The Art of Letterlocking

Locked letter 4-triangle lockAndrea here, musing today about privacy and our personal correspondences. I think that most of us would prefer that our words are only read by the person or persons for whom they are intended. Thus we’re paying more attention to having passwords and two-step notifications set up to keep “snoopers” away from our e-mails.

Mary-ScotBut the wish for privacy is nothing new when it comes to personal correspondences. Apparently historical figures like Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, Galileo, Marie Antoinette, and Albrecht Dürer, just to name a few, were equally worried about people snooping through their mail! Recently, I happened to come across a fascinating article in the New York Times about historical “letterlocking” in Western Europe and thought I would share some of what I learned on the subject.


Locked letter 3 MIT LibThe availability of foldable paper in the West, which happened roughly around the 13th century, allowed the idea of writing a letter to flourish. Paper was easy to transport, allowing one to communicate with others, both near and far. A simple fold or two could, of course, protect the words. But in the course of the letter’s travels, anyone could take a peek if they so desired.

As letters came to be used for important correspondences—government, banking, commerce, church matters— the need for privacy became a big issue. And as the modern envelope, with its adhesive flap, wasn’t invented until the 19th century, earlier letter writers had to be creative!

Queen EBeginning in the fifteenth century, people began to devise an intricate system of "foldable" security. Methods included creating a dangling strip of paper from the letter, and then using it to thread through slits in the rest of the paper to tie the folds of the letter together. The lock would have to be “cut” in order to read it, and thus someone would know whether the content had been compromised. Sealing wax and silk threads were also sometimes used to add to the complexity of the “locking.”

According to the New York Times article, this method was used by Mary, Queen of Scots to send her last communication before being beheaded. Other notables who used elaborate “letterlocking”—the most common form was the spiral lock—included Catherine de Medici, King Charles IX and Queen Elizabeth I.

Locked letter facsimile-Brit LibIt was Jana Dambrogio, a conservator at the M.I. T. Libraries, who came up with the term “letterlocking.” While on a Fellowship at the Vatican archives, where she was working on accounting and legal records, she became fascinated by the folds, slits, dangling strips and evidence of wax that she was finding on the documents. Curious, she began to delve deeper into what was going on.

Through further work projects, she began to realize that security measures were used a lot, and began documenting the different styles used. In the New York Times article, she mentions that letter writers had to be very confident to employ the spiral lock, because one mistake would require re-writing the whole document—a task that could take hours.

WalsinghamOther styles that she has identified include the basic tuck-and-fold, the dagger trap, which involves an ingenious booby trap for those looking to spy on the contents, and the triangle lock, which was popular with Elizabeth I and her spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.

Dambrogio also noted that the practice of letterlocking appeared to spread through European courts through royalty—the sovereigns would write to each other and use highly sophisticated “lock” to keep their messages safe, and courtiers began to use the techniques as well.

Locked letter 2 Nat Lib ScotShe and her colleagues find it demands painstaking attention to detail to figure out some of the locking techniques. Letters that have been flattened for centuries may have lost their folds, but patterns of dirt paper discoloration can help indicate where the folds were. They also experiment with historical formulas for sealing wax to figure out how the seals would crack.

I found the whole idea of letterlocking fascinating. And for those of you who do too, I have a fun link to share. If you want to try making your own locked letters, you can go here!

So what about you? Do you use a lot of the new security options to keep your letters and data safe? Also, would you have the patience to letterlock your written letters?

100 thoughts on “The Art of Letterlocking”

  1. Well, this was very interesting. I never thought about letter security in early times. From the books I read, I assumed that if you were rich or important enough you would send your letter by special messenger – the (sort of) UPS of the day. I always thought that for ordinary folk the risk of the letter getting lost was more likely than someone snooping on the contents.
    I learn so many interesting things on this blog. Thanks Andrea.

    Reply
  2. Well, this was very interesting. I never thought about letter security in early times. From the books I read, I assumed that if you were rich or important enough you would send your letter by special messenger – the (sort of) UPS of the day. I always thought that for ordinary folk the risk of the letter getting lost was more likely than someone snooping on the contents.
    I learn so many interesting things on this blog. Thanks Andrea.

    Reply
  3. Well, this was very interesting. I never thought about letter security in early times. From the books I read, I assumed that if you were rich or important enough you would send your letter by special messenger – the (sort of) UPS of the day. I always thought that for ordinary folk the risk of the letter getting lost was more likely than someone snooping on the contents.
    I learn so many interesting things on this blog. Thanks Andrea.

    Reply
  4. Well, this was very interesting. I never thought about letter security in early times. From the books I read, I assumed that if you were rich or important enough you would send your letter by special messenger – the (sort of) UPS of the day. I always thought that for ordinary folk the risk of the letter getting lost was more likely than someone snooping on the contents.
    I learn so many interesting things on this blog. Thanks Andrea.

    Reply
  5. Well, this was very interesting. I never thought about letter security in early times. From the books I read, I assumed that if you were rich or important enough you would send your letter by special messenger – the (sort of) UPS of the day. I always thought that for ordinary folk the risk of the letter getting lost was more likely than someone snooping on the contents.
    I learn so many interesting things on this blog. Thanks Andrea.

    Reply
  6. This was indeed a fascinating post. I’ve only heard of letter locking once before, and I think it was on this site. (Perhaps I’m dreaming.) Thank you very much, Andrea!

    Reply
  7. This was indeed a fascinating post. I’ve only heard of letter locking once before, and I think it was on this site. (Perhaps I’m dreaming.) Thank you very much, Andrea!

    Reply
  8. This was indeed a fascinating post. I’ve only heard of letter locking once before, and I think it was on this site. (Perhaps I’m dreaming.) Thank you very much, Andrea!

    Reply
  9. This was indeed a fascinating post. I’ve only heard of letter locking once before, and I think it was on this site. (Perhaps I’m dreaming.) Thank you very much, Andrea!

    Reply
  10. This was indeed a fascinating post. I’ve only heard of letter locking once before, and I think it was on this site. (Perhaps I’m dreaming.) Thank you very much, Andrea!

    Reply
  11. @Christina, I remembered the longest epilogue I’ve ever read. It’s the aptly titled Gratuitous Epilogue by Andrea Höst and is 126 pages long. It follows the 800ish page long Touchstone trilogy, a science fiction work in which a 17 year old Australian walks out of her world and into another one. That trilogy written in diary format, and a favorite of mine, starts with Stray which is free to US Kindle readers.

    Reply
  12. @Christina, I remembered the longest epilogue I’ve ever read. It’s the aptly titled Gratuitous Epilogue by Andrea Höst and is 126 pages long. It follows the 800ish page long Touchstone trilogy, a science fiction work in which a 17 year old Australian walks out of her world and into another one. That trilogy written in diary format, and a favorite of mine, starts with Stray which is free to US Kindle readers.

    Reply
  13. @Christina, I remembered the longest epilogue I’ve ever read. It’s the aptly titled Gratuitous Epilogue by Andrea Höst and is 126 pages long. It follows the 800ish page long Touchstone trilogy, a science fiction work in which a 17 year old Australian walks out of her world and into another one. That trilogy written in diary format, and a favorite of mine, starts with Stray which is free to US Kindle readers.

    Reply
  14. @Christina, I remembered the longest epilogue I’ve ever read. It’s the aptly titled Gratuitous Epilogue by Andrea Höst and is 126 pages long. It follows the 800ish page long Touchstone trilogy, a science fiction work in which a 17 year old Australian walks out of her world and into another one. That trilogy written in diary format, and a favorite of mine, starts with Stray which is free to US Kindle readers.

    Reply
  15. @Christina, I remembered the longest epilogue I’ve ever read. It’s the aptly titled Gratuitous Epilogue by Andrea Höst and is 126 pages long. It follows the 800ish page long Touchstone trilogy, a science fiction work in which a 17 year old Australian walks out of her world and into another one. That trilogy written in diary format, and a favorite of mine, starts with Stray which is free to US Kindle readers.

    Reply
  16. This is wonderful stuff, Andrea. I love it!
    Privacy was such a luxury in the past. Exchanging letters was itself an unreachable luxury for most people, and managing to keep them truly private must have been reserved for the highest echelons. Sort of the way government agencies send encrypted communications. For the rest of us, we’re apt to just casually hand our privacy away.

    Reply
  17. This is wonderful stuff, Andrea. I love it!
    Privacy was such a luxury in the past. Exchanging letters was itself an unreachable luxury for most people, and managing to keep them truly private must have been reserved for the highest echelons. Sort of the way government agencies send encrypted communications. For the rest of us, we’re apt to just casually hand our privacy away.

    Reply
  18. This is wonderful stuff, Andrea. I love it!
    Privacy was such a luxury in the past. Exchanging letters was itself an unreachable luxury for most people, and managing to keep them truly private must have been reserved for the highest echelons. Sort of the way government agencies send encrypted communications. For the rest of us, we’re apt to just casually hand our privacy away.

    Reply
  19. This is wonderful stuff, Andrea. I love it!
    Privacy was such a luxury in the past. Exchanging letters was itself an unreachable luxury for most people, and managing to keep them truly private must have been reserved for the highest echelons. Sort of the way government agencies send encrypted communications. For the rest of us, we’re apt to just casually hand our privacy away.

    Reply
  20. This is wonderful stuff, Andrea. I love it!
    Privacy was such a luxury in the past. Exchanging letters was itself an unreachable luxury for most people, and managing to keep them truly private must have been reserved for the highest echelons. Sort of the way government agencies send encrypted communications. For the rest of us, we’re apt to just casually hand our privacy away.

    Reply
  21. Good grief, Kareni, that’s a bit excessive I think! Sounds like it should have been a sequel novella in its own right instead! Thanks for mentioning it – intriguing.

    Reply
  22. Good grief, Kareni, that’s a bit excessive I think! Sounds like it should have been a sequel novella in its own right instead! Thanks for mentioning it – intriguing.

    Reply
  23. Good grief, Kareni, that’s a bit excessive I think! Sounds like it should have been a sequel novella in its own right instead! Thanks for mentioning it – intriguing.

    Reply
  24. Good grief, Kareni, that’s a bit excessive I think! Sounds like it should have been a sequel novella in its own right instead! Thanks for mentioning it – intriguing.

    Reply
  25. Good grief, Kareni, that’s a bit excessive I think! Sounds like it should have been a sequel novella in its own right instead! Thanks for mentioning it – intriguing.

    Reply
  26. How wonderful, Andrea, I’d never heard of letterlocking! I always fancied using sealing wax with my own personal stamp on my letters, but that would have to be inside an envelope of course. Not as much fun! Some of those designs look so intricate. Our ancestors were truly ingenious sometimes!

    Reply
  27. How wonderful, Andrea, I’d never heard of letterlocking! I always fancied using sealing wax with my own personal stamp on my letters, but that would have to be inside an envelope of course. Not as much fun! Some of those designs look so intricate. Our ancestors were truly ingenious sometimes!

    Reply
  28. How wonderful, Andrea, I’d never heard of letterlocking! I always fancied using sealing wax with my own personal stamp on my letters, but that would have to be inside an envelope of course. Not as much fun! Some of those designs look so intricate. Our ancestors were truly ingenious sometimes!

    Reply
  29. How wonderful, Andrea, I’d never heard of letterlocking! I always fancied using sealing wax with my own personal stamp on my letters, but that would have to be inside an envelope of course. Not as much fun! Some of those designs look so intricate. Our ancestors were truly ingenious sometimes!

    Reply
  30. How wonderful, Andrea, I’d never heard of letterlocking! I always fancied using sealing wax with my own personal stamp on my letters, but that would have to be inside an envelope of course. Not as much fun! Some of those designs look so intricate. Our ancestors were truly ingenious sometimes!

    Reply
  31. Letterlocking! Imagine being assigned what was probably kind of grunt work, cataloging old letters, and coming up with a whole new field of study. This is fascinating. Thanks so much, Andrea, I love this blog!

    Reply
  32. Letterlocking! Imagine being assigned what was probably kind of grunt work, cataloging old letters, and coming up with a whole new field of study. This is fascinating. Thanks so much, Andrea, I love this blog!

    Reply
  33. Letterlocking! Imagine being assigned what was probably kind of grunt work, cataloging old letters, and coming up with a whole new field of study. This is fascinating. Thanks so much, Andrea, I love this blog!

    Reply
  34. Letterlocking! Imagine being assigned what was probably kind of grunt work, cataloging old letters, and coming up with a whole new field of study. This is fascinating. Thanks so much, Andrea, I love this blog!

    Reply
  35. Letterlocking! Imagine being assigned what was probably kind of grunt work, cataloging old letters, and coming up with a whole new field of study. This is fascinating. Thanks so much, Andrea, I love this blog!

    Reply
  36. Many thanks for this post, Andrea! I remember seeing some letters in a museum in Venice years ago that had long pieces of paper shredded along the sides – obviously cut and shaped on purpose. The letters were supposedly declarations of love, sent from a battlefront to a Venetian lady, and I always wondered why she had shredded his letters only along the sides, on the assumption that it was she who wanted them to be secret. Now, perhaps, I know the real story!
    When I was in elementary school (centuries ago), there was a brief fad for writing notes in tiny script on narrow strips of paper torn or cut from the long side of notebook paper. The notes were then rolled up into tight little scrolls, which could be passed without attracting much attention during class. If only we’d known about letterlocking!

    Reply
  37. Many thanks for this post, Andrea! I remember seeing some letters in a museum in Venice years ago that had long pieces of paper shredded along the sides – obviously cut and shaped on purpose. The letters were supposedly declarations of love, sent from a battlefront to a Venetian lady, and I always wondered why she had shredded his letters only along the sides, on the assumption that it was she who wanted them to be secret. Now, perhaps, I know the real story!
    When I was in elementary school (centuries ago), there was a brief fad for writing notes in tiny script on narrow strips of paper torn or cut from the long side of notebook paper. The notes were then rolled up into tight little scrolls, which could be passed without attracting much attention during class. If only we’d known about letterlocking!

    Reply
  38. Many thanks for this post, Andrea! I remember seeing some letters in a museum in Venice years ago that had long pieces of paper shredded along the sides – obviously cut and shaped on purpose. The letters were supposedly declarations of love, sent from a battlefront to a Venetian lady, and I always wondered why she had shredded his letters only along the sides, on the assumption that it was she who wanted them to be secret. Now, perhaps, I know the real story!
    When I was in elementary school (centuries ago), there was a brief fad for writing notes in tiny script on narrow strips of paper torn or cut from the long side of notebook paper. The notes were then rolled up into tight little scrolls, which could be passed without attracting much attention during class. If only we’d known about letterlocking!

    Reply
  39. Many thanks for this post, Andrea! I remember seeing some letters in a museum in Venice years ago that had long pieces of paper shredded along the sides – obviously cut and shaped on purpose. The letters were supposedly declarations of love, sent from a battlefront to a Venetian lady, and I always wondered why she had shredded his letters only along the sides, on the assumption that it was she who wanted them to be secret. Now, perhaps, I know the real story!
    When I was in elementary school (centuries ago), there was a brief fad for writing notes in tiny script on narrow strips of paper torn or cut from the long side of notebook paper. The notes were then rolled up into tight little scrolls, which could be passed without attracting much attention during class. If only we’d known about letterlocking!

    Reply
  40. Many thanks for this post, Andrea! I remember seeing some letters in a museum in Venice years ago that had long pieces of paper shredded along the sides – obviously cut and shaped on purpose. The letters were supposedly declarations of love, sent from a battlefront to a Venetian lady, and I always wondered why she had shredded his letters only along the sides, on the assumption that it was she who wanted them to be secret. Now, perhaps, I know the real story!
    When I was in elementary school (centuries ago), there was a brief fad for writing notes in tiny script on narrow strips of paper torn or cut from the long side of notebook paper. The notes were then rolled up into tight little scrolls, which could be passed without attracting much attention during class. If only we’d known about letterlocking!

    Reply
  41. Thanks for such an interesting post.
    Actually, I write notes and send cards to several people. I think I should start posting on the outside of each envelope – “Read at your own risk, this has nothing interesting, you are subject to dying of boredom.”
    Thanks again for such a terrific post.
    Hope everyone is well and safe and happy.

    Reply
  42. Thanks for such an interesting post.
    Actually, I write notes and send cards to several people. I think I should start posting on the outside of each envelope – “Read at your own risk, this has nothing interesting, you are subject to dying of boredom.”
    Thanks again for such a terrific post.
    Hope everyone is well and safe and happy.

    Reply
  43. Thanks for such an interesting post.
    Actually, I write notes and send cards to several people. I think I should start posting on the outside of each envelope – “Read at your own risk, this has nothing interesting, you are subject to dying of boredom.”
    Thanks again for such a terrific post.
    Hope everyone is well and safe and happy.

    Reply
  44. Thanks for such an interesting post.
    Actually, I write notes and send cards to several people. I think I should start posting on the outside of each envelope – “Read at your own risk, this has nothing interesting, you are subject to dying of boredom.”
    Thanks again for such a terrific post.
    Hope everyone is well and safe and happy.

    Reply
  45. Thanks for such an interesting post.
    Actually, I write notes and send cards to several people. I think I should start posting on the outside of each envelope – “Read at your own risk, this has nothing interesting, you are subject to dying of boredom.”
    Thanks again for such a terrific post.
    Hope everyone is well and safe and happy.

    Reply
  46. Sealing wax certainly was used and didn’t need to be in an envelope. It’s not like it was going through our modern postal system handling. However, as I understand it, a skilled ne’er-do-well could sometimes use a hot knife to lift, then reseal the wax. Some documents had a ribbon and lead seal, which was harder fake. The letter locking was so clever!

    Reply
  47. Sealing wax certainly was used and didn’t need to be in an envelope. It’s not like it was going through our modern postal system handling. However, as I understand it, a skilled ne’er-do-well could sometimes use a hot knife to lift, then reseal the wax. Some documents had a ribbon and lead seal, which was harder fake. The letter locking was so clever!

    Reply
  48. Sealing wax certainly was used and didn’t need to be in an envelope. It’s not like it was going through our modern postal system handling. However, as I understand it, a skilled ne’er-do-well could sometimes use a hot knife to lift, then reseal the wax. Some documents had a ribbon and lead seal, which was harder fake. The letter locking was so clever!

    Reply
  49. Sealing wax certainly was used and didn’t need to be in an envelope. It’s not like it was going through our modern postal system handling. However, as I understand it, a skilled ne’er-do-well could sometimes use a hot knife to lift, then reseal the wax. Some documents had a ribbon and lead seal, which was harder fake. The letter locking was so clever!

    Reply
  50. Sealing wax certainly was used and didn’t need to be in an envelope. It’s not like it was going through our modern postal system handling. However, as I understand it, a skilled ne’er-do-well could sometimes use a hot knife to lift, then reseal the wax. Some documents had a ribbon and lead seal, which was harder fake. The letter locking was so clever!

    Reply
  51. I tried the letter locking with cheap printer paper, but ended up with a shredded mess. I suspect the old cotton rag paper was tougher. I’ll have to see if I still have some cotton bond resume paper squirreled away from the 80’s. knowing myself, I probably do.

    Reply
  52. I tried the letter locking with cheap printer paper, but ended up with a shredded mess. I suspect the old cotton rag paper was tougher. I’ll have to see if I still have some cotton bond resume paper squirreled away from the 80’s. knowing myself, I probably do.

    Reply
  53. I tried the letter locking with cheap printer paper, but ended up with a shredded mess. I suspect the old cotton rag paper was tougher. I’ll have to see if I still have some cotton bond resume paper squirreled away from the 80’s. knowing myself, I probably do.

    Reply
  54. I tried the letter locking with cheap printer paper, but ended up with a shredded mess. I suspect the old cotton rag paper was tougher. I’ll have to see if I still have some cotton bond resume paper squirreled away from the 80’s. knowing myself, I probably do.

    Reply
  55. I tried the letter locking with cheap printer paper, but ended up with a shredded mess. I suspect the old cotton rag paper was tougher. I’ll have to see if I still have some cotton bond resume paper squirreled away from the 80’s. knowing myself, I probably do.

    Reply

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