Folds and Creases

Like many physical features of letters, folds seem to have captured the imaginations of letter-writers. Angel Day ended one of the love-letters he created for his 1586 English Secretary (an important manual on the art of letter-writing) as follows:

I seale vp the foldes heereof with the impression of innumerable sighes, and bequeath them as hastely as they maye, to the touch of your delicate handes.

In the imagination of Day's fictional author, a writer's emotions themselves could be impressed into the creases of his paper. But could there really be implicit social messages enclosed even in a feature so apparently innocuous as the folds of a letter? It would seem so. A well-known example, but one worth citing, is the letter from Sir Robert Cecil to his son William, chastising him for the manner in which he had folded his missives:

I have … sent you a piece of paper folded as gentlemen use to write their letters, whereas yours are like those that come out of a grammar school.

Here, Cecil refers to the manner in which William executes the folds of his letter packet. Typically, an early modern letter was written on a single large sheet of paper folded in half (i.e. a single folio-sized sheet folded to form a hinged bifolium, like a large birthday card). The letter was written on the upper side and may or may not continue onto the inside. The fourth side (i.e. the equivalent of the back of a closed birthday card) was left blank so that - in this age before envelopes - it could be folded over to form a protective outer covering during transit and with space to write delivery instructions. It is this folding up of the letter, with the blank fourth side of the paper exposed, to which Cecil refers. Most importantly, and as Cecil emphasises, recipients noticed how the letters they received were folded, and writers were expected to consider their presentation carefully. As Cecil's remarks also indicate, there were established methods of folding up an early modern letter. The most usual practice is described by Peter Beal and is known as the 'tuck and seal' or 'tuck and fold' method:

The common procedure for folding the bifolium or leaf would be to fold the top third down and the bottom third up, and then fold the oblong paper about two fifths inwards towards the centre, tucking one side into the 'pocket' formed by the other [and applying a seal over the join]. (2008: 225-26)

Given how common this method was, it is no surprise that most of the letters to and from Bess are closed by means of 'tuck and fold'. Also common at the time was the 'slit and band' method, in which the paper is folded three or four times horizontally, then in half vertically, with a paper tab threaded through a slit to secure the letter packet. For example of both kinds, see filter by letter packet type.

While 'tuck and seal' and 'slit and band' were the most common letter-folding methods, Heather Wolfe has observed that more intimate letters were often closed 'through a series of accordion folds' which produce a mountain-valley appearance in the paper and resulted in a smaller letter packet, for example ID 003 and ID 004. Karen Robertson, in her study of the correspondence between Elizabeth Ralegh and Sir Robert Cecil, has argued that this kind of minute folding was associated with more emotional letters. Noting one letter from Lady Ralegh that had been folded many times, Robertson observes that because 'the letter requires multiple unfolding, [it is] rather like a miniature, acting as an epitome or a material embodiment of her emotions sent to him'. Further evidence for the association between tight folding and the expression of intimacy is found on one occasion when Elizabeth I asked Thomas Lake to retrieve a letter she had sent because she wanted to open and repackage it, folding into a small 'plight' (i.e. pleat or plait), a style she felt was more fitting for the occasion. The style of folding, and the size and shape of the packet it produced, would thus have sent a message to the recipient that she was holding a document personalised by the queen herself. 'Plighting' (see OED, 'plight', v2, 1a) seems to have been the contemporary term for 'accordion' folding.

Tight folding that suggests a very small packet may also be indicative of secrecy. As Nadine Akkerman notes, the multiple folding of the letters of Elizabeth of Bohemia makes it evident that they were nearly always sent as 'most petite packages, so tiny that if placed into the palm of one's hand they could be entirely covered by the fingers'. Servants and bearers would thus be able to conceal them with greater ease, sometimes sewing them into clothing for added secrecy.

Other folding styles existed: when Elizabeth I wrote to the French ambassador, De Marchaumont in March 1583, about her mooted marriage to the Duke of Anjou, the letter was, unusually, folded into a triangle. The fact it was then also sealed with yellow floss suggests that this idiosyncratic packaging marked it out as a particularly intimate communication. There may well be many other types of folding patterns, yet to be uncovered in the archives. These kinds of examples remind us that many different parts of the letter - beyond the words on the page - could have a communicative function and should not be overlooked.

Now a word of warning: all the folding methods described so far relate to the creation of the letter packet for sending. But a letter may be creased in other ways discernible on an opened letter, and one should be careful not to confuse these. If the letter-writer (or the person who prepared the paper) had had formal secretarial experience, one fold would be made approximately two inches from the left edge of the page before writing began, in order to form a writing margin. The neat left margins of ID 092 and ID 088 are likely examples, although it is now difficult to discern any physical indentations of the original folding. Nowadays, when most creases have been smoothed by centuries of flat, compressed storage, evidence of a letter's folding is often discernible mostly through dirt discolouration on the obverse panel (the part that would have been on the outside of the folded letter), as can be seen in the case of ID 039 and ID 044. When looking for damage or discoloration in a manuscript letter, dirt can therefore be used to discern its storage history. The darker area can be very distinct, and is usually confined to the area bearing the address - but all this dirt did not collect during the postage process. Rather, once read, the letter was folded up for storage, the inside protected from years of grime. Dirt is thus a useful indicator of the letter's afterlife, and the care that was taken over its storage. For striking examples of dirt showing the storage folds, see ID 070 and ID 099.

A final interesting point about folding, which has received relatively little critical attention, comes from the Continent. Reading through British State Papers, one occasionally comes across a letter calendared as having been 'signed on the fold'. In other words, once the letter had been signed and folded, it was counter-signed by one of the senders on the flap of paper to which the seal was affixed. However, the signature was not made over the fold (i.e. touching both the flap and the panel it was sealed to), as it might be on a modern-day letter of recommendation for a job. Alan Stewart has advised me that this is a phenomenon he has mainly witnessed in letters sent from France, and that mentions of this practice on EEBO are confined to passages dealing with early modern France. It would seems that, like coloured ribbon, this was an epistolary fashion that began in France but, unlike ribbon, it did not catch on in the English court. I agree with Stewart that, like a seal, a signature on the fold is probably another way of validating a letter, making it official.

Links on this Site

References and Further Reading

  • The first quotation is taken from Angel Day, The English Secretorie (1586 edn.), p. 234, and I am grateful to Kerry Gilbert for pointing it out to me.
  • The letter from Robert Cecil to his son is cited by Alan Stewart, Shakespeare's Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 314, and by David Cecil, The Cecils of Hatfield House: An English Ruling Family (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1973), p. 142.
  • The description of the 'tuck and seal' method is from Peter Beal, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  • I am grateful to Heather Wolfe for sharing with me a draft of a forthcoming article, '"Neatly sealed, with silk, and Spanish wax or otherwise": the Practice of Letter-locking with Silk Floss in Early Modern England'.
  • Karen Robertson's article, 'Negotiating Favour: the Letters of Lady Ralegh', is located in Women and Politics in Early Modern England, 1450-1700, ed. by James Daybell (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 99-113 (the quotation is from p. 108).
  • Lake's letter to Cecil (28 January 1596), is in Salisbury MSS, vol. 6 (1596), p. 31; Queen Elizabeth's letter to De Marchaumont is located at SP 78/9, fol. 75B.
  • For a striking example of a document that was folded up very tightly and (probably) stitched into clothing, see SP 81/3, fol. 214, Ségur-Pardeilhan to Burghley (22 October 1585).
  • For a letter 'signed on the fold', see SP 78/18, fol. 276v, Stafford to Walsingham (5 August 1588), signed by the King of France and, on the fold, the French Queen Mother. For this phenomenon recorded in print, see, for example, Jean François le Petit, A Generall Historie of the Netherlands (London, 1608), p. 1166: 'Signed Madame Isabella, and vpon the fold, By the commaundement of the Ladie Infanta, Signed A. de la Loo.'
  • Folding and closing methods used by Bess are discussed by Alison Wiggins, Bess of Hardwick: Reading and Writing Renaissance Letters, Material Readings in Early Modern Culture (Ashgate, forthcoming 2014).
Author(s): Daniel Starza Smith, April 2013


Developed by

Developed by The University of Glasgow

Technical Development

Technical development by The Humanities Research Institute

Funded by

Funded by the AHRC

'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield
Version 1.0 | ISBN 978-0-9571022-3-1
© 2013 The University of Glasgow
Contact Us | Copyright and Citation Guide