When Pens Go Bad

https://archive.org/stream/miseriesofhumanl00bere#page/179/mode/1upAs much as I extol the joys of letter writing, Timothy Testy and Samuel Sensitive remind me that all was not epistolary paradise in times past.

James Beresford’s comic 1806 book, The Miseries of Human Life; or The Groans of Timothy Testy, and Samuel Sensitive, was a 19th century best seller.

Timothy and Samuel list the “injuries, insults, disappointments and treacheries” of life in excruciating detail, and include the trials and tribulations of letter writing in their catalog of pain.

The next time you fume that your ballpoint pen has gone dry, consider some of the frustrations you may have felt in a time of quill pens and sealing wax:

  • “Attempting to erase writing—but, in fact, only scratching holes in the paper.”
  • “Snatching up an inkstand by its handle, which you suppose to be fixed, but which proves —to swing!”
  • “Writing with ink of about the consistency of pitch, which leaves alternately a blot and a blank.
  • “Burning your fingers with an inch of sealing wax…”
  • “Neither sand, blotting paper, nor a fire, to dry your paper; so that, though in violent haste, you sit with your hands before you, at the end of every other page, till the ink thinks proper to dry of itself:—or toiling your wrist for ten minutes together, with a sand glass that throws out two or three damp grains at a time…”

And check out the illustration for all the ways your quill pen could crack, curl or tear.

I imagine the book’s readers in 1806 chuckled over passages and shared them with friends, much as we appreciate jokes about computer glitches, rush hour traffic and TV’s absurd reality shows.

I want to thank the Two Nerdy History Girls blog for bringing this, and so many other wonderful side notes of history, to my attention. Read their post on the Miseries of Life: Writing.