The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Re-discovering three-cornered notes

A couple of years ago, when I had Saturday Duty in the Reading Room, a group of early-19th-century letters came across the desk. I noticed right away that one of them had unusual diagonal fold lines:

Quarter sheet letter
Folger Y.d.23 (82x), a note from A. Bunn to R.W. Elliston, opened out to show the entire quarter-sheet of writing paper.

It was a slow Saturday, so I spent some time figuring out how the creases lined up with each other, then folding sheets of scrap paper to match. Those examples are long gone, but I recently came back to the topic, and made the new one that you see here. The note started out the same way as standard letter of the period: a quarter-sheet of writing paper, folded in half, with the message written on the first page.1

Quarter-sheet of paper folded in half, with message written on first page.

Instead of folding the letter into a rectangle, though, the sender brought the lower left corner up to meet the right-hand edge:

Lower left corner folded up to meet the right-hand edge.

Then he folded the lower right corner up over the triangle he had just made, forming a point:

Lower right corner folded up to make a point.

Next, each top corner was folded down, making a matching point at the top of the note:

Top corners folded down to make a point.

To seal the letter, the sender tucked the upper triangle into the “pocket” created by the lower triangle:

Tucking the folded top of the letter into the pocket formed by the folded bottom part.
Triangle, base at top
Top of letter fully tucked into the lower “pocket”.

Finally, he flipped the whole thing over and wrote the address.

Triangle, base at bottom
Finished letter, flipped over and addressed, sort-of.

As I recall, just about everyone in the Reading Room that Saturday came over to have a look, and just about everyone said something along the lines of, “That’s exactly how we used to fold notes to pass in class!” Thanks to Photoshop, here’s an idea of what the original would have looked like when it was folded for delivery:

Letter folded into a triangle
Image of Folger Y.d.23 (82x) edited to show what it would have looked like when folded into a three-cornered note.

The message is from Alfred Bunn (1796–1860) to Robert William Elliston (1774–1831), at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London. Inside, it says:

9 – Park Road
Sat[urda]y Ev[enin]g 11th March
1826

My dear sir,

I am sorry to be obliged to
remind you that you have not
favoured me with a reply to
my last letter.

I am, My dear Sir,
Your’s faithfully
A. Bunn

Unfortunately, I have no idea what was in Bunn’s “last letter” to Elliston, or why Bunn should be miffed at not having received a reply. The mystery could probably be solved by reading the other letters in group, but those had each been folded into a conventional rectangle and sealed with wax, so I ignored them at the time. All I cared about then was the origami, not the words. The Folger’s collection won’t be accessible again until after the renovations are finished, so it’s too late now. If anyone out there knows what was going on between Bunn and Elliston in March 1826, please do let me know in the comments!

I had more or less forgotten about this letter until last week, when I happened to be listening to an audiobook of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, read by Prunella Scales.2 About half-way through the story, Roger Hamley receives “a little pretty three-cornered note.”

Excerpt from Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Wives and Daughters: an every-day story. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1866, v. 1, p. 334. Accessed 2020-09-20 via https://archive.org/details/wivesdaughtersev01gask

Later on, Molly Gibson admits to herself that she’s glad to receive invitations from friends, even though “as each three-cornered note was brought in, she grumbled a little….”

Excerpt from Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Wives and Daughters: an every-day story. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1866, v.2, p.111. Accessed 2020-09-20 via https://archive.org/details/wivesdaughtersev02gask

Aha! Three-cornered notes! The little ding-ding-ding of memory went off in my head: I know what those are, and where to find an example!3

Thanks to full-text searching in the Internet Archive, Hathi Trust, etc., I now know that three-cornered notes are mentioned all over the place in 19th-century publications, I just never noticed the phrase before because I didn’t yet have a mental coat-hanger to keep it on. My favorite reference so far comes from an April 1877 issue of Puck, where Valkyries are described as “sort of district telegraph-messenger girls, who carried telegrams and three-cornered notes from Odin to those warriors who were to receive their quietus in battle, after which served them with gin-cocktails, when they arrived in the Northern mythological Hades—Walhalla.”

Excerpt from Puck, New York: Puck Publishing Co., 1877-1918, no. 5, v. 1, p. 2.Accessed 2020-09-20 via https://hdl.handle.net/2027/iau.31858045536095?urlappend=%3Bseq=70

Savvy readers will have noticed that the folding method for three-cornered notes also makes a fine paper hat when scaled up to newspaper.  I was pleased to discover that the similarity is long-known: three-cornered notes were also called “cocked-hat notes.” For example, in David Copperfield,  “Dora sent me back the ring, enclosed in a despairing cocked-hat note.”

Excerpt from Charles Dickens, Personal history, adventures, experience, & observation of David Copperfield, the younger. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1849, p. 346. Accessed 2020-09-20 via https://archive.org/details/2848Copperfield11

After seeing so many mentions of three-cornered and cocked-hat notes in quick succession, I now know why so few examples survive in archives: unlike letters, these messages were not meant to be kept. As far as I can tell, they were never sent through the post (if you know of any examples, please comment). They were just hand-delivered notes containing informal invitations, short apologies, brief questions, little flirtations, and so on. In the 20th century, their function was taken over by the phone call, and in the 21st century, by text messaging.

Their function as cocked hats, on the other hand, continues to this day.

Demonstration of a cocked-hat note being used as a cocked hat.
  1. A full sheet of writing paper was roughly the size of modern American “ledger” paper, the 11 x 17 inch paper that typically goes in the bottom drawer of the photocopier at work, except that no one ever bothers to refill the tray. A quarter sheet, therefore, is about the same size as ordinary American 8-1/2 x 11 inch “letter” paper.
  2. This particular recording was produced by Audible Studios, and released 19 September, 2006. If you only know Prunella Scales as Sybil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers, it’s hard to believe this is the same person. She gives each character a unique voice, bringing it to life with the appropriate rhythm, pitch, and accent. Highly recommend! The 25 hours and 21 minutes zipped by.
  3. Full disclosure: I didn’t exactly know where to find an example. I knew there was one in the Folger collection, and I knew that I’d taken pictures of it with my phone, and I knew those pictures had been taken on a Saturday. I even knew that the call number would be visible in the photo, since that’s the easiest way to have it handy when adding descriptive metadata to the photo. Unfortunately, I’ve fallen behind in cataloging my research photos…. like, fifteen years behind. It’s only thanks to colleague Megan Carafano that I was able to find the photos again. She also had Saturday Duty that day, but unlike me, she has kept up with her photos.

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