When I first began looking at online images of letters from Jane Austen's time last summer, I was frequently perplexed by what I was seeing. Perhaps it's because I haven't handled actual letters from that time period to get a sense of their size and how they were folded. Perhaps it's because different archives photograph their letters differently, making comparison difficult. Perhaps I just didn't see an explanation that made sense to me. So, while there are many articles and blog posts about Regency letter-writing on the internet (see links at the bottom of this post for some), I'm going to add another—the post that might have helped me last summer. Keep in mind that, while there are rules, everyone is different.

The Young Man's Best Companion and Guide to Useful Knowledge (YMBC&GUK) from 1815 contains some straightforward, practical advice on letter writing. Unfortunately, much basic knowledge is taken for granted: "A sheet of quarto paper, written on three succeeding pages, is the most convenient form for a letter." What?? Let's break down that statement.


"Quarto" refers to a sheet of paper that is one-quarter the size of a full sheet produced by a paper manufacturer. According to Entick's (1791) dictionary, a quarto is "the size of a sheet when twice doubled," that is, folded in half twice. As a result, the size of a quarto sheet is determined by the original size of the full sheet. Jane Austen and her contemporaries had access to a wide range of different sizes and qualities of writing paper. Just look at the British statutes governing paper duties from the 1780s: full sheets of writing paper ranged in size from 22 inches by 30 1/4 inches ("Imperial") to 12 1/2 inches by 15 1/2 inches ("pott"). Post paper was a popular size, measuring 15 1/4 inches by 19 1/2 inches in full sheet, so a quarto sheet measured 7 5/8 inches by 9 3/4 inches. Simply put, "quarto" letter paper can be slightly larger than standard 8.511 inch paper (A4 paper if you're not in the US) to slightly smaller.

The majority of paper was made of cotton and linen fibers, which made it strong, soft, and less likely to turn brown and crumbly than paper from the later nineteenth century. To make fine writing paper smoother and less absorbent, it was treated with gelatin size and hot-pressed. Traditional paper-making techniques were used alongside new industrial processes in Jane Austen's day. She used "laid" paper, a traditional style distinguished by prominent textured lines or stripes, as well as "wove" paper, a new smoother paper style that lends itself to industrial production. Only special artist's papers and fancy stationery today resemble the paper produced at the time. The majority of modern paper is made of bleached wood pulp with a variety of sizing and coating agents, including clay.

There are so many variables in paper sizes and qualities that generalizations are difficult! Each type of paper, from pott to foolscap to post, had different weights and qualities; only a paper expert could tell them apart and describe them all. This variation can be useful if you're attempting to recreate period letters; many sizes of paper, including modern standard paper, are appropriate. And, depending on your time and location (before or after wove paper became popular), you can use a variety of fine stationery and artist papers.

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