May 022016

Living in a time of unprecedented information surveillance, also lends itself to an unbelievable amount of information privilege for much of the “democratized” world. We feign emotions with character smiley faces and iconography as our communications float rapidly over a network of intangible speeds, sometimes coated with an algorithm of encryption and sometimes, not. Identity is, at best, both catastrophic and creative. So as we celebrate and converse about National Privacy Week, it is sort of interesting to think about privacy, not only in the way we might shroud our communications, but also in terms of economics, commodity and modality.

In the early 19th century, the postal system was financially demanding for some people [not unnecessarily unlike today] *and* was the scarcity of paper. Tom Standage writes in the Victorian Internet [1998]: “In the nineteenth century, letter writing was the only way to communicate with those living at a distance. However, prior to 1840, the post was expensive. Postal charges grew high in England due to the inflationary pressure of the Napoleonic Wars. Different from the way mail operates today, the burden of payment fell to the receiver, not the sender; prepayment was a social slur on the recipient. One had to be financially solvent to receive a letter. If the recipient could not afford to pay for a letter, it was returned to sender. Any reader of Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) knows that to save costs, cross writing was common — a writer turned his or her letter horizontally and “crossed” (or wrote over) the original text at a right angle rather than use an additional sheet of paper. Folded letters with a wax seal may look quaint, but like cross writing, this was also a pre-1840s cost cutting measure since that same missive, posted in an envelope, would receive double charge.”

A cost-cutting measure indeed, however, and not insignificant it created a system of visual encryption one might employ for secrecy, but also as a device of post-modernity and compositional ingenuity. In 1819, John Keats constructed a crossed letter discussing both the merit of prescriptive living for labor workers, only to be written over at an angle by his poem, Lamia, about a man who falls in love with a snake disguised as a woman. “The non-linearity of meaning is generated as an excess against the unidirectional drive of information, like the snakes that weave around the staff of a caduceus or the turbulent wake of a forward-moving ship; meaning is the snake and the wake of information.” [1] Quite a metaphor to create, as a perception of romanticism, in era of rapid change.  Sound familiar? When in doubt, think smart, choose privacy.

We have a suite of 19th century letters in our collection of cross-writing, or “cross-hatching,” check out the images:


[1] Livingston, Ira. Arrow of Chaos: Romanticism and Postmodernity.

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