"Letter-writing as it was in its golden age is almost a lost art. Telegram and postal card, telephone and "letter-sheet," are fast pushing it into the background, and while it certainly is as pleasant to hear from one's friend as ever, one must be content with the brief lines which the rush and hurry of our days permit."
-Anna Sawyer, 1889.
I seldom paid attention to liquid inks in the days before I had a pen compatible with them. (As a child I had tried scavenging feathers from underneath the cages of my mother's pet parrots and dipping the quills into the contents of ballpoint pens which I eviscerated, but these experiments proved unsatisfactory.) Without a pen that could use them, the inks had no utility for me so they fell beneath the radar of my consciousness. I knew that liquid inks are manufactured in a variety of colors in much the same way that I (as a non-driver) was aware that gasoline comes in different grades: It was a somewhat mundane bit of knowledge with no significance to me personally.
The nuances between the different shades of these valuable liquids took on new meaning for me when Gabriel gave me my first dip pen. As I unwrapped the thin wand of mother-of-pearl one Christmas, my husband explained that it differed from a fountain pen in not having a reservoir to pump and hold liquid ink. Fountain pens get their name from their artesian quality — their ink flows, like the water from a fountain. A dip pen can also be called a straight pen or a steel-nibbed pen. (Admittedly this latter nomenclature can be confusing, because fountain pens may also have steel nibs, and some high-end nibs for straight pens are even made out of gold to give them greater flexibility in writing.)
The one thing a dip/ straight-/ steel-nibbed pen is not is a quill-pen: Quills come from feathers, and straight-pens are more advanced technology. In an interesting way, the shift from quills to steel nibs can be seen as representative of the movement from artisan production to mass manufacture. Carving a bird's feather into a usable pen is actually a more complicated skill than a casual observer might realize. When Gabriel studied Library and Information Science at the University of Washington, one of his old professors was a former computer programmer who gave up the dot-com world to study the technologies involved with medieval manuscripts. He spent years learning the proper way to prepare quills, first shaving off the barbs from the shafts, then perfectly baking the quills in sand to harden them before carefully carving a perfectly-sculpted writing utensil.
One weekend I coerced Gabriel into helping me replicate the process his old professor had described and the results were embarrassingly dilettante. The quills we produced could be used to write something a castaway might throw out to sea in a bottle, but they were far from optimal. Lest we forget our failure, for days after our pen-making exercise our kitchen was haunted by the unpleasant reek of low-tide. The odor was a foul reminder of my error in thinking that it was acceptable to bake our goose quills in beach sand instead of the clean sand we should have used. Just because a technology is old does not mean that it is easy to produce—on the contrary, sometimes the older a technology is, the more art it requires.
Turning bird feathers into pens is an acquired skill, but for many centuries writers of European languages had little choice. Western alphabets were ill-suited to the brushes favored in various asian countries (besides, these were probably no easier to produce than quill-pens.) Stylus-type writing tools made out of reed, wood or other materials were still older technologies with their own issues. A type of metal stylus was used by engineers and draftsmen, but ordinary people found the stiffness of these instruments inconvenient. In 1890, the author of Birmingham Inventors and Inventions wrote to a researcher compiling a history of the pen:
"It has often occurred to me that some of the very early references to metallic pens may perhaps be the draughtsman's 'ruling pen,' and not an instrument made after the fashion of a quill pen with a slit in it. That it is possible to write with such an instrument this paragraph will show, but I must admit that it is not equal to one of Perry's J's."
Until around 1830, making metal nibs for pens was an artisan skill even more specific than trimming feather quills: Nibs from precious metals such as gold or silver were made by jewelers, while steel nibs were made by cutlers (the men who forged and ground knife blades.) Then mass production entered the picture — and writing became a lot more advanced.
During the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rapid expansion of technologies in a variety of areas contributed significantly to each other. Advances in book and paper production led to greater literacy—and a greater need for pens. Moreover, in the early 1800's the expectations of where things should come from were changing. Hand-produced goods were seen as antiquated and inferior; machine-made products were state of the art and desirable. (By the late 19th-century, a backlash movement had sprung up against this attitude, with philosophers such as John Ruskin and William Morris touting the value of hand-made goods. Then the early twentieth-century saw a resurgence in the "better living through technology" attitude, then there were mixed reactions in the immediate aftermath of each world war. The 1950's space era idolized technology. The hippies of the 1960's despised it. Around and around...)
In the early 1800's demand for metal-nibbed pens rose swiftly, and a number of cutlers found that it was increasingly profitable to manufacture pen-nibs than knives. The question of which specific individual deserves credit for being the first to mass-produce metal nibs is debatable; pen historian Henry Bore divides the credit between three men around 1830: John Mitchell, Joseph Gillot, and Josiah Mason.
When Gabriel gave me my straight-pen, he accompanied it with a short educational lecture about the history of the pen. Experiments with using it became a succession of experiential lessons about the nature of ink. The classic black inks come in varying qualities and prices, and I found that very cheap ink tends to dry into clumps on the pen or fade on the page. The highest grades of ink are those which not only flow the most smoothly for writing, but also last with a dark permanence. Besides basic black, there exists a choice of colors so varied as to put any rainbow to shame and convince even the most resplendent peacock he should resign himself to a bachelor existence. Experience taught me to be cautious of lovely marbled and metallic inks which mimic precious ores or lustrous tropical beetles: The suspended metallic particles which give them their sheen tend to clot when exposed to air and foul the nibs of pens, making it difficult to write neatly with them.
When I saw that the J. Herbin company made inks, I was intrigued because I had long been a devotee of their high-quality sealing wax. Being me, of course I couldn't be content with simply testing the product but felt obliged to research the story of the company—and it proved a fascinating one. The tale goes all the way back to the seventeenth-century. The original Monsieur Herbin was a French sailor who began by collecting ingredients and formulas on visits to India. Settling down on his return to his homeland, he founded his sealing wax company in 1670 and began selling inks in his Parisian shop on the Rue des Fosses Saint-Germain at the turn of the century in 1700. Over the years, the company's prestigious list of customers has included Louis XIV and Victor Hugo. The author of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame had his own private ink formula, and the recipe for it is still archived in the company’s Paris headquarters. Herbin's inks are made with all natural dyes which gives them a very neutral pH (an important quality in archival terms, since acidic elements can eat through documents.)
The natural ingredients of a particular line of inks give them a very special quality indeed. In the nineteenth-century, ink manufacturers started making ink from hydrosols, the aromatic waters distilled from flowers during perfume making. Herbin uses hydrosols from a Provençal town in southern France famous for its perfume to produce inks smelling of roses (red), violets (blue), lavender, and oranges and other delicious fragrances.
Scented inks! The discovery brought up an array of childhood memories of old markers I had cherished. In the early years of my elementary school education, my teachers and all the luckier children in the classrooms possessed a particular brand of colored marker that we all unilaterally agreed were astronomically better than any other felt-tipped pens on the market. This superiority was not due to greater availability of shading (the standard set only contained nine colors) or any particular persistency of ink (although they seemed more vibrant than the pens of other brands.) These markers—these wonderful pens—were prized because they smelled of fruits and candies. Many years later when I was in college, a classmate and I waxed nostalgic for those dear old scented markers, and we imagined what adult, less sugared, versions would be like. We fantasized about red ink that smelled of rose petals, or lavender scented with the eponymous herb. We joked about making our fortune by manufacturing such clever products. Little did we dream that companies manufacturing liquid ink had anticipated our idea by over a century. Finding the scented inks produced by J. Herbin took me back to childhood delights and adult daydreams, then pushed them both up a notch.
Victorian stationary paper could also be scented by adding perfumed sachets to the box in which it was stored. By the 1890s scented letters were so common that advice columnists writing on correspondence discussed fragrance as a matter of course. Unsurprisingly, their specific suggestions on the subject were influenced by their own opinions, although as a general rule they advised their readers to save perfume for personal (never business) letters and to err on the side of subtlety. Writing for The Woman's Book in 1894, Constance Cary Harrison boldy declared that, "[s]trong, vivid odors intended for the masses, so frankly vulgarize everything they touch, it seems hardly worth while to urge that the sachets containing them be thrown into the fire." Good Housekeeping's Anna Sawyer was more indulgent and saw no objection to delicately scented personal correspondence. However even she drew the line at patchouli, which she found "vulgar in the extreme."
In exaggerated cases the offense could go beyond olfactory aversion. A work of short fiction originally published in 1867 gives a fantastic account of a lady who was driven so wild with jealousy after seeing her husband meet a young blonde woman that she poisoned him with laudanum. When a scented letter arrives from the blonde, the murderess' "jealousy and anger rushed to life again... Did she dare to call him her dear Lionel! Ay, there it was, written on pink paper with perfumed ink." Only after reading the scented letter does the self-made widow learn that the pretty blonde was her husband's favorite sister. Oops!
I am inclined to think that strongly scented letters affect some people in the way that text alerts on modern devices affect others. There is a natural human curiosity about other people's messages—and an equally natural desire for the addressees to be possessive of private missives. The challenging thing about scents and audible signals is that they both force a teasing fragment of a private item into the public domain. The Victorian advice guide Hill's Manual of Social and Business Forms includes the commandment, "Never read letters which you may find addressed to others." When the mailman delivers envelopes with other people's names on them or when electronic devices are dormant, decency generally overcomes curiosity. However, when the missives attract the attention of our other senses through scent or sound, restraint becomes just a little bit more difficult. Luckily, outside the fictitious world of Gothic romance people are less likely to go around poisoning each other over such things.
Considering etiquette's emphasis on maintaining subtlety of scent in letters, it shouldn't be surprising that the J. Herbin company has actually named their line of scented inks, Les Subtiles—"The Subtles." I absolutely adore the fragrance of roses, and when I found an ink that smelled of them I stepped up my writing of personal letters just to increase my exposure to that beloved perfume. I was intrigued to find that the fragrance which was so heady in the ink bottle disappeared very quickly after words were set to paper—in other words, the ink is fragrant when wet, and nearly scentless when dry. With their line of Les Subtiles, Herbin seems to have struck the perfect compromise between scented and unscented : The writer smells the fragrance but the reader does not. They also produce inks which aren't scented at all, for formal correspondence as well as for people who simply don't care for fragrance.
As Goldilocks said about the Baby Bear's possessions, Herbin's ink was "just right": It flowed smoothly without clumping and left bold marks upon the page once dry. I was to especially appreciate this latter quality when I acquired an antique fountain pen.
Fountain pens may seem old-fashioned to most Americans, but this is more of a commentary on Americans than on fountain pens. In Europe and in Japan they are still common and readily available. Department stores sell them in a broad range of prices and qualities, from cheap examples in the school supply section, to beautiful, artisan-quality specimens under glass in their own department. Worldwide, fountain pen sales are on the rise: Parker, which has manufactured fountain pens since 1888, says that the years since 2006 have demonstrated a "resurgence" in fountain pen popularity; and Amazon reported in 2012 that online fountain pen sales were double what they had been in 2011 and four times what they had been in 2010.
Even in America, fountain pens still have their adherents. Antique and vintage fountain pens have particularly devoted followers. Pen historian Jonathan Steinberg cites the inherent superiority of the older pens as the reason for their devout followings. He points out that, owing to differences in flexible and rigid nibs, antique pens write in a completely different way from newer models. The nibs of the earliest fountain pens (like the nibs of straight pens before them) replicated the flexibility of feather quills; they curved and flexed very slightly as the words were formed on a page. Rigid nibs (which didn't flex to shape words and were rather scratchy to use) existed, but they were specialized implements used primarily for writing through multiple layers of carbon paper—this earned them the nickname "manifold" nibs. Flexible nibs were preferred as being far more comfortable to write with.
The same pliancy that made flexible nibs comfortable to write with also made them slightly more delicate than their rigid counterparts. This wasn't a huge problem as long as writers were careful. However in the 1920's companies started introducing the idea of lifetime warranties—which meant that people were no longer responsible for their own breakages. It became prudent business practice to make nibs as indestructible as possible, no matter that some of the comfort in writing was sacrificed.
Fountain pens aren't actually that old of an idea in the grand timeline of human history. They first became a mass market item in my favorite period—the 1880s. Various small-scale inventors had been experimenting with primitive fountain pens since the eighteenth-century (Thomas Jefferson made one for himself), but they all faced the same frustrating problem: The ink tended to form a vacuum inside the tube of the pen. Various methods were attempted to overcome this obstacle, and in 1882 Lewis Waterman developed a channel feed for fountain pen nibs that let air in at the same time it let ink out. In 1884 he started commercial production of this new technology and a number of other companies followed suit.
When I set out to buy an antique fountain pen with part of my first book advance, Gabriel helped me find just the right one. This took some searching, because for such a major watermark celebration I was determined that it had to be perfect. We visited every fountain pen seller in Seattle (sadly, not a large number these days), then we started looking into dealers online. Gabriel managed to track down a seller in British Columbia who refurbished antique pens and had a few which my husband thought might be right for me. I chose a beautiful model with a gilt cap and mother-of-pearl inlay, from right around 1900. (Prior to the turn of the twentieth-century most fountain pens had very plain black exteriors, and I wanted something a little showy.)
My particular pen is a style with a reservoir which the writer fills with ink from an eyedropper. When I first acquired it I had some official letters to write; colored ink would have been inappropriate so I went to the only shop in Port Townsend which sells liquid ink and bought a bottle of black off of their shelf. (The ink was from a company which shall remain nameless, but let the record show that it wasn't my beloved Herbin.) Buying ink from a store with a low turnover rate of products was a mistake which I will never be repeating, but at least it taught me a lesson. If asked to name materials with expiration dates, a person might list milk, meat, poultry, and other edibles. Ink probably wouldn't come up high on most people's lists. However, if it spends enough time sitting on a shelf, even a decent ink will start to dry out and the pigments suspended in the liquid will clump together. For several frustrating weeks, every ten to thirty minutes of my writing would be halted by the necessity to wash yet another clog out of my beautiful new fountain pen. Some people would wrongfully lay the blame on the antique pen, but I knew it had been fully serviced by the collector who sold it to me. (Buying a fountain pen is like buying any piece of technology: It helps to make the purchase from a reputable buyer who knows how to repair the product before they pass it on. Think of it as buying a used laptop from a reputable dealer with guaranteed tech support; instead of pulling one from the back of a Goodwill store and expecting quality results.)
I have a general inclination to "make do" and for a while I dealt with a maddening ritual imposed by the clump-prone ink: Write for ten minutes, see that words have stopped appearing, shake pen, try to write again with no results, take pen to bathroom, wash out pen, wash out bathroom sink (now stained black), refill pen, still have no luck writing, shake pen again, reflect that my desk is starting to resemble a Dalmatian, apply pen to paper, curse giant blot which has emerged on page, re-write page (if a formal letter), repeat entire process in 10-30 minutes. Finally I decided that the time all this was costing me in terms of inefficiency was more valuable than the negligible sum I had spent on the world's most infuriating bottle of ink. I sent away for fresh black ink from my favorite company.
As long as I was ordering from J. Herbin, I ordered some blotting paper from them as well. Blotting paper is to regular paper what a diaper is to a handkerchief: It is extremely thick and absorbent, which makes it perfect for testing a newly filled pen, or as a space to hold a clogged pen over when shaking it. (When the clog is shaken free of the nib, it will—hopefully—fall onto the blotting paper.)
Having blotting paper also made it possible for me to use an item which Gabriel had given me for Christmas: a rocker-blotter. This tool is often simply referred to as a blotter, but since that term can also refer to a pad which holds a stack of blotting paper in place horizontally I'll use the full name to avoid confusion. It is a pad about the size of a deck of cards, with a curved bottom and a handle on the top. A piece of blotting paper is fitted over the curved bottom, and the tool is pressed over freshly-inked words in a rocking motion. Its purpose is to soak up extra ink so that it won't smear when a page is turned over or folded.
Once the new ink arrived (straight from the factory), writing became a lot more pleasurable. Clogs and blots decreased dramatically—although they didn't disappear completely yet, because as with so many worthwhile things in life, the lessons involved were arrayed upwards on a steep learning curve. I started to look on my eyedropper pen a bit like a Persian cat: It was fussy, yet I was confident it would become a worthy companion once we became accustomed to each other. Also like a Persian cat, it had specific needs I did not fully understand at first.
My writing desk is what the British would call a bureau: The lower portion consists of three broad drawers like a dresser, and these support a slanted top which folds down to provide support for the writing materials. Behind this moveable slanted portion are seven little drawers, only two-and-a-half inches deep: three each are stacked vertically on the left and right, and a broader but equally shallow drawer is situated between these.
At the time I was still learning how to tend the needs of a fountain pen, my desk was situated next to one of the hottest windows in our house. We had placed it there in the winter when the house was cold and the sun came through the glass panes at low angles; the warm spot seemed like a good place for a writing desk at the time.
Starting with desks that had perpetually exasperated my elementary-school teachers and all the way through my stewardship of this family heirloom as an adult, I considered myself congenitally incapable of keeping a tidy desk. I'm far from alone in this. In 2001-2005 a team of UCLA archaeologists and anthropologists examined the houses of a number of different families, counting artifact totals in each room. Most of the home office spaces included in the study were so cluttered that the researchers gave up on counting paper items—"abundant stacks of papers, mail and magazines, which we deemed impossible to tally with accuracy." Even ignoring these documents (and also ignoring hidden objects which had been shoved behind other items), the researchers documented as many as 2,337 plainly visible non-paper objects in a home office space—and they didn't even look in the drawers or file cabinets.
All the little drawers in my desk were perpetually stuffed with detritus. Not wanting a valuable (and potentially leaky) pen to get mixed up with the mess, it seemed logical to leave my fountain pen resting at the open space at the front of the desk when I wasn't actively writing. I found a little ceramic flower (intended to be a chopstick-holder) to use as a pen-rest, and laid my fountain pen horizontally across it on full display—in the bright, pretty sunshine. In retrospect, as far as sensible actions are concerned this was about on par with leaving a laptop computer on the dashboard of a sealed car at the height of summer.
I overlooked one of the most basic properties of water: It expands when heated. Since liquid ink is primarily water with tinting materials added, it should surprise no one that I had quite a few more messes to deal with before I finally considered the chemistry of the situation. (I doubt the hot window did any good to the antique gutta percha of the pen's body, either.) Feeling chagrined at my oversight, I cleaned out the broad drawer at the center of my desk's top so that I could give my poor pen some shelter from the sun. While I lined the drawer with cotton flannel (to soak up any further leaks) I reflected that this particular space was probably intended for pens all along. So many things in people's daily lives are designed expressly for their purpose: The trick lies in discerning that purpose.
Storing the pen in a shaded portion of the desk ameliorated my problems, but they weren't completely eliminated yet. That took moving the desk to a cooler portion of the house; of course, this also made it a much more pleasant space for me to work in the summer. Once this was accomplished, clogs and blots dwindled to being only occasional, minor annoyances, about on par with an abnormally slow program running on a usually fast computer.
Trial, error, and a bit of research would inform me about the proper procedure for operating a fountain pen. Different varieties of inks should never be mixed together; even if they are each fine examples of ink on their own, they tend to get fussy when mixed. The pen should always be capped when not in use, even for short periods of time such as stopping to talk to someone or daydream out the window (otherwise the ink can start to dry and clog the nib.) Also, if the pen is left unused for a few days, a slight bit of attention (in the form of gentle shaking and/or a warm water rinse) might be necessary to re-boot it and get the ink flowing again—or at least, this is the case with my particular eyedropper fountain pen. I don't presume to speak of pens everywhere.
I ultimately came to understand that my fountain pen and I have more than a little in common: We both appreciate good ink; we don't like taking in material that doesn't agree with us; we dislike excessive heat; and we both become neurotic if we're not allowed to write every day.
There was still one more application to acquire for successful running of the fountain pen program, and that was proper paper. In the nineteenth-century it was naturally assumed that all writing was done with liquid ink or with pencils, and paper was manufactured accordingly. A paper company whose product splayed out ink as quickly as water seeps through toilet paper would not have remained in business very long. Unfortunately for aficionados of Victorian pens, expectations have changed, and the types of paper most compatible with electronic equipment are actually the least compatible with liquid ink.
When I was a junior at the University of Washington, a minor incident occurred which left a lasting impression on my memory. At the beginning of a particular class, the professor handed out the notes for the day, just as she always did. Right away, we all noticed something out of the ordinary about the paper on which these particular notes were printed. It was thick, with a slightly cloth-like texture. I looked around and saw the other students fingering it, hefting it, squinting at it quizzically. One girl held it up and rubbed it against her cheek, a slight smile on her face.
"This paper—" someone asked.
"Is it—" another student began at the same time.
We all looked at each other and the paper, then someone tried again. "What's going on with it?"
"Hmm?" asked our white-haired professor distractedly. She turned from the board at the front of the room where she'd been writing the day's itinerary. Looking around the class, she noticed the ways in which we were all engaged in a total-sensory experience of our assignment. "Oh, I'm sorry. I ran out of computer paper. I had some old typewriter paper at the back of my office, so I used that instead." She smiled at the girl who had been rubbing her cheek on the novel item. Distinctive as it was to the students, our professor saw nothing extraordinary in it. "It used to be that the higher-quality papers had a higher rag content so the ink wouldn't smear," she explained.
"Why did they ever stop?" asked the dreamy-eyed student with the sensitive cheeks.
"Well," our professor looked over at the streamlined new Apple at the front of the classroom. "—Anything connected with computers or printers has to be kept as dust-free as possible." She gestured up at the white-board. "That's why all the classrooms are switching over to these from chalkboards." She wiped her hands to clean them of clinging dry-ink particles from the marker she had just used, then she looked out over the pieces of paper we were holding. "Technically, I probably shouldn't have run that paper through my printer. Doing that too much is liable to clog the printer with lint. I was in a tight spot, though." She looked back up at the board. "Can we move on to the lesson now?"
We all set our papers down, slightly embarrassed—and yet a little reluctant to let them go.
When I started using liquid ink, I discovered the corollary to the problem described by my professor. Running too much high-rag content paper through a computer-printer might jam it, but writing with liquid ink on most printer paper leads to a rather unsightly mess. Instead of drying neatly in place, the ink seeps through the paper and leaves spots all over the back of it. In the worst cases, the ink also bleeds out onto the front of the paper and turns even neatly written words into odd approximations of Rorschach tests.
Since printer paper has become the default sold in most office supply stores, paper that is actually intended for use with proper ink instead of toner can be a bit difficult to locate. Looking for ink-compatible paper one day, I made a trip to Seattle and visited the huge bookstore attached to my old alma mater. I spent half an hour frowning at and feeling the pages of nearly every notebook and journal in the school supply section when it finally occurred to me to cross over to the art supplies. I found some broad, blank-paged artists' journals. I checked the labels to make sure they were acid-free (and therefore wouldn't self-destruct as they aged), then asked the clerk behind the counter how well they would handle fountain-pen ink.
"I know it's not reasonable to expect you to have intimate knowledge of every single product in your store—" I apologized.
"No, that's a great question!" She assured me. She smiled, inspecting the blank-paged books. "I understand exactly what you mean. Let me ask my boss!"
She disappeared into a back room and came back after only a brief absence. "They can take a light wash, so they should be fine for liquid ink." She smiled bright at me, and I thanked her.
When I brought the journals home and interfaced them with my fountain pen, I found the technical support to have been sound: They were compatible.
Gabriel pointed out to me that, from an archivist's perspective, it's particularly important to use good quality paper for correspondence. A lot of what historians know about people from the past comes from what can be gleaned from the writings they leave behind themselves. Not everyone keeps a diary, and even when they do they or their executors don't always allow it to remain public. Therefore, letters constitute valuable windows into people's thoughts. As such, they merit preservation, and a letter on good quality paper has a better chance at long-term preservation than a letter on paper which will become fragile over time. In 1895 Thomas Hill wrote:
"You little dream how much that letter may influence your future. How much it may give of hope and happiness to the one receiving it. How much it may be examined, thought of, laughed over, and commented on; and when you suppose it has long since been destroyed, it may be brought forth, placed in type, and published broadcast to millions of readers."
About the same time I acquired an antique fountain pen, I made a resolution to conduct as much of my personal correspondence as possible by actual letter. I knew that in the realm of business, trying to enforce hand-written correspondence upon my poor, hard-working editor would doubtless simply drive her to finding less eccentric writers to publish, and quite frankly I wouldn't blame her. There was no reason not to use it for personal correspondence though, and a number of my friends proved wonderfully amenable to the idea... I was incredibly pleased when some of my lady-friends started responding to my letters with their own and missives started popping up in the post with increasing frequency. There is an intimacy to physical letters which cold pixels cannot match. They turn the mailbox from a hated messenger of junk and bills, to a carrier dove which can deliver a friend's smile.
They can also deliver things which are far less pleasant. In 2013 I received a thick manilla envelope stuffed with a rambling and ungrammatical piece of lengthy hate mail. The letter repeated "kill" a number of times and ordered both me and my husband to leave town, as well as stating that we had no right to be here. It is unfortunate that a society which ostensibly prides itself on diversity contains so many people who don't accept it.
Physical mail is an interesting example of a way in which the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries were actually significantly more advanced than the twenty-first. From the time that free mail delivery was authorized in U.S. cities in 1863, "carriers were expected to make deliveries "as frequently as the public convenience . . . shall require," Monday through Saturday." Big cities had several deliveries per day; by 1905 Baltimore and Philadelphia each had seven deliveries per day, most of New York city had nine, and Brooklyn had five. When Thomas E. Hill wrote advice on answering letters in 1891, he included sample letters as forms to follow for various situations. It is revealing that a number of his examples and their corresponding responses are marked with the exact same date, implying that they were received just a few hours after they were sent and answered by the next mail a short time afterwards. (I know plenty of people who can't manage this with e-mail.)
Rapid delivery of mail was so taken for granted in big cities that residents of small towns seem to have been resentful that they did not enjoy the same perquisite—they had to be content with only getting their mail once a day. In an article in a Port Townsend newspaper in 1889, a journalist demanded two daily mails for the city in extremely strong terms. He declared that the unacceptable situation of only one delivery per day here had come about because, "In an insane desire to reduce tariff and pile up a surplus in the United States treasury, the government has in recent years allowed the postal department to degenerate to the inefficient service of a beggarly nation." Washington wasn't even quite a state yet when the article went to press, yet its writer felt that the idea of a letter sometimes taking as many as three days to get from Port Townsend down to Portland, Oregon (209 miles away) was a sign of "how wretched our service has become." One hundred and fifteen years later, I'm very happy if the post office delivers a letter the same distance in so little a time! And of course if the mail proved insufficient in the nineteenth-century, there was always the telegraph.
I'm often amused by the fact that the only way to make a twenty-first-century message travel as quickly as a nineteenth-century one is to send it by e-mail.
No matter how slow the post office gets though, physical objects do have advantages over their electronic equivalents. One interesting example of this is their ability to preserve and transmit incidental information. When Gabriel was in library school, one of his professors told a particularly interesting story about the sort of information which gets completely lost when something is digitized. The tale as he told it, ran thus:
An archivist was monitoring the collection of a major institution when a researcher came in requesting a number of documents. The archivist found them in storage, noticed that they were letters from various places, and brought them out to the researcher without noticing anything extraordinary. The archivist returned to his desk, but soon he noticed the researcher behaving very strangely. The man would pick up a letter, check the date, hold it to his face and inhale deeply, then sort it into one of two piles he was stacking without reading it. When the piles had grown fairly high and the man still hadn't read a single letter, the archivist's curiosity finally got the better of him.
"What on earth are you doing?" he asked.
The researcher looked up and smiled. He explained that he was an epidemiologist researching the history of a particular outbreak. At the time of the disease he was studying, letters out of quarantined areas would be disinfected with vinegar before being passed along in the post. The scent was still discernible many years later, and he was smelling for it to determine which letters merited further investigation. People would often specifically avoid mentioning outbreaks in their words; the text of the letter might be something as innocuous as "You'll be happy to know that our business is thriving!" In the context of an outbreak, however, those words can have very different implications. Digitizing the letters would have stripped them of this context, and thus a significant portion of their meaning.
All people live surrounded by details they don't necessarily consider, or even notice. Yet sometimes those seemingly trivial points provide the greatest insight into a situation.
 Sawyer, Anna. "The Etiquette of Correspondence: Note and Letter Writing." Good Housekeeping. Volume 8, No. 10. March 16, 1889. p 221
 Prosser, R. quoted by Bore, Henry. The Story of the Invention of Steel Pens with a Description of the Manufacturing Processes by Which they are Produced. New York: Ivison, Blakeman & Company, 1890. p. 13.
 Bore, ibid. pp. 3-4.
 "1670 Inks Collection," "Fountain Pen Inks and Fine Writing Accessories," <http://www.jherbin.com>
 Harrison, Constance Cary. "Society and Social Usages: The Amenities of Correspondence - Perfumes." The Woman's Book Volume I. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1894. pp. 161-162.
 Sawyer, Anna. ibid.
 Clark, Georgina G. "A Life-Watch." A Bottomless Grave and Other Victorian Tales of Terror. ed. Hugh Lamb. Dover Publications: New York, 1977. p. 142-154.
 Hill, ibid. p. 183
 Brocklehurst, Steve. "Why Are Fountain Pen Sales Rising?" BBC News Magazine. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-18071830>
 Steinberg, Jonathan. Fountain Pens: Their History and Art. New York: Universe Publishing. 2001. pp. 18-19.
 Steinberg, ibid. pp. 19-20.
 Steinberg, ibid. pp. 24-33.
 Arnold, Jeanne E. and Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, Elinor Ochs. Life At Home In the Twenty-First Century. UCLA: The Cotsen Institute of Archaelogy Press, 2013, p. 41.
 Hill, Thomas E. ibid. p. 78.
 United States Postal Service Historian. "Delivery: Monday through Saturday since 1863." <https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/delivery-monday-through-saturday.pdf>
 Hill, pp. 102, 113
 Anonymous. "Better Mail Service Demanded." The Morning Leader, Port Townsend, Washington, October 2, 1889. p. 4.