Co-written by Heather Wolfe and Jana Dambrogio
In 2010, Jana Dambrogio and I were thinking independently about slits and stabs in early modern letters. Jana, after having had made many models of the letters of Tomaso di Livieri from the 1580s and 1590s (housed in the Fondo Veneto, Sezione II, in the Vatican Secret Archives), had just seen a letter in London from Elizabeth I that was similar in structure to a format used by her humble Venetian. In this pre-envelope era, some of Livieri’s letters had vertical slits that aligned when the letter was folded shut. A triangular paper wedge was cut from one of the corners of the letter and threaded through the slit to “lock” it shut.
Jana, then a conservator at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC, sent a reference question through our “Ask a Librarian” page that quickly found its way to me. She wanted to know if the Folger had any additional Elizabeth I letters with vertical slits and triangle-shaped paper losses at one of the corners, similar to the Italian examples she had seen.
Meanwhile, I was staring at digital images of dozens of late sixteenth-century English letters with vertical slits at the Folger, trying to make sense of them.
There is only so much you can understand about a letter’s original “packet” structure by looking at it as a flat piece of paper. I’d been down this road before, having already experimented with two other formats for folding and sending letters: the pleated letter packet (see my earlier Collation post), and the tuck-and-seal letter packet.
Jana refers to this process of securing a letter for sending as letterlocking, a process by which a substrate (such as papyrus, parchment, or paper) is folded and secured shut to function as its own envelope. According to Jana, who coined the term, letterlocking is part of a 10,000 year-old tradition, ranging from Mesopotamian clay bullae to tamper-resistant tri-fold paper wallets for long-term storage of bitcoin. Variations exist in cultures throughout the world to manipulate the material substrate on which information appears to ensure secure communication.
As we began looking at early modern letterlocking formats together, it became readily apparent that we needed each other! I needed help translating the folds visible on a flat page into a three-dimensional object, and she needed help correlating the different levels of security in a letter’s locking structure with the content of the letter and the relationship between the correspondents. A combination of conservator eyeballs and paleographer eyeballs has allowed us to start classifying the formats, while thinking about the relationship between content and resistance to tampering (a work still in process). Some formats communicated that a letter was to be saved and treasured, or to be read in private and not shared. Other formats simply stated, “I am an ordinary, everyday letter.”
Whenever Jana noticed that I wasn’t understanding a structure when looking at an original letter with her, she would exclaim, “Let’s make a model!” These weren’t just any models, but what Jana refers to as simulacra. A simulacrum is a model made in the presence of the original object of study, whether it be an unbound manuscript or a bound structure. Simulacra are critical for understanding the dozens of letterlocking techniques that were available to early modern letter writers, capturing the details and nuances that might provide clues to its creation and afterlife, including dirt accretions, radiating creases, sealing wax residue, stabs, losses, folds, and repairs–the social life of the object. Simulacra can be manipulated to mimic the original process of creation, and unlike the original manuscripts, are easily transportable so that they can be consulted anywhere, anytime. Without the simulacra that Jana made for me to repeatedly rip open and try to close again, I would never have truly understood how a thin piece of paper threaded through a slit in a letter packet and then placed over a seal could possibly constitute a “lock.”
While simulacra are useful for conservators (and others) to study particular objects in greater detail, more basic models are fabulous for teaching.
Pretty much anyone who encounters one of these sealed models is befuddled and delighted by the prospect of “ruining” the letter packet in order to read what is inside. If they do break the seal, they find a (copy of a) handwritten note that explains the process. In an era when digital surrogates are becoming the norm, a physical surrogate serves as a refreshing reminder of the relationship between form and function.
To supplement our growing understanding of the lost art of early modern letterlocking and to encourage the creation of models as a form of experiential learning, Jana has made a series of YouTube videos. Here, for instance, is a video of Jana making a simulacra of the pleated letter format shown above.
You can also find a video about the triangle lock with vertical slits we discussed in this post, and more videos will continue to be added to YouTube.
If you are interested in learning more about how to make your own models, feel free to get in touch with Jana or me.
JANA DAMBROGIO is Thomas F. Peterson (1957) Conservator at MIT Libraries.