An Introduction to Handwritten Notes & Correspondence
During the history of writing, correspondence has included postcards, suicide notes, familial letters, Paul’s epistles and Darwin’s more than several thousand letters to Joseph Dalton Hooker. With the advent of email, handwritten correspondence has declined. Yes, there are electronic postcards, suicide notes, and familial letters. But electronic condolences? Tacky, it’s true.
Besides participating in an act humans have done for about 5,000 years and besides being cool and hip and highly personalized (who can personalize their email with their own letterhead?), handwritten correspondence is more or less permanent.
While email companies make it easy – somewhat – to port email from one provider to another, most of us suspect it could all fail one day. We can then imagine, over a series of frustrating days we will have come to realize our email from the last ten, twenty, or thirty years has vanished in the cloud, while we are served as customers through online forms and social media updates telling us “We’re working on this problem. Your business is important to us!”
Right. Send a letter instead. If this person fills a place in your life of import and concern, do you want them to archive your message along with the innumerable emails concerning Nigerian scams, performance evaluations, and newsletters? Your recipient will treasure the time you’ve taken to write out by hand your condolences, best wishes, or congratulations. They may keep this correspondence.
We handwrite our important messages. The weight of the paper or card, the text written with a fountain pen possessing a good nib, written in your handwriting, all say, “Yes, you are important to me.” You’ve taken the time to reflect on this person as you correspond, found a few extra minutes in your day to extract your note cards from a desk, and pull out that treasured fountain pen. This person is important to you. You want them to know it. So you write them by hand in a format humans have used for thousands of years sent by a method that is practical and simple and, these days, with electronic spying in the U.S. and the U.K. (can France and Germany be far behind?), safe. Unlike in the GDR, chances are, the NSA has no time to read correspondence sent by post.
Thus, your privacy, as well as your treasured recipient’s, remains safe and stays classy.
History of Handwritten Correspondence
The Dawn of Human Civilization
Written language arose from economic necessity. Mesopotamian high priests needed a method for documenting the growing wealth of the emerging city states. A reed taken from the banks of the Tigres or Euphrates River and cut cleanly, pushed into soft clay, left a distinctive wedge mark, a wedge mark that became the basis for cuneiform language. Cuneiform writing on clay tablets fulfilled these necessary administrative requirements of wealth and commerce. Records such as receipts for cattle or vouchers for rations at a way station still exist today. By 2000 B.C., family letters written by merchants established at trading posts became common and were sealed in clay envelopes and addressed. Cylinder, and later stamp, seals were used as a form of signature.
The history of civilization intertwined with correspondence is not an embellishment. For example, in the fifth century B.C., Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great and mother of Xerxes, is believed to have invented written correspondence to use with her subjects. According to Deborah Levine Gera, Atossa was the first royal to use letters – as opposed to oral instruction – as a means of communication with her subjects. (Gera, 148). Gera writes, “(T)he writing distances her, and sets her apart and lends her words extra weight and majesty.” (Gera, 148) Atossa created a court protocol of letter writing paralleling the growth of administrative and familial letters.
Correspondence, much of written by hand until the advent of the typewriter, has created societies we know today. From China to Iran to Australia, our cultures are outgrowths of written correspondence of all kinds.
A basic introduction to the tools of handwritten correspondence should, for the beginner, set you on your way.
The Triumvirate: Paper, Pen, and Ink.
The journey to finding the paper you like, using a pen you love with ink that suits your personality, and writing style never seems to end. The greater the willingness to invest in all three aspects of the handwritten note optimizes your potential for lifelong enjoyment.
The paper you want should be heavy. Metric grammage is written as grams per square meter. In line with the elegance of the metric system, the higher the number, the heavier the paper. In the United States, and a few other countries, a less elegant system is used called basis weight expressed as the mass (in pounds) of a ream of paper’s dimensions divided by sheet count.
Here you find an excellent comparison table between grammage and basis weight. Refer to this table so you don’t make same mistake of one of their customers: assuming 90lb (165gsm) index paper is heavier than 80lb (215 gsm) card stock.
Clearly, the metric system of grammage is much easier to understand. The higher the number, the heavier the paper.
Having said that, what grammage works best for handwritten correspondence using a fountain pen? As a reference point, standard copy machine paper grammage is 75 – 105 gsm. For stationery paper, a minimum of 120 gsm will take a fountain pen without bleeding through to the background. Card stock used for correspondence cards usually has a grammage of 260 gsm.
However, paper is not just about the weight. It comes in different textures, shades and more importantly materials. While less expensive paper is often made of cellulose derived from trees, high quality paper is made of 100% cotton.
Personalizing Your Paper or Cards
A quick review of the fantastic letterheads, while retro, is definitely hipper and more elegant than email (and you won’t annoy your recipient with advertisements). Correspondence cards and paper are no different. Consider purchasing the heaviest paper you can afford. Thermographic printing provides an affordable alternative to die-cast printing, with as many personalized options, yet it is a fake and hence not as refined a real letterpess, embossed, or engraved print.
Definitely the most luxurious way to print your logo, frame, etc., is engraved on a steel or copper plate and then printed. The result is a raised logo on the one hand and a pressure mark on the other, yet it is more delicate than embossing.
The process of creating a raised or recessed image on paper or other materials uses a male or female metal die. Embossing creates a raised image while debossing creates a relief image. Ink is then added to the embossed image. Embossed and debossed papers create a mirror effect on the back. An embossed image will have a slight debossed image on the back while a debossed image will have an embossed image.
Embossing paper without ink is called blind embossing.
Letterpress printing creates an image (or words) in relief using a printing press. The end result is either an image or text or both that is debossed. Letterpress images may be created with or without ink. If created without ink, then essentially the printer creates what is called a “blind deboss.” Letterpress is a manual process. If wedding invitations are created using a letterpress, the printer must loaded the press with metal letters attached to wooden blocks in reverse. The manual labor involved increases the price considerably.
Thermographic printing relies of heat to lay ink onto paper and other materials. This process can create a raised image, but unlike an embossed image, there is no debossing on the back. It is an affordable alternative to die-cast, blind embossing and letterpress stationery.
Digital printing is the most affordable option and prints digitally based images directly onto paper.
The color of the paper and paper ink
While a full range of colored paper exists, black paper with white ink ought to be saved for unique occasions among confidants and soul mates. Creams, light browns, and blues are excellent colors. Consider personalizing the paper further with a contrasting border, if such boldness suits you. You might also buy correspondence cards and papers in several different colors or have just one color with a complementary ink color.
Where to look
The foremost maker of paper products in the United States, Crane and Co, even manufacture the paper upon which dollars are printed. Less prosaic paper can be engraved or embossed as well as printed thermographically. Prantl offers personalized correspondence cards and stationery using offset and engraving processes. An affordable introduction to embossed correspondence cards can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Fountain Pen – The World’s Greatest Word Processor
Stephen King used a Waterman Fountain Pen to write his novel Dreamcatcher. In his author’s note, he wrote: “One final note. This book was written with the world’s finest word processor, a Waterman cartridge fountain pen. To write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven’t been in years. I even wrote one night (during a power outage) by candlelight. One rarely finds such opportunities in the twenty-first century, and they are to be savored.”
A handwritten note using a pen is noteworthy. A note handwritten with a fountain pen such as Pelikan, Montblanc or any other quality brand is extraordinary and may result in a return to handwriting most things.
Flexible nibs allow you to control the pressure of the ink flow and allow you to create thin and thick strokes at your discretion. Prices can range from a few dollars for a school starter pen to over a million dollars for diamond decorated works of art. Yet, what counts is the quality of the nib as well as the ink flow. Gold nibs are usually better because they glide better, but you have to choose a width you like.
One great thing to look for in a fountain pen is a flexible nib, because it allows you to create a truly unique look.
In following video you will learn about fountain nibs and grinds, because no matter how expensive a pen is, if the nib does not work for your hand, it is worthless. Understanding how nibs interact with paper will help to determine which nib width to purchase to use for your handwritten correspondence.
Be forewarned: once you find a fountain pen you like you may be so smitten you will happily spend large sums of money in pursuit of your next best holy grail pen.
With a fountain pen in hand, it is important to buy the most expensive paper you can afford. A thinner paper of lower grammage creates bleed-through, where the ink of one side of the paper shows through on the other side. At minimum, your paper should be 120 gsm. Here you can see how the grammage of paper impacts bleed-through.
Fountain Pens for the Left-Handed Writer
I am left-handed and have had to teach myself how to write properly such that my hand does not drag across the paper, smearing ink on my hand and fingers. This video, while directed to children, provides excellent advice on how to hold a pen and paper for the leftie.
Fountain Pen Ink -or- Writing With the Rainbow
Whether using a dip pen or replaceable cartridges, one of the greatest joys of fountain pens for me is the number of ink options. J. Herbin of France (maker of ink for Louis XIV), Diamene of the UK and Namiki of Japa, or Pelikan and Montblanc of Germany created scores of ink colors. Control over your ink color allows you to personalize your correspondence even further.
What to say
Personalized correspondence is just that, personalized. Personalized correspondence, even if it is late, is better than no correspondence at all. Your thoughtfulness will be appreciated. There are scores of books and websites available offering myriad suggestions on appropriate language for all of life’s events: births, engagements, divorce, death. Two are listed below.
Acknowledgements focuses on sympathy notes.
The Art of the Handwritten Notes, Margaret Shepard
Consider sending notes with a simple note of appreciation or gratitude. Any reason is a good reason to send a handwritten note. All cultures have rituals regarding correspondence. If you are unsure what to send, ask. People will appreciate your efforts, and you may find putting a fountain pen to heavy, embossed paper a ritual that brings its own rewards, rewards far older than our electronic age.
Warrior Women: The Anonymous Tractatus De Mulieribus, Deborah Levine Gera, Brill Academic Pub, 1997.