|Alexander Biddle, autograph letter signed to Julia Rush Biddle, 25 September 1862. Rush IV:30:23. Collection of the Rosenbach|
Modern researchers often find cross-writing frustrating to read and it turns out that the nineteenth-century folks often thought the same. In chapter 19 of Emma (first published in 1815) Miss Bates describes a letter from Miss Fairfax:
[I]n general she fills the whole paper and crosses half. My mother often wonders that I can make it out so well. She often says, when the letter is first opened, 'Well, Hetty, now I think you will be put to it to make out all that chequer-work' -- don't you, ma'am? And then I tell her, I am sure she would contrive to make it out herself, if she had nobody to do it for her, every word of it -- I am sure she would pore over it till she had made out every word.
|Jane Austen, Emma. EL3 .933e v.2. Collection of the Rosenbach|
Lewis Carroll, himself a fantastically prolific letter writer, also criticized the practice in his amusing pamphlet Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-writing:
My ninth Rule. When you get to the end of a notesheet, and find you have more to say, take another piece of paper--a whole sheet, or a scrap, as the case may demand: but whatever you do, don’t cross! Remember the old proverb ”Cross-writing makes cross reading.” “The old proverb?” you say, inquiringly. “How old?” Well, not so very ancient, I must confess. In fact, I’m afraid I invented it while writing this paragraph!
|Lewis Carroll, Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-writing. Oxford : Emberlin and Son, 1890. EL3. D645ei copy 2. Collection of the Rosenbach.|
In this country paper and postage are reasonably cheap. There is, therefore, no excuse for writing cross lines either on the margin of your sheet, or over the lines of your letter on the regular rulings. These cross lines deform your letter and add very much to the difficulty of reading it. It is very rare indeed, perhaps never, that you will see a business letter thus defaced, But no letter, whether of a business or social character, should be thus deformed.Of course, the vehemence of his outcry is a testament to the fact that the practice was still very much in evidence. Thankfully (for period and modern readers alike) it did eventually die out, leaving us only to tangle with the challenges of deciphering handwriting, without the other factors that could lead to "cross reading."
Cross lines in letter writing came into use many years ago, on account of dear postage and the high price of paper. Less than twenty-five years ago, it cost more to send a letter from Detroit to New York than it did to send a bushel of wheat or corn. The high rates of postage furnished some apology, at that time, for utilizing every nook and corner of the sheet, in writing an old fashioned family letter. But those days have passed, never to return to the people of this country; and with them the necessity if not the inducement of cross lining letters.
Ladies still continue the practice to some extent in their correspondence with each other. But, generally, the person receiving a letter thus disfigured regards it with disfavor, if not with disgust. It now appears like an affectation of economy, or of real economy bordering on stinginess or poverty. It is, to say the least against it that can be said, in very bad taste.
Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach and the primary poster for the Rosen-blog