Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Listen to the podcast here. Today is a special post, as it’s our first guest post! We’re joined by Amy Sudduth, a historian, researcher, and epistolary enthusiast—a person who loves everything related to letters. From a young age, she gravitated toward epistolary history. Her letter writing resume is even more impressive than most adults’—she learned how to
write with a quill pen while studying Latin as a kid, and soon after decided to dedicate her life to studying history and working in museums. In high school, she worked in Old Town San Diego, where she helped to develop and put on historical demonstrations, and education programs.
After college, she moved to Virginia, which led to her obtaining a position in the post office of Colonial Williamsburg. While there, she embarked on an in-depth research on postal history, and historical writing methods and materials, helping to expand interpretation at her facility, and leading to a life-long enthusiasm for those topics. After the post office closed, she transitioned to another store in Colonial Williamsburg, which specializes in 18th century fashion.
In her free time outside of colonial Williamsburg, Amy spends her free time with her three amazing cats, two young boys, and her partner-in-crime, Brian, who is also a historian. Amy is currently writing two books, and leads the Wax Seal Society on Facebook. She brings history alive, and is a sheer joy to speak with! I thoroughly enjoyed the entire interview, and I know you will too. So curl up with a warm cup of tea, or a glass of wine, and enjoy!
Kay: Thank you so much for being here Amy! I feel like I’ve been learning centuries of research from you in our emails, even just from my initial questions about the postal service, and the ways people sent letters that was different from our 21st century romanticized ideas. So let’s start there.
Could you tell me about some of the misconceptions or things that were very different in that time than what we imagine today?
Amy: Absolutely! There are actually centuries of postal history in my head, so for practicality’s sake, I’ll start in the early 16th century. The postal system goes back that far, but really this early, it’s just lordship-to-lordship, king-to-government, and political letters. There weren’t many personal letters, and those were hand-delivered. In fact, there wasn’t really a mail carrier until the 19th century. In the 1700’s, postal systems were just post-office to post-office.
The first misconception that surprises people is that there were no stamps! Those didn’t come around until the 1830’s.
There was a small period in the 1600’s where a gentleman in London started his own penny-post. He ran a service where you brought him a letter that was going somewhere in London, he paid a newsboy to run it to the individual, and paid him a penny for it to be delivered within an hour. The problem was, the king wasn’t a fan of this enterprise. This gentleman was getting very rich, very quickly—the king got mad, so the king shut him down. He responded by suing the king. He claimed he now had no way to make a living. This gentleman bothered the king so much; the king finally gave him a pension to have him leave him alone. So there was a penny post early on, that went away.
By the 1700’s, it was post-office to post-office. It could take a long time, but it could also be very quick. My favorite example is the declaration of independence was in London, which was in the king’s hand by August 5th. It left Philadelphia in July—that’s not much time to get across an ocean. I’m still not sure how they did it so quickly.
The early postal system was mainly port-to-port: Boston to New York to Williamsburg to Charleston in boat. By doing it in this fashion, you could get a letter very easily within a week, depending on the tides. But if it had to travel over land, that would be marked down and measured, the post master would write in the corner where it was coming from, and it would travel to the destination. The postmaster there would have a massive chart, and would find out how far it had come, and how much that would cost. The receiver had to pay for it!
Now, there were definitely cases of young men writing to their fathers, asking them for money—some things never change across the centuries. In these cases, when the fathers wrote back to the sons, they would prepay the postage. You also saw “open mail,” where if someone was just trying to spread gossip, or news, he wouldn’t seal his letter, just fold it up and send it off. Anyone who had it in their hand could read it. When it arrived at the post office, no one would claim it, as they have already read it. Some printers advertised people to send them an open letter.
Kay: For those open letters, what kind of gossip would that be?
Amy: It really was the full range. Much of it was news, especially of certain battles, but every once and a while, you’d get someone trying to slander someone else. “I saw this gentleman in this place when he had absolutely no business being there.”
But, the other part of that system, where the receiver paid, is that it’s technically a legal fine—if you didn’t pay it, the post master could take you to court. A lot of time when I tell people that, I’ll see their eyes light up, thinking it’s a great way to pranks someone. It really wasn’t though, as paper was very expensive, and the person could refuse it. Yes, the postmaster could pursue them, but that didn’t happen very often.
What would happen then to these unclaimed-letters, is the postmaster would put advertisements in the newspaper, telling people to come claim their papers. So we know even today who got mail and didn’t pick it up.
If the mail sat there for over a month, the postmaster could take and sell those unclaimed letters to the tavern owner. It became almost like tabloids—they would open letters, and whatever was in it, everyone could read. If you weren’t sure the contents of your letter, and didn’t want the entire city to know about it, you should probably come claim your letter.
Kay: Such a classic way to motivate them—come claim your dues, or we’ll shame you in a public bar! *laughter* I know much of your research has been around “dead letters,” I assume that is mail that was never claimed, correct?
Amy: Right! It’s honestly what we have the most surviving examples of, which were in archives. These unclaimed letters would sit in boxes in post offices. If there wasn’t a fire, the boxes would just sit there. So here we are, decades later, and a historian like myself can walk in and go “Look at this beautiful pile of paper treasure! This is mine now.”
It honestly gives us a perfectly preserved example of a wide range of things. There’s a post office museum in Charleston SC, and they have on their wall unclaimed letters. Just getting close to them, and seeing the paper covers, and seeing “that’s a mourning letter, that’s bad news, that’s this”—just seeing the exterior of the envelopes feels like finding treasure for me.
Kay: I know on the wax seal side, black often meant bad news. I think there was a story of someone who used black wax because they didn’t have anything else, so they had to scribble an explanation on the outside. I’ve also heard of 19th century mourning letters having a black edge on them to identify them as well.
Amy: Yes, there’s actually photographs of them! There’s a certain coda of rules to follow, where you would seal your letter with that wax if it was bad news. In the 18th century, the 1700’s, it was the age of enlightenment, so they were much more practical and straightforward. (That’s why I would rather live in that century as opposed to the 18th century, when they were having conversations with bouquets of flowers!)
But there were a large number of the Founding Fathers who didn’t like all the coda and demand of mourning culture. In fact, in their wills, they said not to bother about all the mourning stuff; just business as usually. Despite that, in the 19th century, mourning becomes its own industry, where people are spending so much money just to go out and get all these mourning things.
I’ll stop before I go on a week’s tangent on mourning culture, but yes, they would use black wax in that case. Otherwise, it’s a red wax, because the resin is red. Sealing wax isn’t traditionally made of much wax at all—it’s mostly resin, a little of turpentine, there’s a variety of recipes. Brian loves telling that story where the gentleman burned his sealing wax, and had to scribble a note on the wrapper apologizing.
I’ve gone through thousands of letters, and written thousands of letters—I’ve burned my wax, never black black, but with little black speckles in it. But I have seen plenty of individuals, where the news was “I bought a horse, so-and-so built a barn” that had black wax because it’s the only one they had around.
Kay: They likely didn’t have a huge paper store to go into. Where would they find that supplies, and would it be mixed with other sorts of household goods?
Yes and no. The post was a person, until at least after the civil war, and it was wherever that person was. Even into the mid-19th century, Abraham Lincoln was a postmaster at 17. He worked in a general store, and that was where the post was collected. So they would pick the most common building where people would congregate, or at the postmaster’s building. Most of the time, you saw it at a store, where he was selling other goods. In the 18th century, not all printers were postmasters, but all postmasters were printers.
To answer your question, a printer who was postmaster, he would sell whatever people wanted to buy. The building I currently work in was actually the building our postmaster, William Purdy operated out of. He was a printer in Virginia, his wife was a milliner, Peachy was her name. Before she married, she sold fabric and hats and ribbons—things you would find in Joanne’s. When they married, they combined their two business. You could go in and buy fabric, and paper, and books, and it was a fantastic establishment.
Kay: I want to go!
Amy: Exactly, it’d be wonderful!
Often times, the printers would be selling a lot of papers, books, folios, quattros (which was a pamphlet). The thing which surprised me the most going through inventories, was that musical instruments were extremely popular. Violins, violin strings, bridges. The conclusion I came to is that he was already shipping so many other things from London, so why not also musical instruments? Those who played, could read music, and read books, and are literate. It’s the equivalent of having a book store that sells music as well. It makes sense, though when I first looked at it, I thought, “What do you mean pens and violins? That seems strange.”
Kay: Do you think it was because people who played needed paper to write music as well? I can see how it becomes a one-stop shop, and it makes sense for them once they’re already to put in a distant order, to add some new things.
Amy: Exactly—paper would be coming out of England, and much of it was being produced in France or Germany. There was some begin made in Italy in the 1500’s, as Venice was one of the printing capitals of the world. Though Germany introduced the printing press to the West, many of those Germans ended up going down into Italy as a commercial capital. The modern-day fonts you’re familiar with came from the splury of activity—times new romans, sans serif, both came out of the region in the mid-1500’s.
Kay: That’s another topic I wanted to talk about, because I love paper, and I know you do too! You mentioned it’s one of the things you look at when you go to a historic letter. Tell me what you love about paper, and what your favorite papers are, both historic and modern.”
Amy: Oh, I do love paper! Mike Kurlansky did a book, The History of Paper, that I have on my Audible and play in the background when I have a bad day. It makes me happy. Paper has an interesting circular story to it, as it began being made out of fibers—linen, then papyrus, and then moving onto cotton rags. Once that came into play, it was the paper. It was made out of cotton/linen fibers.
Once the printing press starts churning out books, the demand for paper soars so high, they don’t care what it’s made out of. Paper is made out of natural fibers, and there’s a beautiful process in how they turn out these papers, and evolving technologies—I’m trying to not go on for four hours about beaters.
You can see different things come out of different countries. Primarily it will be white, but you also saw the blue paper. In certain regions, this blue paper was like our brown, throw away paper, until artisans got ahold of it. They thought it was the best. Brian explained to me in great length in detail why having a blue background is amazing—and I retained almost none of that information. As we go into the 1600’s, with more trade, we see flour and sugar wrapped in blue paper, because it made the white look whiter. That way, even if the goods were yellower, it would make them look whiter. It’s still a wrapping paper, but more appreciated.
They would collect all these rags, take the ones that were white and the ones they could turn white, to make white paper. The ones that were dark, stained, or awful went into a bath with indigo, how you got blue paper. Ultimately, the blue paper got its niche, so those really dirty ones became the brown paper we think of today.
Another misconception is that everyone was writing with paper. But paper was expensive. A quire of paper was about 50 sheets on average—but the sizes were different those days. People often ask me what size of paper to get for historical writing, and I tell them a 11 by 17 sheet of paper, which is huge—so a quire is large, but it costs as much as a good pair of shoes, or a month of wages. So you’re not giving it to the kids to draw all over. It stays expensive until the wood pulp industry.
I find it’s interesting how circulatory the story is, because we discover wood pulp and cheaper paper in the 19th century, then we start deforesting everything, and realize maybe this isn’t a good idea. Then they start discovering bamboo paper, which was popular in the 1980’s and 90s, and I’m thinking, “this is basically reeds. Just like papyrus.” We’ve gone full circle.
To answer your original question, I just love paper. One of my favorite mills is Orange Art, out of Belgium. They’ll do the different colored papers. My absolute favorite pad which I have is a really pale pink paper, that would have been popular for women to use in the 1820’s and 30’s.
Kay: You’re preaching to the choir! My biggest passion is paper. I haven’t found an 11 by 17 that I really love though. Do you have any you like?
Amy: I end up going to Michael’s, or Paper, Ink, and Arts in Nashville. I like to get the Stafmore sheets, the charcoal paper. I enjoy those as well for 18th century writing. Linen paper can be cost-prohibitive, but it’s so much fun. I do get a lot of my cotton rag from Crane’s Crest, because I could get larger sizes—but when I’m ordering from a paper mill I haven’t talked to, I’ll just get the regular legal size of 11 by 17, and work from there.
Kay: The feel of those special papers is amazing. That’s something we miss in our modern day, and it’s almost as if once people touch real paper, they can’t go back. It’s like you can’t go back to that fake chocolate syrup once you’ve tasted the real one.”
Amy: Exactly! The really good, fine paper—I hate to sound snobbish—but there’s nothing better.
I’ve learned so much from our discussion with Amy, and we’ve only started! Join us for the second part of our series, where we hear about some hilarious letters from the 17th century, some tips on historical letters—and a group to join if you ever want to learn more!