Tuesday, October 19, 2010


During the 18th & 19th centuries, in an effort to conserve the expense of paper and postage, cross-writing was often used. Although it seems rather cryptic, writing this fashion was a great way to economize. Perhaps we could learn a lesson from our ancestors in this regard.

How it works:  After a page of writing had been completed, often when both sides had been filled, the write turned the page 90 degrees and continued writing, adding a second layer of text.   To decipher the letter, one simply must read in the direction of the text. The reader's eye tends to naturally tune out the perpendicular lines and can follow what was written.

Although cross-writing was used, it wasn't always advised, especially later in the century.

"When you get to the end of a notesheet, and find you have more to say, take another piece of paper—a whole sheet, or a scrap, as the case may demand: but whatever you do, don’t cross! Remember the old proverb 'Cross-writing makes cross reading.' 'The old proverb?' you say, inquiringly. 'How old?' Well, not so very ancient, I must confess. In fact, I’m afraid I invented it while writing this paragraph! Still, you know, 'old' is a comparative term. I think you would be quite justified in addressing a chicken, just of of the shell, as 'Old boy!' when compared with another chicken, that was only half-out!"
~ Lewis Carroll on How to Write a Letter (Rule #9), 1894

Examples of Cross-writing:

Mrs. F. L. Bridgeman to Fanny West, December 15, 1837 - In this image and the next the fold of the letter to create the "envelope".

18th century letter -
"My Dear Herb

I have treated you very badly in not writing but the truth is I have been so hard put for time that I have not been able to do so. Your letter reached me, about a month after it was written. I hope this will find you in Rome. Will you tell Samuel that I have not got time to write and that I am sorry to say I shall not be able to get abroad this year after all and so unless he can get to England, I shall not have the pleasure of seeing him. I suppose we shall see you up here next term at least at Oxford. You already know my eyes have been bad and have thrown me back considerably, I am very much..."

The crossed lines continue from the other side of the letter....

"feet deep here and I very nearly killed myself the other day up et..."


Letter from Elizabeth Peabody  - The Transcendentalist philosopher wrote to her sister, Mary, telling her that she was not in love with Horace Mann, knowing that Mary was. "Elizabeth explained that her feelings for the 36-year-old, recently widowed politician, whose hair was said to have turned white in a matter of weeks as he mourned his young first wife: 'his situation, his grey hair—his sorrow have ever precluded from my imagination" the possibility that she would fall in love.'"  Mary ultimately married Horrace Man and her other sister married Nathaniel Hawthorne.  (Slate Magazine)

Abolitionist letter of 1837 - Caroline Weston describes making calls with Mrs. Maria Weston Chapman on Henrietta Sargent and Mrs. Helen Benson Garrison, where they met Mr. Garrison and George Thompson. She tells about the call of Mr. [John S.] Kimball in quest of a teacher for the Canaan School [Noyes Academy?], Caroline's suggestion of Sophia Davenport for the position, her uncertainty, her decision against it, and later makes a tearful change of mind, though too late. She gives an account of a farewell metting for Mr. and Mrs. David Lee Child at the home of Ellis Gray Loring. "The 'watch' [given to Mrs. Child by abolitionist friends] was there, the Bible too & the inscription & the letters"--the letter from the ladies of Salem and Lynn was especially beautiful. Mr. Thompson offered a moving prayer and "there was much weeping & feeling." She describes seeing the Childs and Thompson off: "Mrs. Child was pretty much used up and seemed much depressed. The fears that Thompson will not get back safely...The impression in Boston that he will be killed here is gaining strength daily."
Read complete letter: http://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/2653156796/in/photostream/

Complete letter and images: http://www.archive.org/details/lettertoannewarr00west

Letter from Charles Darwin circa 1828 -
"My dear Fox
I am dying by inches, from not having any body to talk to about insects: — my only reason for writing, is to remove a heavy weight from my mind, so now you must understand, what you will perceive before you come to the end of this; that I am writing merely for my own pleasure & not your's. — I have been very idle since I left Cambridge in every possible way and amongst the rest in Entomology. I have however captured a few insects, about which I am much interested: My sister has made rough drawings of three of them…"

Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen, 1808 - Writing over the course of three days, Austen acknowledges receiving another letter from Cassandra in the meantime: "You are very amiable & very clever to write such long Letters; every page of yours has more lines than this, & every line more words than the average of mine. I am quite ashamed—but you have certainly more little events than we have." The letter is full of little events: "Mr Waller is dead, I see;—I cannot grieve about it, nor perhaps can his Widow very much," and "I want to hear of your gathering Strawberries, we have had them three times here." She reports that she is not enjoying Walter Scott's newest creation Marmion, an epic poem about a sixteenth-century battle between the English and the Scots, although she suspects she should be.

And now that we are done intruding on the correspondence of others, you may like to puruse the following links on letter writing and postal service in the 18th and 19th centuries:

The Postal Service in 18th Century Britain: Letters and the Penny Post
The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing
About Letter Writing in the 19th Century

When was the last time you wrote a full-length letter on paper and mailed it with a stamp? How many pages was it and did it require extra postage?


  1. They are actually beautiful. I do send out a lot of notes but not full length letters anymore. :O)

  2. I had never hear of this before. So cool.

    Last time I sent a handwritten letter? (Guessing cards don't count...)

    Really not that bad, last year sometime. And I will be writing and mailing some again next year.

    Letters are fun.

  3. Hi Sandy -

    I've never heard of cross-writing before. The closest I've seen is people using the unused back of a sheet of copy paper.

    I still send out cards and handwritten thank-you notes. Occasionally, I'll write a letter.

    Susan :)

  4. I agree with you, they are beautiful.
    Like many of you, I'm in the habit of writing an occasional note, but I have been know to write a special letter on a special occasion such as an engagement or baptism. I must admit, seldom do I write a personal letter and send it USPS - email is my preferred method these days. I do love it when I get a letter, but a handwritten note is just as satisfying.

  5. I do wish to add that I write letters for work occasionally. I am known to be a persuasive letter writer in both business and personal matters.

  6. These were so cool, Carla. Thanks for sharing. I think my grandmother may have resorted to doing this. It seems I have seen it before, somewhere in the recesses and crags of my memory. Script was so lovely back then, and the manner of speaking so quaint. Nothing like old letters. We have lost that art form, I think.
    All email for me these days. Alas, even email cards.

  7. I agree, Kathy, it is an art form. Script is so elegant and I also agree about the manner of speaking. It's wonderful when an author can capture some of that in their writing.

  8. I agree, Kathy, it is an art form. Script is so elegant and I also agree about the manner of speaking. It's wonderful when an author can capture some of that in their writing.

  9. Great post, Carla. Thanks! Seeing the actual examples is wonderful. I fear we all write fewer letters now.

  10. Thanks for stopping by, Susan! The examples are so cool - I was thrilled to have found them, having never heard of cross-writing before.

    I agree, letter writing seems to be a thing of the past in our personal lives - except perhaps Christmas newsletters and such which are always enjoyable, though it isn't quite the same as getting a unique letter addressed only to you. But we relish these things now.

  11. I've studied many versions of cryptic writing but this is really beautiful.

    Last time I wrote...eek! *whisper* snail mail? Ack, way too long.

    The CRITTER Project and Naked Without a Pen


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