Cross Writing and Cross Reading

Whenever I give presentations involving 19th-century manuscripts, people are always fascinated by the practice of cross-writing. This is the practice of writing a letter and then turning it 90 degrees and writing the opposite way. We have a number of examples of this from our collection, such as this Civil War letter from Alexander Biddle to his wife.

Alexander Biddle, autograph letter signed to Julia Rush Biddle, 25 September 1862. Rush IV:30:23. Collection of the Rosenbach

The ostensible and oft-quoted goal of this 19th-century technique was to save money on postage by keeping the number of sheets down. Although this may have been true, especially before the mid-century regularization of postal service in both the US and UK, I suspect the practice also became  became an ingrained habit or a practice associated with virtuous thrift. Alexander Biddle, whose letter is shown above,  had plenty of money and he wrote to his wife nearly every day that he was in the military, clearly indicating that he lacked neither money nor paper for correspondence.

Modern researchers often find cross-writing frustrating to read and it turns out that the nineteenth-century folks often thought the same. In chapter 19 of Emma (first published in 1815) Miss Bates describes a letter from Miss Fairfax:

[I]n general she fills the whole paper and crosses half. My
mother often wonders that I can make it out so well. She often says,
when the letter is first opened, ‘Well, Hetty, now I think you will
be put to it to make out all that chequer-work’ — don’t you, ma’am?
And then I tell her, I am sure she would contrive to make it out
herself, if she had nobody to do it for her, every word of it — I am
sure she would pore over it till she had made out every word.

Jane Austen, Emma. EL3 .933e v.2. Collection of the Rosenbach

Lewis Carroll, himself a fantastically prolific letter writer, also criticized the practice in his amusing pamphlet Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letterwriting:

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!

Lewis Carroll, Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-writing. Oxford : Emberlin and Son, 1890. EL3. D645ei copy 2. Collection of the Rosenbach.

My thoughts about the persistence of cross-writing as a habit, even after the price of postage came down, are echoed in the 1878 book: Analysis of Letter-writing, with a Large Number of Examples of Model Business Letters, which is not in our collection but can be found on Google Books.

In this country paper and postage are reasonably cheap. There is, therefore, no excuse for writing cross lines either on the margin of your sheet, or over the lines of your letter on the regular rulings. These cross lines deform your letter and add very much to the difficulty of reading it. It is very rare indeed, perhaps never, that you will see a business letter thus defaced, But no letter, whether of a business or social character, should be thus deformed.

Cross lines in letter writing came into use many years ago, on account of dear postage and the high price of paper. Less than twenty-five years ago, it cost more to send a letter from Detroit to New York than it did to send a bushel of wheat or corn. The high rates of postage furnished some apology, at that time, for utilizing every nook and corner of the sheet, in writing an old fashioned family letter. But those days have passed, never to return to the people of this country; and with them the necessity if not the inducement of cross lining letters.

Ladies still continue the practice to some extent in their correspondence with each other. But, generally, the person receiving a letter thus disfigured regards it with disfavor, if not with disgust. It now appears like an affectation of economy, or of real economy bordering on stinginess or poverty. It is, to say the least against it that can be said, in very bad taste.

Of course, the vehemence of his outcry is a testament to the fact that the practice was still very much in evidence. Thankfully (for period and modern readers alike) it did eventually die out, leaving us only to tangle with the challenges of deciphering handwriting, without the other factors that could lead to “cross reading.”

4 thoughts on “Cross Writing and Cross Reading

  1. This the first time I ever heard of this practice. I find it fascinating. I wrote a note to myself in cross writing I can see how difficult it would be to read.

  2. I have several family cross written letters from the 1820s which I have struggled but failed to read. Is there any service which will undertake to provide this service, and if so, what kind of cost would be entailed ?

  3. I have my great grandfather’s diaries written at the turn of the 20th century that were all cross written. At first I thought that they were just over written (palimpsest) but upon closer examination realized that he was being a frugal Scotsman and paper was probably in short supply out on the farm. Tough reading initially but fascinating!

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