The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Looking through the hole in a torn-open letter

Well, I thought the January 2017 Crocodile Mystery was going to be a tricky one, but Misha Teramura not only identified the phenomenon correctly (an endorsement written across the hole created when an early modern letter was torn open at the wax seal), he pinpointed the letter in question: Folger MS L.a.874, a letter from Edward Stafford, 12th Baron Stafford, Stafford Castle, to Walter Bagot and Walter Chetwynd, 6 May 1599. 

Here’s a full view of the page the detail came from, followed by a full view of the page with the endorsement “Ld. Stafford, 6th of May 1599.”

Full view of the mystery image, showing the "afford" portion of "Stafford".
Full view of the mystery image, showing the “afford” portion of “Stafford”. (Folger MS L.a.874; photo by Folger Department of Photography and Digital Imaging)
Full view of the closed document, showing "Ld. Stafford" written across the hole in the paper.
Full view of the closed document, showing “Ld. Stafford” written across the hole in the paper. (Folger MS L.a.874; photo by Folger Department of Photography and Digital Imaging)

The idea of posting a close-up of this letter as a Crocodile Mystery began with a question sent to LunaHelp@folger.edu, where someone wondered why the front and the back of the same sheet looked different:

fol. 2r image shows there is damage to the sheet, there’s a hole in the paper and it is torn and scrunched on the side; fol. 2v image does not show either of these two damages. Did something happen to the sheet between the two photographs?

Front and back of the 2nd leaf of Folger MS L.a.874.
Front (“recto”) and back (“verso”) of the 2nd leaf of Folger MS L.a.874.

In fact, the only thing that happened between the two photographs is that the photographer turned the page, so instead of seeing a blank background through the hole, you see the page underneath. LUNA displays the four pages as four separate images, side-by-side:

Side-by-side images of all four pages in LUNA
Side-by-side images of all four pages in LUNA.

 

This series of snapshots of the letter shows what’s going on more clearly:

Folger MS L.a.874: front (closed); inside (open); back (closed).
Folger MS L.a.874: front (closed); inside (open); back (closed). Photo by Erin Blake.

The vault had already closed for the day when I received the question, so I wasn’t able to take snapshots. I could have waited until the next day to respond, but where’s the fun in that? Why not print out the LUNA images, tape them together, cut out the holes, then fold it up as a recreation of the original sealed letter and send snapshots of that?

Recreated letter, open.
Recreated letter, open. Photo by Erin Blake.

 

Front of recreated folded letter.
Front of recreated folded letter. Photo by Erin Blake.
Back of recreated folded letter.
Back of recreated folded letter. Photo by Erin Blake.

Recreating the folded-up letter made it clear that it had originally been a “tuck-and-seal” letter packet: the long end was tucked inside the short one, with a wafer of wax slipped inside to stick it together securely.

For more information about the ways letters were sealed before the era of envelopes, see the Collation posts “A letter from Queen Anne to Buckingham locked with silk embroidery floss” and “Let’s make a model!

And if you want something nicer than taped-together print-outs for a facsimile, the Folger Shop sells an actual size replica of Folger MS X.d.494, a tucked-and-sealed letter from William Cecil, Baron Burghley, relating to the defeat of the Spanish Armada. [Update: replica now also available through the Folger Shop online. EB 2017-01-05]

Replica of Folger MS X.d.494 in the Folger Shop.
Replicas of Folger MS X.d.494 in the Folger Shop, priced at $4.95 each. Photo by Erin Blake

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