Anne here, and my blog today is more in the nature of a gentle rant. I read a lot, and as chance would have it, in the last few weeks I've read novel after novel where the heroine pulls out a sheet of foolscap and dashes off a quick note — not a letter, a note, the sort that you'd send a friend who lives around the corner or a few streets away, sent by hand via a footman or some lackey.
Sadly, it grates on me every time. Yes, a small thing, I know. As I said, this is a gentle rant. Or possibly a picky one. But I am a stationery addict, so please forgive me.
The thing is, foolscap is a big sheet of paper. It's probably fine if you want to write a long letter, but it's not the size you'd use to dash off a note — especially if you are a lady with pretensions to elegance, and what Regency heroine is not?
A sheet of the smaller kind of foolscap (there are several types) is roughly similar in size to a sheet of US legal paper — 8½ inches wide by 13½ inches long. (US legal is ½ an inch longer.) To send a short note to a friend or acquaintance on a sheet of foolscap would be horridly inelegant.
Now perhaps the note paper was bought from the stationer in foolscap size, but I'm not so sure. For the most part these foolscap-wielding heroines are well-heeled ladies, whose every need is catered to. I'm betting when ladies bought their elegant notepaper from their elegant stationery supplier it was already cut to a variety of convenient sizes, neatly trimmed and pre-folded for convenience, if not by the stationer, then by some house servant.
A fine lady's notepaper paper would be of the best quality, manufactured specifically as quality writing paper, sized and hot pressed (pressed between two hot rollers) to give a fine, smooth surface. Some would be watermarked, some produced specially for individuals might be printed with the family crest, or some other design, mourning notepaper would be black-edged, the width of the black border often hinting at the closeness of their relationship to the deceased person and how recent and great the loss.
The table below shows the variety and size of notepapers, though it's worthwhile to note that not all Regency-era paper manufacturers produced standardized products. But notepaper would most likely be much like the size of notepaper today, say a quarto sheet folder in half, or even half a quarto sheet folded in half. Or smaller. Note the sizes — they are in inches. Info from this site.
"Cutting and folding quarto-post gives octavo-post, also called notepaper. Cutting and folding octavo-post gives 16mo-post or small note. This process was carried on all the way down to 64mo post, lilliputian note-paper." Source.
Letters and notes are different. For a letter that was to travel via the post (instead of carried by footman or lackey) you might use foolscap size, or quarto (which is similar to A4 or American letter size), depending on how much was to go into the letter. And since the post charged per sheet —unless you got a lord or Member of Parliament to frank it for you) one sheet was it, and if you wrote a long letter it was not just closely written, but crossed and sometimes recrossed.
Here's an example of a crossed letter, from the Shanahan's excellent site, used with permission. And if you want to read about the background to this particular letter go here. They also have a marvellous collection of letters from British history — here
I could bang on for ages about Regency-era letters and notes, but I won't . . .pause for reader to heave sigh of relief.
But if you're interested, there is an excellent post here on the anatomy of a regency letter, there's another site that delves into Jane Austen's letters in some technical detail, this Jane Austen site has several excellent posts, there's more about regency letters here, and if you want to see how to fold a letter regency style, go here.
PostScript: And why was it called foolscap? It was named after the fool or jester's cap and bells watermark used on paper of this size from the fifteenth century onwards. According to Wikipedia, the earliest example of such paper that is firmly dated was made in Germany in 1479.
So what about you — are you a stationery addict? Are you a letter writer? (I wrote a post a while back on the gentle art of letter writing.) Are there small things in historical novels that jar on you?