In the colonial era, writing a letter was no trifling affair. In a country such as Canada, cut off from the outside world by ice for six months of the year, correspondence quickly became a matter of considerable urgency. The fate of the colony, merchants' business affairs, what was happening to one's family overseas—the response to such questions often hinged on the content of a just a few dispatches. Furthermore, this important exchange of letters was regarded by literate men and women of the time as an art to be mastered and whose precepts had to be followed. It was from this instructional perspective that practical guides and manuals on the art of writing were published. They included everything one needed to know: writing techniques; reproductions of model letters on various subjects ranging from declarations of love to condolences, to be copied or adapted by inexperienced letter writers according to the particular circumstances of their lives; and practical advice such as how to sharpen a quill or prepare ink, for the quality of the working tools used was considered very important.
What were the objects most commonly found on the correspondent's writing desk? The objects or instruments associated with writing remained much the same through the 17th and 18th centuries. Paper, pen, ink, ink eraser, sander, seal, and a wax stick were the essential components of the letter writer's toolbox. Paper made of linen or cotton rags—and not wood fibre—was an expensive product, used frugally by all, especially since postage was paid by the recipient. An effort was often made to fill the sheet completely, even if it meant writing in another direction once you reached the bottom of the page.

First, the writer would have to select a quill, which was generally a goose feather. The right wing of the bird was much preferred! The feather had to be treated before it could be used, for the ink would not flow easily from the tip until the fat, moisture and membranes had been removed from its stem. Once treated and then cut with a penknife, the quill was ready to be dipped in the inkwell. It usually contained black ink that the writers often prepared themselves following one of the many recipes then in fashion. One called for the use of a little wine or brandy to prevent the ink from freezing—a recurring problem in cold countries like Canada.
The ideas pouring out through the pen might at times result in mistakes. Some people would cross them out, but most erased by lightly scraping the surface of the paper with an ink eraser, an instrument that looked something like a small knife, except the end of its blade was shaped like the tip of an arrow. Using a smooth stone-agate was much prized—the paper was then burnished so that it was possible to rewrite on the scraped surface. In addition to correcting mistakes, letter writers had to ensure that the freshly applied ink did not pool on the paper, a problem that many writers solved by sprinkling the ink with an absorbent substance kept in a sander. This sander was, in a way, the precursor of the blotter, which appeared in the mid-19th century.

The letter was written. Since envelopes were not generally used until the middle of the 19th century, the writer then had to fold the letter so that it formed its own envelope. Then it was sealed by melting the end of a stick of wax over a candle and letting the hot wax drip onto the flap and the back of the letter. A seal was used to imprint a distinctive motif on the hot wax. Once the wax had hardened, it became the guarantor of the letter's confidentiality.

And off the letter went. From the carving of the quill to the affixing of the wax seal, writers were so personally involved in the creation of their letters that one might say that a part of them ventured forth with their letters to encounter the recipient.

Gérald Pelletier


Gendreau, Bianca. "Putting Pen to Paper." In Special Delivery: Canada's Postal Heritage, by Chantal Amyot, Bianca Gendreau and John Willis; edited by Francine Brousseau. Fredericton, N.B.: Goose Lane Editions and Canadian Museum of Civilization/Canadian Postal Museum, 2000.

Harrison, Jane E. Until Next Year: Letter Writing and the mails in the Canadas, 1640-1830. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1997.

Willis, John. "L'ABC de la lettre: le geste d'écrire." In Cap-aux-Diamants, 50 (summer 1997): 26-30.