Other Locking Mechanisms: Silk Floss, Ribbons, String, Slits and Holes

A letter locked with silk floss or a ribbon was almost always a private communication. Amongst the mostly royal or aristocratic users of flossed seals, Heather Wolfe detects a clear pattern of humanist education: finding a letter locked with floss thus immediately suggests a particular type of social background. Wolfe notes the existence of hundreds of surviving examples of flossed letters between 1574 and 1603 but, as a proportion of the many thousands of letters sent in this period, the practice was nevertheless rare. Letter-flossing seems to have entered England around 1579, in letters to Elizabeth I from France and Scotland. At the simplest level, the attractions of silk floss are obvious: like bows and ribbons on Christmas presents this extra closing device makes a letter-packet look prettier and more fancy. Most were just brightly-coloured, but a 1651 guide provides instructions in how to make increasingly complex patterns on floss by weaving different coloured strands together (British Library, Add. MS 6293). However, the practice also embeds meaningful social signals. As Wolfe has discerned, silk flossing:

strengthens the rhetorical impact of the letter, encapsulating the voice of the sender in an intimate gift, more private and meaningful than a letter folded and sealed in a more typical manner … [This] small token ... reverberates with meaning before it is even opened, in a way that is now invisible to us unless we view the original artifact (Wolfe, forthcoming)

Flossed letters were folded and locked differently to other (unflossed) letters. Typically, the letter was folded into a small and narrow packet, often using tight accordion folds. The silk would be tightly wrapped around. Often two small, personalised seals would be applied, one on either side of the packet, as in these letters to Bess from Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel ID 003 and ID 004. On other occasions just one seal was used, as in this letter to Bess from her daughter Elizabeth, countess of Lennox, which has gold-coloured floss stitched through the packet ID 041.

Jean-Puget de la Serre, author of The Secretary in Fashion, counselled his readers, 'if you use silk it ought to be of colour befitting the Writer, black if he mourn, both the wax and it' (1654: sig. B8r). These words suggest that by 1654, when de la Serre was writing, colour was understood to have some meaning; the truth may be less clear. According to Wolfe's extensive study, 'the most popular colour is pink, followed by yellow-gold, and by varying shades of blue and green, as well as shades of white, yellow, red, black, brown, purple, gray, and various colours twisted together'. Black silk, like black wax, was almost always used to intimate mourning or bad news. Red silk seems to have been associated with anger, while pink, which seems to have been a safe choice, may have denoted courtliness, perhaps even good cheer. Other colours may have had their own associations but the choice was probably dictated to a large extent by what was available. Arguably a more revealing material feature of flossing is that better quality silk tends to fray more when cut than its cheaper counterpart: since floss had to be cut in order to open the letter, this feature is often discernible to modern readers. A further consequence of the floss being cut is that the two seals that affix it to the letter tend to remain unbroken, a boon to sigillographers (i.e. historians of seals).

A cunning letter-writer could use a convention like this to his or her advantage. During the Thirty Years' War, Elizabeth of Bohemia's political movements were carefully monitored and controlled, especially by her brother in London, King Charles I. Letters she sent to the English court were frequently opened for surveillance purposes. As Nadine Akkerman observes:

Elizabeth's letters that could be identified as political at first glance would nearly always be opened by Charles's ministers. Yet they would not touch a princess's personal correspondence - or so it seems. Elizabeth used this knowledge to her advantage - she was astutely aware of what the material conditions of the letter could signal: the application of embroidery floss or thin silk threads attached to the signet seals encoded a letter as personal, as did the use of one's own hand rather than the hand of a secretary. Elizabeth then used silk and her own hand to misrepresent or disguise her most political letters as personal ones. (Akkerman, private communication 2012)

The Bohemian queen would also use false addresses, sending letters, for example, to her zealous supporter Sir Thomas Roe via the bawdy Master of Ceremonies, Sir John Finet. This way, letters that would have been intercepted immediately stood a chance of being delivered intact. Under closer surveillance at Hardwick by the earl of Shrewsbury and Bess, however, Mary, Queen of Scots, did not benefit from such niceties.

Sometimes the previous existence of floss that has now deteriorated can be deduced from holes in the letter that it once bound. Two letters in the British Library (Harl. MS 288, fols. 198 and 211) illustrate how our understanding of the material features of letters has changed in recent years. British Library manuscript curators oversee repairs of damaged documents, and these two folios evince the careful patching work done on early modern manuscripts when holes are discovered. However, these particular holes were repaired in error: they are actually organic parts of the original letter, slit-holes that testify to part of the document's original transmission and reading processes. An understanding of holes and slits is crucial in determining treatment decisions for archivists. Peter Beal records two kinds of holes that might be found in early modern manuscript letters. Some letters show 'stab-holes', punctures made because they were pierced in order to be filed on a length of string. Other kinds of cuts in the paper, 'dispatch slits', contain information about the transmission process itself. As Beal notes:

Dispatch slits are slits cut into a letter before sending to accommodate a ribbon or ribbons which would enclose or be tied around the letter and their knots sealed by wax. Such slits are generally a feature of early modern letters of a more formal nature, such as dispatches sent by monarchs or state officials. (2008: 124)

Dispatch slits, also known as 'dispatched slits', thus attest to a layer of security additional to a wax seal and floss ribbon, since it was practically impossible to open and reseal this kind of letter without the intrusion being obvious to the recipient. However, while Beal asserts that these holes would primarily accommodate silk floss or ribbon, it seems likely that many holes like this, probably the majority, would have been used for paper locking, where strips of paper harvested from elsewhere in the letter were then threaded through.

Jana Dambrogio, a conservator at The National Archives (Washington, DC), has undertaken extensive investigation into dispatch slits, in English, French, German and especially Italian letters sent between 1490 and 1790. She summarises the process thus:

In my experience with Italian monastic records (legal and accounting letters) and the English court the sender cuts a corner off of the paper from which they are writing in a wedge shape, they fold the letter for sending often four times horizontally and once vertically to reduce the size to one quadrant with a side for writing the address of the receiver. The preparer stabs through all the thickness of the folded letter closer to the edge of the letter that has the fore edges gathered. The sender feeds the small corner of the triangle through the slits about a quarter of the length of the narrower part of the wedge-shaped paper. The remainder, the wider part of the wedge wraps around the fore edges and onto a desired amount of wax that is placed over the slit and the smaller tail of the wedge that was first fed through. The sender impresses his/her seal into the paper of the wider part of the wedge and wax sealing it shut and creating a papered seal. (Dambrogio, personal communication 2012)

She recommends making a model of the letter you are studying in order to find out whether its holes are deliberate, seeing whether the holes match up in panels after the paper has been folded. There should be more than one slit per letter and, when folded, they should all be oriented in the same direction. Letters with dispatch slits would have had a strip of paper fed through them to act as a locking device; this strip may also have been used to paper the seal, so letters with a wedged-shaped papered seal are particularly worth examining (and in person - these holes are hard to discern in digital reproduction). The strip of paper would usually have been cut from the letter itself. Dambrogio states that, in her experience:

the letter locked with the paper wedge cut from the letter itself is the cleverest, the simplest, and the most secure. It serves the security needs and can be achieved by a merchant, a noble, or monarchy. On a technical level, the paper is handmade at this time of letter writing - each sheet unique with laid and chain lines, fibre distribution, so each little wedge locking piece of paper has fibre patterns that would line up if the little triangle was replaced in the area from which it was cut in the letter sent. The triangle would have to be the exact shape and match its fibre matrix. This is a simple anti-forgery, anti-tamper, authentication feature at its best. It is brilliant. (Dambrogio, personal communication 2012)

For an example of a paper wedge cut from the letter itself, with the triangle of paper missing from the top of the second folio, see the letter from Gilbert Talbot to Shrewsbury and Bess, c.1578, ID 083. Dispatch slits, then, can help us understand the level of sensitivity that an early modern letter would have been subjected to in its first incarnation.

In fact, the letters of Bess of Hardwick allow us to posit another kind of locking mechanism: sewing. One of the most dramatic example of a letter displaying patterns of pin-pricks is from 1573, where the left margin appears to show a series of paired stitching holes ID 143. It is tempting to speculate that this letter was folded and then sewn shut for delivery, but the lack of an address, signature or superscription makes it a resistant test case. Other letters, such as the one sent on 27 June c.1589 to Bess from her daughter-in-law Grace (Talbot) Cavendish, do appears to have been sewn shut. Grace's letter bears no trace of having been sealed, but it does have four pin-prick-sized holes which correlate across the letter-packet folds ID 008. Very little work has been done on this closing method, but it might be possible that it represented a kind of epistolary economy: most letters within the Bess corpus that seem to have been sewn shut occur in fairly informal notes. For example, the note from Bess to her daughter Mary (Cavendish) Talbot, 1580s, is written on a relatively small, scrappy piece of paper stitched shut along the outer edges ID 181.

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References and Further Reading

  • This section is greatly indebted to Heather Wolfe's unpublished article '"Neatly sealed, with silk, and Spanish wax or otherwise": The Practice of Letter-locking with Silk Floss in Early Modern England', from which are cited all her comments here. Wolfe recommends ascertaining the colour of silk floss by using a standardised colour guide such as Michel-Farbenführer (Michel Colour Guide) (Munich, 2000).
  • Jean-Puget de la Serre's Secretary in Fashion is quoted from the 1654 translation by John Massinger and published by Humphrey Moseley.
  • I am grateful to Jana Dambrogio for her extensive advice about dispatch slits.
  • Further discussion of ribbon, floss and sewing holes in the letters to and from Bess is provided 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

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'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Digital Humanities Institute at The University of Sheffield
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