I recently spent a week at the Harry Ransom Center, University of
Texas at Austin, researching engraving's influence on type,
graphic design and the way we communicate. For five days I
examined—with my bare hands (although many research facilities
require cotton gloves) and a Rodenstock three-power loupe covering
a 6x6 centimeter area—original specimens of engraving. Three days
were spent on copybooks and engraved collections of calligraphy
used for teaching writing from the 1600 to 1800s. The rest was
dedicated to Edith Wharton's secret love letters to Morton
Fullerton and some folders of Mark Twain's personal papers. My
purpose was to find interesting examples of American social
stationery engraving. Since this is a “tag” that does not yet
exist, I go to great lengths defining this category of design and
communications history in the hopes that it will become part of our
Title page spread from The Universal Penman (Dover
Publications), engraved by George Bickham, 1743.
I examined original calligraphic engravings (routine but
interesting) to educate myself in a “boot camp,” total immersion
sort of way to recognize the look, feel and general organic
response one has to loads and loads of real engraving. I handled
about 1,450 individual engraved pages contained, primarily, in
individual copybooks and one massive 10-volume collection from a
gentleman who collected books and books about books, Henry Benjamin
Hanbury Beaufoy, who lived from 1786 to 1851. Each volume is more
than two feet long and a couple of inches thick. After going
through three of Mr. Beaufoy's collections most pertinent to my
study, I looked at historic specimens of American commercial
engraving such as personal social stationery.
In the days before computers, email and peripheral devices
capable of split-second, interpersonal communication, people
exchanged written thoughts, emotions and ideas through a letter or
its shorter form, a note. For more than 5,000 years since the
Sumerians brought us writing, whole industries and selling
opportunities have emerged for the creation of ingenious paper
products that could transmit handwritten, hand-set and, later, hand
For centuries it was common to sit at a desk with a pen and
piece of paper and write thoughts and desires in longhand and send
these via foot messenger or post to one particular person. Think of
handwriting as media and paper a technology. Beaufoy recognized the
importance of writing literacy and must have considered it a
gateway to social and fiscal advancement. In addition to collecting
engraved calligraphic specimens he invested heavily in the City of
London School, funding educational scholarships, and built the
Beaufoy Ragged School for wayward orphans and destitute children
(think of a free school where characters such as Dickens' Oliver
could learn to read and write instead of stealing).
Spread from The Universal Penman (Dover Publications), engraved
by George Bickham, 1743.
Throughout time engraved imagery has been used for the
dissemination of religious ideology, to illustrate science,
industry and to translate great works of art. The paper upon which
professional business correspondence was composed (that is, the
letters of doctors, lawyers and statesmen) was engraved as a
“safety feature” of authenticity and as a mark of distinction. By
the 20th century, engraved letterhead was the accepted
business form and also very popular for personal stationery. It has
only been in the last 30 years that engraving has fallen from favor
and since the 1990s has all but disappeared from regular use.
I was thinking about copybooks, writing literacy, paper
technology and American commercial engraving while going through
Edith Wharton's love letters. She lived from 1862 to 1937; her
affair with Morton Fullerton lasted from 1906 to 1909, and the
collection of letters now exist in a box at the Ransom Center
measuring .42 linear feet, with the majority from the height of
their relationship between 1908 and 1909. Although I was looking
for information about substrate, printing, engraved monograms and
lettering styles, I could not help but peek into her personal life
and found myself reading her words to him. What I observed
Edith Wharton in a 1905 publicity shot.
Edith Wharton is one of my personal literary heroes because she
wrote with irony about the American upper class, society, their
manners and foibles during the fin de siecle. This period in
history is a favorite because it seems glamorous and romantic,
replete with horse and carriage, candle-lit midnight dinners and
sumptuous satin gowns with ostrich-feather hand fans and acres of
furs, pearls and diamond studded tiaras. She was friends with Henry
James, Theodore Roosevelt and many artistic and influential
contemporaries. Wharton traveled extensively, lived abroad and
suffered a failed marriage that made her very independent and a bit
of an early feminist. Her characters are preternaturally concerned
with etiquette, a bit tarnished at heart and they, like Wharton
herself, were wont for the use of social stationery.
I enjoy her fiction, her observations about life and love and
getting along in polite society. So I was disappointed to scan
through her personal prose written to one of the great loves in her
life because what I read seemed so prosaic. Wharton's words to
Fullerton reminded me of the mundane status updates I'm used to
seeing on Facebook, offering personal insights along the lines of,
“Oh, the word I used to close my last letter may have been too
harsh,” or “Gee, in haste I sent that note last night with a rush
courier and maybe the message may have appeared a bit rash or
hasty” (the equivalent of today's spontaneous, but regrettable text
messaging, perhaps). She also wrote about her disintegrating
marriage and day-to-day accounts of travel, whom she visited, what
performance or exhibit she attended—some written on “mourning”
stationery with its deep black borders. But rather than teeming
with passion for a long-distance lover (for periods of time they
were separated by an ocean), her letters were often about seemingly
Screenshot of “Edith Wharton's” Facebook page.
And that got me thinking: What if Edith Wharton had Facebooked?
Had she lived in our time and communicated digitally, I wonder what
her literature would be like. Looking at five days of cursive
writing and personal letters made me realize that her compulsion to
jot down her thoughts was no different than ours today when we
tweet about what we had for lunch or share some fab link we just
discovered. The difference between a letter written longhand and a
Facebook post is that one takes a little bit longer (and leaves a
more lasting trace), but the purpose is the same. Whether we live
on a grand, Whartonian scale or a quieter, more ordinary one, we
feel more significant when we share intimacies about ourselves with
others. Edith Wharton was an extremely private individual who would
most likely be very upset that I can now read about her romantic
life (her love letters are publicly accessible at the Ransom Center
and many have been published in a book). But would the allure of
today's social media have seduced her, as it has so many of us,
into utilizing its efficiency at the expense of privacy? And if so,
what would the cost be to her, both personally and professionally?
Maybe it's good that we'll never know.
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