A paperfolding paradise
The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell
|Letterfolds and Letterlocks|
page attempts to record a summary of what is known about
the origin and history of Letterfolds and Letterlocking
(although, at present, it is very much a work in
progress). Please contact me if you know any of this
information is incorrect or if you have any other
information that should be added. Thank you.
Letterfolds are ways of folding letters so that they can be posted without the necessity for envelopes. Historically the most usual way of folding a letter seems to have been to fold in both long edges, although not necessarily to the point where they would meet, to form a long, narrow rectangle, to fold one short edge of this rectangle inwards to create a pocket, then to fold the other short end inwards and tuck it inside the pocket to form a stable package. A wax seal can then be used to ensure the package will not come apart. I call this the 'fold and tuck' letterfold. In letterlocking parlance the same thing with a wax seal attached is commonly called a 'tuck and seal' letterlock.
Letterlocks are ways of securing letterfolds so that the contents cannot easily be opened and read, or so that the recipient can tell if the letter has been opened and read. The simplest form of letterlock is a wax seal. Some other kinds of letterlock involve folding some part of the letter, perhaps a flap cut from the margin, in some way. It is this latter kind of letterlock that falls within the scope of this page.
More details on specific letterfold designs can be found by following the links.
A group of five almost complete letters written in the Sogdian language, each of which had been folded several times and bore the names of the sender and addressee on the outside, were found in 1907 by Sir Aurel Stein in Iran in a ruined watchtower on the Chinese frontier wall which formerly guarded the route between Tun-huang and Lou-lan. These documents are usually known as the Ancient Letters. They were once dated to within a few decades of the traditional date for the invention of paper in 105 A.D. and thus thought to be possibly the oldest paper documents in existence. Further consideration by scholars suggests that they are more correctly dated to the years 312-13 CE.
The manuscript 'De Viribus Quantitatis' by Luca Pacioli which was written in or around 1502 gives a description of three ways to seal a letter without any wax.
a, 'Given a rectangular sheet of paper, one is to fold it widthwise so to obtain a strip of paper. Both ends of the paper are bent in such a way to obtain a similar trapeze standing out to each side of the strip. The side of the trapeze gives the next fold, which is to be folded over until both ends are close enough that after folding them into each other they form a square shape.'
This sounds similar to the Love Knot Letterfold but with the ends tucked in to form a square.
b, 'The second method is by far simpler. Start with a square paper. Fold it diagonally. Next, tuck one of the acute angled tips of the triangle formed into the fold of the other. The right angled tip is then tucked between them and possibly even secured by a single stitch where all of the tips overlap.'
c, 'Another method is to have the letter wrapped around a round piece of leather. It is closed. The way it is closed is not to clear. However, Pacioli, stresses that there are special tongues with rounded tips to crease the letter shut. Upon opening the crease marks will be obvious making it a hard task to restore the letter to shut state.'
It seems to me that the third method is a good description of the Chickenwire Letterfold.
Two examples of letters folded using the 'tuck and fold' method can be seen in an engraving of Erasmus of Rotterdam by Albrecht Durer dated 1526.
In or around 1607 Sir Robert Cecil, Secretary of State for King James I/VI wrote a letter to his teenage son William which includes the following passage:
'I haue also sent yow a peece of paper fowlded as gentlemen vse to write theire letters, where yours are lyke those that come out of a grammer schoole.'
This is clearly not very complementary to young William's folding skills. Unfortunately, while the letter has survived the exemplar has not.