Materials and Tools of Letter-Writing

  • James Daybell
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


The task of writing in early modern England was a rather laborious one — far more complicated than merely picking up ‘pen and paper’ — and various skills had to be acquired and materials assembled before sitting to write a letter.1 Paper was an expensive commodity, often imported, that needed to be treated before it could be written on, cut to size and folded correctly. The colour, thickness and size of sheets, the measurement of chain lines and identification of watermarks that they contain all offer invaluable clues that shed significant light on specific letters and the habits and practices of individual letter-writers. A range of other materials was employed in the task of the writing of letters: pens and penknives for cutting and re-cutting quills; feathers of varying types to turn into quills; ink for writing with and its accoutrements, an inkpot or inkhorn for holding the ink, a dust box, sand box or pounce pot for sprinkling sand onto a manuscript in order to blot wet ink; wax, string, floss, ribbons, seals and signets used for sealing correspondence. Personal and household accounts and inventories and receipt books detail the purchase and provisioning of items related to letter-writing, which connects the art of writing to the domestic and household sphere as well as office spaces. This in turn suggests that letter-writing was not merely an elite activity associated with government and business, but one in which wide-ranging social groups, including women could engage. The account books of John and Richard Newdigate dating from October 1618 onwards while they were undergraduates at Oxford record regular purchases of materials associated with letter-writing: ink, quires of paper, wax, a desk, writing tables, paper books, printed epistolary texts (‘Plinnies’s Epistles’ and ‘Simachas Epistles’) as well as frequent payments for the carrying of letters.2 Likewise, the household accounts of Margaret Spencer (d.1613) record purchases of three quires of paper (12d.), ‘inke & quilles’ (10d.), ‘2 rolles of harde wax’ (12d.), ‘a payer of tabell bouckes’ (12d.) and an inkhorn (12d.).3


Seventeenth Century Material Letter Early Modern Period Paper Book Account Book 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    On early modern writing materials see, Michael Finlay (1990) Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen (Carlisle: Plains); Joyce Irene Whalley (1975) Writing Implements & Accessories: From the Roman Styllus to the Typewriter (David and Charles).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    John Evans (1855) ‘Extracts from the Private Account Book of Sir William More of Loseley, in Surrey, in the time of Queen Mary and of Queen Elizabeth’, Archaeologia, 36/2, 284–93 (p.290).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 7.
    Alexander Roger (1958) ‘Roger Ward’s Shrewsbury Stock: An Inventory of 1585’, The Library, 13/4, 247–68 (p.262).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 13.
    A.H. Stevenson (1951) ‘Watermarks are Twins’, Studies in Bibliography, 4, 57–91Google Scholar
  5. Simon Barcham Green (1997) ‘Papermaking Moulds’, The Quarterly, 23, 1–6.Google Scholar
  6. 17.
    John Bidwell (2004) ‘French Paper in English Books’, in John Barnard and D.F McKenzie (eds) The Cambridge History of the Book, IV, 1557–1695 (Cambridge: CUP), pp.583-601 (p.590); Gaskell, New Introduction, pp.73-5; Bland, Guide, pp.26-7.Google Scholar
  7. 32.
    John Wroughton (2006) Tudor Bath: Life and Strife in the Little City, 1485–1603 (Bath: Lansdown Press), p.157.Google Scholar
  8. 65.
    See, for example, Christopher Burlinson and Andrew Zurcher (2005) ‘“Secretary to the Lord Grey Lord Deputie here”: Edmund Spenser’s Irish Papers’, The Library, 6/1, 30–75.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 74.
    Daybell (2001) ‘The Social Conventions of Women’s Letter-Writing in England, 1540–1603’, in Daybell (ed.) Early Modern Women’s Letter-Writing in England, 1450’1700 (Basingstoke: Palgrave), pp.59-76.Google Scholar
  10. 80.
    Francis Steer (1953) ‘The Inventory of Anne Viscountess of Dorchester’, N&Q, 198, 94–6, 155–8, 379–81, 414–17, 469–73, 515–19 (pp.416-17).Google Scholar
  11. 84.
    A Booke Containing Divers Sortes of Hands, unpaginated; Bertholde Wolpe (1975) ‘John de Beauchesne and the First English Writing Books’, Journal for the Society of Italic Handwriting 82, 2–11.Google Scholar
  12. 102.
    Juliet Fleming (2001) Graffiti and the Writing Arts of Early Modern England (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P)Google Scholar
  13. Susan Frye (2010) Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 138.
    William S. Powell (1977) John Pory, 1572–1636: The Life and Letters of a Man of Many Parts (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P).Google Scholar
  15. 155.
    Mark Brayshay, Philip Harrison and Brian Chalkley (1998) ‘Knowledge, Nationhood and Governance: The Speed of the Royal Post in Early-Modern England’, Journal of Historical Geography, 24, 265–88 (p.270).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 163.
    Elissa O’Loughlin (1996) ‘Wafers and Wafer Seals: History, Manufacture, and Conservation’, The Paper Conservator, 20, 8–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© James Daybell 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • James Daybell
    • 1
  1. 1.Plymouth UniversityUSA

Personalised recommendations