The Pen Holder’s Tale

My friend India gave me this jar 20 years ago. She knew that I liked willow ware, which its pseudo Chinese landscape is reminiscent of; plus, it did not sell at our yard sale.

It looks old, but not valuable, so I’ve always used it as a pen holder on my desk, on hand for taking notes, writing in my journal, and far too infrequently, penning a letter.

When India first gave me the jar, I checked the bottom for markings. None. It looked worn so I figured it was at least 50 years old or more, but I thought nothing more about its origins until I saw this picture:

They’re not twins, but those jars definitely look like siblings or close cousins of mine. The chipped pair in the photo are among the 13,000 Victorian jam jars and pickle pots unearthed in an archaeological dig at the site of a new London rail station.

Crosse and Blackwell once operated a food manufacturing factory on the site, chucking left over or broken pots into a cistern from the 1870s until 1921. The blue and white jars were designed to hold preserved ginger, so I believe my pot once held the same.

I’ll never know how and when it crossed the Atlantic to America and traveled overland to California, but whenever I look at my pen holder now, I will think of London housewives, Crosse and Blackwell and a long ago jar of preserved ginger.

P. G. Wodehouse & the Kindness of Strangers

news-graphics-2008-_437680aP.G. Wodehouse, author of the Jeeves and Wooster stories and other zany tales of the British upper crust, famously said that he never bothered to mail letters. Instead, he threw them out his window for passersby to post.

“Someone always picks it up, and it saves me going down four flights of stairs every time I want to mail a letter.”

Alas, that tale is probably apocryphal. Oxford academic Dr Sophie Ratcliffe says that Wodehouse borrowed the story from a friend. (Isn’t that what writers do after all, borrow stories from friends, history, the news and other writers?)

But the concept is so irresistible that more than one British newspaper has put their community to the “honesty test” in recent years, leaving stamped, addressed letters in public places to see how many were mailed to their destination. Will people today take the time to post a letter found on a park bench or pub table?

chard Guildhall built 1834

I first read about letter dropping in an article on the UK website: This is the West Country. The staff scattered 20 letters around the towns of Chard (13,000) and Ilminster (5,800) in Somerset. Those honest citizens mailed back 17 letters, albeit one was opened and resealed before posting. A letter left at Chard’s Guildhall (pictured) was one of those returned.

Tests in London and other large cities have had more mixed results, averaging a 50-60% return rate.

It makes me want to put my American compatriots to the test. I’ll write notes to friends — earning me snail mail brownie points in the bargain — and let them know by email that they may receive an old-fashioned letter, depending on the kindness of strangers. Let’s see how the colonies stack up compared to London, Chard and Ilminster! Check back later for my results. [Amended: Read the results of my “honesty test” here.]

You can read Daniel Milligen’s account of the letter dropping experiment in Somerset. Perhaps he was inspired by an honesty test conducted a few years earlier by the Telegraph.

Bills, Bills, Bills

Governor WilsonAs a child I often fetched the mail from the box at the end of our driveway. Once in a while there was a letter in the mix, but I remember saying “Nothing but bills” on a regular basis when handing the envelopes to my mother. That blend of correspondence with demands for payment was probably as old as writing, but vintage bills have a flair that their modern counterparts lack.

1730's gownLooking through a collection of 18th and early 19th century bills for fabric, I was struck by the lovely handwriting, by the way most businesses identified their location by signs that were probably on nearby pubs, and by their upper crust clientele.

Robert Carr & Joseph Stanfield at the Parrot in Ludgate Street sent Governor Wilson a bill for 14 yards of green lutestring brocade in 1733. Lutestring was silk with a high gloss, and perhaps the gown made for his wife or daughter (or mistress) looked something like this fashionable frock from that time period.

Miss VerneyThe Honorable the Miss Verney was a little more economical with her purchase at a linen draper’s shop by the Hen and Chickens in Covent Garden; her yards of muslin and other trimmings cost but £2.5 in 1761 compared to Wilson’s £10. By some calculations, £10 in 1730 would equal about £600 today. However, costs of housing, food, etc vary greatly in proportion to equivalent costs today. To look at the price by another measure — 18th century wages, a clerk with the East India Company made around £40 a year, while a maid might pocket only £6 annually, along with her room and board. Compared to those salaries, the Wilson and Verney wardrobes were lavish indeed.

for Miss Gregg

Someone (perhaps Monsieur Innes and Co?) bought a lot of fabric for Miss Gregg in 1766: satins and lutestring in pink and blue and black. How many gowns did Miss Gregg have made? Was she assembling her trousseau for a wedding or a wardrobe for her first season of balls?

On June 20, 1766, the same day that Welch, Neale & Redhead, presented their bill, Horace Walpole wrote to his friend George Montagu, “There is a new thing published that will make you bepiss your cheeks with laughing. It is called The New Bath Guide. It is a set of letters in verse, in all kind of verses, describing the life at Bath, and incidentally everything else — but so much wit, so much humour, fun, poetry, so much originality, never met together before.”

Postcard2“Bepiss your cheeks with laughing” — what a great line!

Perhaps Miss Gregg’s gowns would have resembled these 18th century dresses preserved in modern-day Bath’s Museum of Costume.

But if she did visit Bath, I hope she was careful about drinking the same medicinal waters that others bathed in, for as The New Bath Guide warned:

“So while little TABBY was washing her Rump,
The Ladies kept drinking it out of a Pump.”

The Earl ofOur last bill was sent to an actual nobleman, Right Honorable the Earl of…something. I can’t make out the name. But I do know that the Earl had an eye for bargains in 1813 (and didn’t bother paying his bill until a year later). Woodhouse Son & Co boasted “the lowest price fixed” in London and sold a selection of silk and cotton hosiery, ready made gentlemen’s linen and family mourning. Jane Austen herself may have passed the shop when strolling down Oxford Street, but I doubt she would have stepped inside unless shopping for her brother, even if it was the “cheapest House in London for Irish Linens.”

Stairway to the Past

Bile-BeansI sent this postcard to my sister from London when I took a solo trip to England. Most of my time would be spent as a volunteer on an archaeological dig at a Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall, but I spent my first week in London.

Although I enjoy traveling with others, there was an upside to being on my own—the freedom to plan whatever offbeat itinerary took my fancy.

I skipped Harrod’s in favor of visiting an auction preview to touch Regency era dresses and a 16th century silk bed cover. I took a train up to Shrewsbury for the day to visit the setting of the Brother Cadfael mysteries. And I prepped for my upcoming excavation by walking the two-mile circuit of London’s original Roman wall.

Medieval Londoners built their own wall atop the remains of Londinium’s old defenses, and although much of that was demolished, bits survived, incorporated into the fabric of 16th, 17th and 18th century buildings. World War II bombing raids uncovered some of those surviving stretches, and I decided to see them all.

I learned there was one additional bit of Roman wall not usually seen by the public because it was right smack below London’s central post office, visible on request by writing to post office security. I didn’t have time to send a formal letter, so I just showed up and asked at the counter. And the head of security was a good sport.

He walked me across the parking lot to a nondescript building, unlocked the door, led me down a steep flight of stairs (Roman London was 10-12 feet below current street level) and flicked on the lights to show me…rubble. But it was Roman rubble, the hidden remains of a 2000-year-old wall with no medieval additions. The British post had delivered.

Here’s a BBC page on London’s Roman Wall.


Quills for the Dead

IMG_9303He may be over 500 years old, but John Stow still gets a new pen every five years.

According to the blog Spitalfields Life, for “Stow, one the earliest historians of London, a quill is his preferred writing instrument and, every five years, a replacement is delivered upon a satin cushion to his monument in St Andrew Undershaft in the City of London.” And it’s delivered by the Lord Mayor of London herself in full regalia.

What a spiffing tradition!

Stow is best known for his 1598 Survey of London, which gives us our most detailed account of that city during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He corresponded with many notable men of his era, and letters attest to a lively exchange of books—precious commodities in Stow’s day—borrowed back and forth across the country.

“Mr. Stowe, because I will breake promesse with you no more I have, although it be late, first put you these pamphlets, and therwith youre other booke, which I borrowed last, and desyre you to lend me youre bede and yor pedigree of kinges, and so till or next meeting I bid you farewell.

Yor loving friend,
Henry Ferrers”

I wish those who have borrowed my books over the years were as careful about returning them. To see photos of the presentation of the quill and to learn more about John Stow, read the post about the ceremony in Spitalfields Life.

Film Friday: 84 Charing Cross Road

Charing cross Odds are if you are reading this blog, you may not only be attracted to letters, but also to history, books, and the people who love them. If so, you probably have already watched a charming movie that celebrates all of the above: 84 Charing Cross Road. The film tells the true story of the 20-year correspondence between American writer Helene Hanff (Anne Bancroft) and British antiquarian bookseller Frank Doel (Anthony Hopkins).

Helene sees an advertisement for used books in a magazine and immediately types a letter to Marks & Co in London, situated at 84 Charing Cross Road, to ask if they can obtain certain titles for her. Her humorous notes paired with Frank’s proper responses bubble through the changing years and their growing friendship.

Although the film showcases a warm cast of friends and family on both sides of the Atlantic, the primary supporting character is the mail. The letters stay constant while 1949 melts into the 1950s and finally the 60s against a backdrop rich in period details (I could watch the movie again and again just to revel in post war London and brash, lively New York).

84 Charing Cross road

An employee of Marks and Co posts letters in London.

Helene types a two-fingered torrent of words, while Frank quietly dictates to a secretary. Frank smiles at one of Helene’s comments, and points it out to a colleague for a low-keyed laugh. Helene opens a package of books with sensuous delight, cutting off string, unfolding brown paper, and stroking the supple leather covers. Telescoped into a 100-minute movie, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

If you haven’t yet seen this 1987 gem, watch it. If you have, watch it again for the letters. And read the book!

Film Friday: Let me know if you give 84 Charing Cross Road your stamp of approval. 

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