Deter Prying Eyes by Locking Your Personal Letters


It was spring in England, and Sir Robert Cecil—Secretary of State for King James VI and I—was not completely happy. “I’ve additionally despatched you a bit of paper folded as gents use to write down their letters,” he wrote to his teenage son, William, “whereas yours are like people who come out of a grammar college.” The scolding tone is timeless; William’s offense, nonetheless, is a bit dated.

Within the early Seventeenth century, mass-produced envelopes had but to be invented. As an alternative, letters turned their very own envelopes via usually ingenious mixtures of cuts, folds, cuts, and dabs of sealing wax or different adhesives—a practice now known as “letterlocking,” which a analysis group led by Jana Dambrogio of MIT Libraries and Daniel Starza Smith of King’s Faculty has been studying in painstaking detail.* As Cecil’s rebuke makes clear, letterlocking may mirror one’s upbringing or schooling. But it surely wasn’t only a social nicety. Relying on the complexity of the lock, these mechanisms may additionally defend in opposition to the prying eyes of spymasters or different would-be snoops.

There are tools of the trade, but letters can also be locked with careful folding alone.
There are instruments of the commerce, however letters may also be locked with cautious folding alone. Illustration by Thumy Phan for Atlas Obscura

Though envelopes are in prepared provide as of late, letterlocking remains to be a viable technique of communication safety. Any one of many strategies listed beneath will be despatched in the present day via the mail—simply add stamps. From the commonplace “tuck and seal” to a one-of-a-kind locking mechanism created by English poet John Donne, beneath are three Seventeenth-century letterlocks you should use to safe your individual Twenty first-century correspondence, courtesy of Dambrogio and her group. There are movies for every technique beneath, in addition to step-by-step pictorial directions.


Tuck and Seal

The “tuck and seal” is a straightforward letterlock, probably the most widespread and broadly used strategies within the Western world. It appears to have been employed usually in private correspondence—Cecil himself tucked and sealed a letter to politician Sir John Peyton. The precise folding sample varies relying on the letter author. The steps beneath are primarily based on a letter despatched in 1580s Italy, now saved within the Vatican Apostolic Archive.

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Jana Dambrogio, Daniel Starza Smith, Nicole Araya, Annie Dunn, and M. Li; Courtesy Unlocking Historical past Supplies Assortment © 2020 (Modified from the unique)
  1. Fold your paper in half vertically with the written facet going through inward.
  2. Fold it in half vertically a second time.
  3. Unfold the paper—it ought to now be divided into 4 equal vertical columns. Yet one more vertical fold, within the left-most column, will set a margin and assist with the locking.
  4. Write your letter.
  5. Fold your letter in half horizontally by bringing the underside edge as much as meet the highest edge.
  6. Fold it in half horizontally once more. You have to be left with a protracted, skinny rectangular form.
  7. Fold the left fringe of the letterpacket in so it aligns with the following crease over. Fold the best fringe of the letter packet in so it aligns with the brand new left fringe of the packet. It’s best to now have one longer flap on the left facet and one shorter flap on the best.
  8. Give the shorter flap a squeeze to open it up, then tuck the longer flap into the shorter one.
  9. Dab a little bit of sealing wax beneath the shorter flap. (Tape works nice, too.)
  10. Press down or use a seal to safe the packet.
  11. Flip your rectangular packet over to handle and stamp your letter.

Diamond Letter

In 2014, researchers found a trunk of undelivered letters hoarded by Seventeenth-century postmasters within the Netherlands. The Brienne Assortment, because it’s recognized, comprises roughly 600 unopened letters—a treasure trove of historic knowledge for letterlocking students. This diamond letter, one of many missives preserved within the Brienne trunk, was written and folded by a Dutch soldier captured by the French throughout the 9 Years’ Battle.

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Jana Dambrogio, Daniel Starza Smith, Nicole Araya, Annie Dunn, and M. Li; Courtesy Unlocking Historical past Supplies Assortment © 2020 (Modified from the unique)
  1. Write your letter and switch the paper so it’s oriented vertically.
  2. Fold your letter in half by bringing the underside edge as much as meet the highest edge.
  3. Flip the packet over.
  4. Fold the highest edge down about an half an inch to create a skinny horizontal flap. Your letterpacket ought to now resemble a rudimentary envelope.
  5. Flip the packet over once more, so the flap is going through down. Fold the letter in half vertically (quick edge to quick edge) to create a crease down the middle, after which unfold your packet. (This step will not be pictured above, however will make step 6 simpler.)
  6. Fold down the best high nook so it aligns with the middle fold.
  7. Do the identical with the left high nook.
  8. Fold the remaining rectangular backside flap up and crease. Your letterpacket ought to now appear to be a paper hat.
  9. Flip your letter over. It’s best to see a tiny triangular pocket on the high level and two flaps protruding on the backside two factors.
  10. Fold each backside flaps over and crease.
  11. Fold the underside left level of the letter in and as much as that the left nook of the triangle meets the height.
  12. Tuck the nook into the tiny triangular pocket on the high level of the packet.
  13. Repeat with the best level, making a sq. diamond letterpacket.
  14. Use sealing wax or tape to safe the corners tucked into the triangular pocket.
  15. Tackle and stamp your letter.

The John Donne Lock

John Donne, probably the most vital English poets of the early trendy period, used an intricate and flashy letterlocking method to seal this 1602 letter. Though the mechanism doesn’t present excessive safety, it’s distinctive—no different letterlocks of this sort have but been recognized. “So we’ve received this man who’s referred to as essentially the most creative and witty poet of his era, and he’s doing probably the most creative and witty and sensible letterlocking strategies you could possibly think about,” Smith told Atlas Obscura in 2018. “That’s the sort of proof you should use to say ‘Ah, so, you possibly can really see one thing of individuals’s personalities in the best way they fold letters.’”

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Jana Dambrogio, Daniel Starza Smith, Nicole Araya, Annie Dunn, and M. Li; Courtesy Unlocking Historical past Supplies Assortment © 2020 (Modified from the unique)
  1. Begin with a big sheet of paper, comparable to 11×16, and fold it in half horizontally to the best.
  2. Fold the left edge over about half an inch and unfold to create a margin.
  3. Write your letter. (Steps 1–3 within the diagram above point out tips on how to begin with a bigger sheet of paper.)
  4. Start right here when you’re utilizing a daily 8.5×11 sheet of paper. Fold the underside edge as much as meet the highest, crease and unfold.
  5. Fold the underside edge up in order that it aligns with the newly created middle fold, and do the identical with the highest edge.
  6. Fold the letter in half once more alongside the unique middle crease.
  7. Fold the left fringe of the ensuing rectangular letterpacket over to align with the best edge.
  8. Utilizing an X-Acto knife, minimize a slit via your entire letterpacket, about an inch from the best edge (the open finish of the packet). The slit ought to be perpendicular to the sting.
  9. Open up the slit somewhat bit.
  10. Take a separate sheet of paper to create your locking mechanism. Fold the paper in half lengthwise.
  11. Utilizing scissors or an X-Acto knife, minimize out a slender kite form that’s flat on the quick finish and lengthy and tapered on the opposite. Within the middle of the folded kite form, minimize a tiny triangle out to create a small gap.
  12. Unfold the kite lock.
  13. Fold simply the thin tail/tip of the kite in half alongside the prevailing crease.
  14. Fold this tip down in order that rests at a 90-degree angle to the remainder of the kite lock.
  15. Seize your letter packet and stick the folded tip of the kite into the pre-cut slit.
  16. Place the letterpacket flat in your work floor in order that the kite tail is sticking up out of the letterpacket and the remainder of the kite lock is unfolded and pressed flat in opposition to your work floor, pointing to the best.
  17. Trim the tip of the kite tail.
  18. Unfold the tail and press it flat so it factors proper as effectively, making a “hook” via the slit.
  19. Dab a little bit of sizzling wax within the middle of the letterpacket. Fold the huge finish of the kite over the best fringe of the letterlacket and press it down onto the wax.
  20. Put one other dab of wax over the outlet within the kite lock.
  21. Press down with a wax seal stamp to safe the packet.
  22. Flip the letterpacket over to stamp and tackle.

Jana Dambrogio and her group have all kinds of letterlocking educational movies on their Youtube channel. and extra info will be discovered on their Instagram, Twitter, and site.

* Correction: This story was up to date to make it clear that each Jana Dambrogio and Daniel Starza Smith lead the analysis group.





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