Can’t read the writing… and then going cross-eyed!
Recently an item on the Delcampe auction website caught my eye with the description “Paire n°97 sur lettre (avec contenu) de Paris du 08/02/1889 vers VIENNE (Autriche)” because one of my specialist postal history collecting themes is envelopes with the French 25c Peace and Commerce “Sage” stamp (Yvert cat #97) sent to foreign destinations. The “avec contenu” I thought could be a bonus since original correspondence written more than 100 years ago sheds a very different light on then current and social affairs compared to the brief e-mails of today. Also, the contents were likely to be more than a single page because the postage paid was double the normal rate from France to Austria at the time. Well, I won the item at auction for quite a reasonable price and was very pleased to see the contents amounted to a beautifully handwritten twelve-page letter… which, unfortunately for me, were written in German. Nevertheless it will make an attractive mounted display in my album.
As was almost universally the case after the birth of the postage stamp in the mid-1800s, the stamp was cut - for keeping - from the missive which was usually thrown away. Those that were kept intact - again for keeping - often had the correspondence thrown away after it was read. And there lies the problem... a century later with 'stamp collecting' as a wonderful educational hobby, 'postal history' by definition can be even more educational, and is certainly more valuable.
For example in the top image, a French 25c stamp in a slightly different colourway was issued in 1878 primarily for a standard weight letter to a foreign destination, a rate set by the Universal Postal Union which was established by the Treaty of Bern of 1874. Actually the re-issued stamp used on this letter is of a slightly different colourway printed in 1886. The point I want to make here is that the ‘used’ stamp is catalogued at about 1 euro and on a letter mailed within France at about 4 euros. However, this stamp still on a letter to another country can see the value skyrocket… and I have examples in my personal collection to, for example, Ceylon which was a rare destination in the late 19th century from France and thus catalogued at around 575 euros, also China at 475 euros, and Costa Rica at 525 euros. Had the stamps been cut from those envelopes at their destination by an avid ‘stamp collector’ they would now be worth just 1 euro, with the ruined and now valueless envelopes in the waste paper basket!
The second image is of a Great Britain envelope from 1866 purchased recently which had a sometimes used (not often) code in the auction description, namely “LAC” which means “lettre avec correspondance”… the converse being “LSC” for “lettre sans correspondance”… avec / with or sans / without. My surprise was seeing a lovely “Wishing You a Merry Xmas and a Happy New Year” logo headed notepaper emerge from the envelope... but then dismay at not being able to read the lengthy message because it was handwritten in the “cross-writing” or “cross-hatching” style sometimes used in the 19th century to save on postal charges and notepaper costs. The practice was when the writer reached the bottom of a page it was turned through ninety degrees and overwritten. Whilst it was undoubtedly easier to write in this manner it must have been much more difficult to read… and I cannot decipher a single sentence in this example!
And others agree… from The Rosenbach website (their museum can be visited in Pennsylvania, PA) there is a quote…
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!
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Images + words © Ed Buziak 2021.