Listen to the podcast here. Today we’re back with Amy Sudduth, a historian, researcher, and epistolary enthusiast—a person who loves everything related to letters! She learned how to write with a quill pen when she was in highschool, working in Old Town San Diego to develop historical education programs. She currently works in Colonial Williamsburg.
In her free time outside of Colonial Williamsburg, Amy spends her time with her three amazing cats, two young boys, and her partner-in-crime, Brian, who is also a historian. Amy is currently writing two books, and leads the Wax Seal Society on Facebook. She brings history alive, and is a sheer joy to speak with! I thoroughly enjoyed the entire i
nterview, and I know you will too. So curl up with a warm cup of tea, or a glass of wine, and enjoy!
Kay: I’m looking over all we talked about before, and I wanted to ask you about one of your favorite love letters—the correspondence between Richard Steels and his wife in the 17th century. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Amy: Richard Steel was a politician in the House of Lords, and extraordinarily fond of his wife. After he finished his work every day, he would send his wife notes home—in a time when people weren't writing letters. And he’s maybe 40 minutes away, down the street!
My favorite letters were when the House of Lords would finish their session, and retire to get drinks together. Richard would get drunk, and scribble a note to his wife that said, in essence: "I'm so sorry, I'm so hungover, I just want to go to bed--but you're awesome! And I'll be home soon! Signed, Your Fool of a Husband, Richard." He'd give this little note and a ridiculous amount of money to the riverboat men, just to have them deliver it 20 minutes down the river to her.
My question is, was he terrified of her, or loved her? He wrote these beautiful flowery letters of “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do it—but you’re awesome, and super pretty.” I haven’t seen as many missives from her back though. The only one I’ve seen from her was a reminder for him to not forget to brush off his suit!
Kay: It sounds like the classic case of a good-hearted woman loving a good-timing man.”
Amy: It’s fun because it’s a time where all the letters are precise and to the point, but he signs every one of his letters, “your fine fool of a husband.”
Kay: You mentioned a couple other letters, one I thought our readers might want to hear about was the gentleman who was told he couldn’t marry his woman?
Amy: Yes! A couple was courting, and had decided they were going to get married—but her parents gave a resounding no. You’d think he would write her something sweet—but he writes her this horrifically cruel letter. His letter basically told her, "I hate you, you're the worst," when just the day before they were asking to get married! You read it and think, “Wow, this dude is just a jerk.”
The next day, they elope.
The parents go back to that letter, trying to figure out what happened. If you cover every other line of that cruel letter, it ends up being just the opposite. It reads basically, “I adore you.” It’s very clever.
This method he used is related to cross-writing—which I love, though apparently it is the bane of most archivist’s existence! Paper was so expensive, so you want to use every inch, and there’s a lot of cross-writing we see. Especially during the Civil War, when you can’t bring paper or supplies into the barricades. You would write horizontally, and write your message, then turn your paper sideways and write vertically.
When you open these letters today, you see a jumbled mess. When I read it though, I use a ruler to help me keep the right letters—and it’s so much fun. So having an obvious coding this young man built into this letter was delightful to read.
Kay: Yes! I have letters from my ancestor Robert Hay that uses cross-writing, and once you start reading it with a ruler, it’s not that difficult.
Once you get into the letter, it’s like you’re transported back 200 years, and understand what their lives were like. I thought it might be neat to talk about this tradition in today’s world.
For this blog, my goal is for people to learn about the legacy of letter writing, and bring it into their own style and own lives. I know that’s what you do with your research and history, you bring it to life as well. I thought it’d be neat to hear some advice from you. Is it as scary as it seems to use a quill? Where should people start if they want to bring history into their day-to-day life?
Amy: That’s something I’m very passionate about. I only use refillable ink pens, and everyone at work makes fun of me, but it’s part of my charm. That’s me and my life, but it’s not as scary as everyone thinks.
A quill is just a feather from a goose, which the goose natural sheds, so you don’t have to pluck a goose—which is good, since they have a reputation. They’re just feathers.
There are tricks to quills; they’re not the easiest thing in the world. But my son, when he was 3 or 4, would constantly take my quills and cover all sorts of nonsense, and important papers, with drawings of dinosaurs. A 4-year-old can pick up a quill and draw a drawing. It’s so fun to see kids pick it up. To write long letters, and beautifully, takes practice, and why it’s worth learning the history and using it.
Don’t use construction paper—it’s because of the weave of the paper. The weave is so loose, the ink will go right through and make a mess. There are ways they would have treated low-quality paper to make it act like a higher quality, and you can do it today—but with the correct tools and paper, it’s much better. I know it is intimidating the first time, and there’s a saying I’ve heard, “The first ten-thousand times are the hardest.”
It does take some practice to get a well-cut quill. It took me a year to do it for children, because you didn’t want to have a perfectly pointed quill for children, because the first thing they will do is press it down on the paper. It will cut right into the paper! So I cut it rounded, so it was a blunt brush for them.
There are tricks even just going to Michaels or Amazon, and buying a dip ink pen. When you buy those, you need to clean the metal. The easiest way to do it, is to take those nibs, stick it into a potato—sounds bizarre, but it works—for about 30 seconds, and then wipe it off with a paper towel. When they make those nibs, it has machine oil on it to cut the metal, and it will react to your ink.
So if the first time you used it, it made a mess, and you got discouraged—it’s not your fault. It’s usually because of other aspects. Cleaning that oil off your metal nib will make your writing so much smoother, make your ink flow much better.
Of course, there’s better quality of ink, and good and badly cut pens—but you can start at a beginner level. I get these zebra pens from Michael’s, that have a calligraphy point nib, and I use those at work. People will still see it and go “Oh, you write with an old-fashioned pen!” when I’m writing with this zebra pen!
There are ways to dip your toes into the water, you don’t have to go straight into the deep end of the ocean and swim 500 miles a while. You can tip toe and play around at the edge of the water first.
Kay: I totally agree. Once you start playing, you realize there’s only one thing further you can get into. It’s like this paper boutique I’m starting, I have this grand vision, but I have to hold myself back. I have to start with paper—then I can get to pens and ink. I love the tip you give on cleaning nibs. I’ve heard you can heat them, but I’ve heard that can affect the pen quality.
Amy: Yes! I’ve learned that by experience. I was heating one for experiment going, “Here, just let me show you really quickly—oh that didn’t work.”
Kay: “Is this a demonstration of how to hurt a nib?” *laughter* I love too with the potato, that it was only thirty seconds. I thought it had to be in there for a while, but I’m glad it’s a quick thing.
Before we wrap up, I know we were talking about where people can find you—you mention you moderate the Wax Seal Society—so tell us about your group and what’s going on there.
Amy: Admittedly, I don’t have much web presence. I spend so much time working in a building that doesn’t have electricity that I forgot about it somewhat. It wasn’t until this pandemic and I learned how to zoom that I realized, “Oh, people do want to hear about this stuff? Alright!” I’m hoping to stop writing a book and start writing a blog.
About the wax seal society, it was actually started by Ben Schaeffer. He started it as, “I want to write like a 18th century person to other people!” He started it as a fun place for reenactors to hang out and write each other.
My husband Brian discovered it as accident after someone mentioned to it, and told me about it. I went “I am there!” Then we not-so-accidentally ended up inviting our other friends who have spent all their life and passion and energy into the group.
Now it’s developed into this multi-level community. People like writer, or beginner historians, or even just curious people can come and ask us about paper, and we will nerd at you and history at you. It’s our place to history at people who want to know—the development, postal service, paper, ink, pens. You can get your basic and your really advance questions answers. I’ve gotten really fun, random questions from people’s research.
It’s also turned into a more academic place where we can sit and talk about everything we love about epistolary and seals and how those things work, and how they operate in the modern day. There is still that underlying encouragement of everyone writing everyone. We have become the place, where if people are doing a demonstration, and they want a mailbag, everyone will send a bunch of letters for them. We’ve been a place for historical movie filmmakers to contact and ask “we need a pile of letters to set on this desk.”
Kay: That’s amazing, where else could they go for that? You mentioned it being an academic place, but I’ve also seen that it’s so open and inviting to people. Whether you’re a historian, or have no idea except that you saw a beautiful letter in a Jane Austin movie and thought, “I want to do that!” there’s a place for you. It’s a wonderful thing. You can learn so much, even about postage rates throughout history.
Amy, I would love if you started your own podcast sometime. I feel like I could talk to you every day, and still not know everything you know about epistolary and everything in this amazing world. As we finish, is there any last thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
Amy: Like I’ve said before: this isn’t scary. It’s really fun and a little bit addicting.
Pick up that pen, dip it in that ink. When I was 7 or 8, I took all the flowers off my mothers’ bush, made a beautiful pink ink—there’s still stains in the sidewalk, I’m still grounded for that. But it’s absolutely wonderful.
Learning about it, with everything we have out there, like the wax seal society, but also google. Begin learning to more about paper and ink, about how they spoke back then and applying it to your email. It’s very fun, you feel like you instantly get a poufy shirt and an awesome hat, even though you’re wearing jeans and a tee shirt. There’s a way to be historic without being someone like me who spent her whole live and museums and wear 18th century clothes all day. There’s a middle ground—and it’s really really fun. You should come join us some day.