pressure) used for raising letters or a design on the surface of paper, usually for purposes of establishing ownership.
  • Embossing –The process of raising a surface pattern on paper by means of engraved cylinders or plates, generally employing both heat and pressure.
  • Intaglio — An illustration transferred to the paper from grooves incised into metal printing plates.
  • Letterhead — a printed heading on stationery, offering the name and address of a organization or business concern (the masthead or the top section of a letter, often with the logo and the names of the principals of an organization).
  • Pictorial letterheads — a printed letterhead with a graphic or pictorial illustration, generally at the top of the sheet.
  • Letterpress — The process of printing from letters or individual type in relief, rather than from intaglio plates or planographically (lithography).
  • Lithograph or lithographic– an illustration transferred from stone plates, zinc plates, or various other plate material [litho=stone, graph=image].
  • Scribe — Someone well read, an exceptional writer, knowledgeable in grammar and writing conventions, who performs secretarial and administrative duties, e.g., taking dictation, editing dictation, copying documents and maintaining, indexing and caring for records.  A scribe maybe be somewhat likes a ghost writer, also a notary public, confidant, or counselor to the wealthy and powerful.
  • Stamping — An impressed mark, decoration, or lettering, not colored or gilded, usually appearing at the top of stationery.
  • Woodcut — Printing method by a matrix where the “raised” part of the matrix only is inked and in turn pressed against the paper or fabric to transfer the inked image. Relief printing methods include letterpress, woodcut, wood engraving, linoleum cut, etc.

Terms Related to Paper and Stationery:

  • Deckle — A deckled edge is the rough and irregular edge of paper that has not been cut.
  • Device — Refers to a paper-maker or printer’s mark or imprint seen in paper, such as a laid or web pattern. It can also refer to letters or figures, or other “device,” worked in the wires of the surface (mold) or into the roll (machine made paper). Today the term can be used to describe a publisher’s trademark or logo; also known as “printer’s mark” or “colophon.”
  • Envelope Lining Paper — Tissue paper used to line the inside of matching stationery envelopes. Used for decorative purposes. India Paper– An extremely thin, yet relatively opaque paper.
  • Monograph (monogrammed) Stationary – traditionally three letters printed, stamped or embossed on stationery to signifying the first, middle, and last name of the owner.
  • Laid Paper — A paper which shows thick and thin lines at right angles to each other, produced by the weave of a machine-made paper or, in the manufacture of handmade paper, by the mold.
  • Mold — The rectangular wooden frame over which the brass wires or a wire cloth is stretched and through which water drains away from the pulp fibers in the formation of a sheet of handmade paper.
  • Rag Paper — Paper that contains cotton rag fibers. Generally used for high quality stationery.
  • Rule — A continuous line, thick or thin, that is used in decorative printing or on three-ring binder student paper.
  • Watermark – A translucent and distinguishing letters, symbol, or design incorporated into a sheet of paper during its manufacturing. A true watermark is a contained alteration of the paper, made while the paper is still wet. The marks can be seen in the finished sheet of paper when viewed by transmitted light.
  • Wove paper – A paper that has something of a cloth-like appearance that has been made on a fine-mesh mold which, when held to the light, shows no marks or lines.  It has been the typical paper used in bookbinding since the early 19th century. The effect is produced in machine-made papers by the weave of the dandy roll and in handmade papers by the wires of the mold.
  • Vellum — Paper that has a vellum finish (smooth, creamy finish), that is relatively absorbent, making a good printing surface.  Originally, vellum was produced from the skin of a newborn calf or kid and regarded as a higher quality skin than parchment which might come from any number of animals.

Professional Organizations (for the trade and the collector):

See the code of ethic sections to understand standards and expectations.

  1. Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA): http://www.abaa.org/books/ abaa/index.html
  2. Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA): http://www.aba.org.uk/
  3. International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB): http://www.ilab-lila.com/
  4. Professional Autograph Dealers Association (PADA). http://www.padaweb.org/
  5. The Manuscript Society: http://www.manuscript.org/ The society was established in 1948 as the National Society of Autograph Collectors.

Recommended Conservation Action:

Notes: Do not over do, or over use, archival materials, as the cost may not justify the returns, especially with contemporary materials. Also, the most important action you can take for long-term preservation of paper materials are (in sequential value):

  1. Eliminate or lessen fluctuating temperature and humidity. Do not place materials in storage units, attics, basements, sheds, near exterior walls, heating vents, etc. Keep materials as close and as constant as possible to 50-65 degrees and humidity 30 to 50% (this is not necessarily institutional standards); at the very least place these materials where temperature and humidity are as constant as possible, such as an interior closet.
  2. Eliminate or lessen light levels (natural or artificial). Keep materials in the dark. Do not frame and display original materials; instead display facsimiles (that are clearly marked as such).
  3. Store materials as far away as possible from any water sources, such as above or below pipes (in associated drawers or cupboards) or in areas below bathrooms or kitchens.
  4. Keep materials flat or upright, held up erect, so the materials will not bend or fold.
  5. Above all else, “do not harm” for the cause of history or preservation. Do not automatically remove, separate, or break apart highly integral or associated materials (photos from papers or letters, highly from less acidic materials, or redistribute materials in a more “logical” order, etc.) because you believe the current arrangement may harm historical materials; instead use interleaving papers to separate or place unstable materials in archival or Mylar folders, while keeping the original or previous order of the materials. Protect the sinuous and web-like associations of historical evidence, no matter how seemingly remote they are.  Consult your local professional archivist, curator, or conservator for more advice beyond this oversimplified recommendation.
  6. If you want to scrapbook materials, use only copies/facsimiles of historical materials; go back and read 1-5.

Recommended Supplies:

  • Mylar folders
  • Archival folders and containers
  • Presentation folders
  • Portfolios, binders, and scrapbooks

Recommended Suppliers of Archival Containers and Supplies:

Recommended Readings:

  1. Autograph Collector Magazine (Santa Ana, CA). Autograph Media Publication http://www.autographcollector.com/acm.htm
  2. Manuscripts (New York, N.Y.) The Manuscript Society’s Quarterly (BYU library has the serial with stops and starts up to 2008, 1980 to present, indexed) Call Number: Z 41 .A2 A925 1 Non-circulating Special Collections Reference
  3. Carter, John. ABC for Book Collectors (New Castle, DE, Oak Knoll Books, 1992). 6th ed. A classic in the field.
  4. Peters, Jean, ed., The Bookman’s Glossary (Ann Arbor MI: R. R. Bowker Company, 1975).
  5. Rendell, Kenneth W. History Comes to Life: Collecting Historical Letters and Document. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995). Also Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters and Documents (same publisher, 1994)
  6. Berkeley, Edmund, ed., Autographs and Manuscripts: a Collector’s Manual, in association with the Manuscript Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, ca. 1978).
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4 responses to “Oh, For the Love of Letters! Collecting Personal Handwritten Correspondence (16-21st Centuries)

  1. Thank you for the various references and particularly for directions to the Larsen conference booklets. The booklets were a bit slow to load and well worth it. Readers who haven’t clicked through will likely enjoy the trip. I will pass all of this along to those who drop by my site.

    • Mr. Elvin: Thank you for your kind comments about the blog entry “Oh, For the Love of Letters” and for your interest in the ADL Book Collecting Conference. Late last night I began reading your blog Literary Fraud & Folly (http://litfraud.blogspot.com) and expect to dive in even deeper this morning. As a rare book and manuscript librarian who has worked with a number of forgeries, your subject is of constant interest to me.

  2. Dear Brad — Thank you for mentioning our store! I appreciate it. And I found this very interesting. Best, Jonathan Arnold, General Manager, Dempsey & Carroll

  3. Mr. Westwood:
    The work of some forgers throughout history is now sought in its own right and I wondered if you know of an instance where someone has purposely forged a forger’s work. The market being, for instance, a collector who wants a “Hofmann” regardless of content. Thanks for any thoughts on the matter, thanks for mentioning my site, and good luck in your endeavors, cordially, WJE

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