A letter written in 1851 by Emily Austin Perry, who never wasted a margin. (Our Emily Austin font is modeled after her hand).
I ride a lot of miles on my bicycle. Fact is, I’m kind of a bike-riding fool, pedaling up and down the wide shoulders of Route 1 here on the scenic coast of Maine. One recent year, I cycled more than 2,100 miles—and only hit the pavement once or twice. While on my bike the other day, I got to thinking about things I find on the side of the road, and for some reason I thought of the many old handwritten pages I read, and the kind of stuff I encounter in the margins.
Along my particular stretch of Route 1, the most common jetsam I come across (aside from run-of-the-mill litter) are single work gloves. Also surprisingly abundant are banana peels. I understand the lost work gloves—some landscaper or trap-hauler had left a pair on the bed-rail of some pickup—but banana peels?
It’s easier to explain the peripheral jots and tittles in the margins of old letters and journals.
Ink blots, for one thing. Back in the days of quills and fountain pens, when writing was a silent pursuit and ink was a sort of fuel, spillage was routine. Drips, smudges, purposeful dabbings. They’re common enough that I’ve made sure all our old handwriting fonts have ink-blot characters. (It’s fair to call me obsessed with authenticity.)
Cross-outs and insertions in the journal of Mirabeau B. Lamar (inspiration for Lamar Pen).
Random scribbles crop up regularly, too, where authors were testing their pens. (Heck, I do that still, when stuck with a recalcitrant ballpoint.) Occasionally I even come upon what look like true doodles, the work of a preoccupied mind.
And within the handwritten text itself are small signs of our propensity to edit: cross-outs and underscores, insertions of words and small phrases, notes in the margins. Word-insertions of two hundred years ago look identical to word-insertions of today—an angle pointer below the baseline at a space, the word writ small above the ascenders. Literally, you’re reading between the lines. We’ve included cross-out characters in many of our antique pen fonts, and several have insertion glyphs, as well.
Smear, ink blots, and sealing-wax cutout from a letter by Abigail Adams (used to make Abigail Adams font).
But perhaps most telling of the times—and something we can hardly imagine these days—is that the margins of old pages are often chock-full of real content. Back when paper was dear and delivery iffy, letter-writers made efficient use of the real estate. Emily Austin Perry, who wrote many letters home to Texas while traveling with her daughter up East, commonly crammed whole paragraphs around the edges, upside-down and sideways.
And if you go back a couple of centuries or more, before envelopes, you’re liable also to find evidence of sealing wax in the margins—perhaps some reddish discoloration, a tear or cutout, even a bit of wax itself.Back then correspondents would simply fold and seal the pages of their letters together.
Inserted “h,” in a detail from a Colonial American broadside. (Source material for Remsen Script.)
The leavings in the margins, I find, raise questions that launch trains-of-thought that give life to flickers of insight. Who lost that glove? Who threw that banana peel out the window? Does that smudge mean this letter-writer was left-handed? That faint, circular mark—could it have come from a tear?
A little while ago, before publishing this entry, I took my daily bicycle ride and—I kid you not—came upon both a work glove and a banana peel along the shoulder of Route 1. As proof, I took these photos with my phone.
Tags: Abigail Adams, cross-outs, Emily Austin, ink blots, insertions, Lamar Pen, margins, old handwriting, Remsen Script, sealing wax