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April 24, 2014

Have you heard of cross writing?  I hadn't until recently.

Cross writing is a little known, yet ingenious, writing technique
used in the 18th and 19th centuries and is completely fascinating.

Also referred to as "cross-hatching," the technique occurs when the writer reaches the bottom of the page, turns the paper sideways and continues writing.

Why would they do that?  Until the 20th century paper was expensive and a luxury mainly afforded by the affluent.  By cross writing, the letter's author was able to get twice as much information on the same amount of paper.

Another reason cross writing was employed in the 18th and 19th centuries was because postage delivery was charged per page or by the size of the paper.

New York Review of Books
Dated Feb. 8, 1807, this letter from Jane Austen to her
sister, Cassandra, is a classic example of cross writing.

Britannia Rules
Always economical, Austen abhorred waste and frequently used
cross writing to save money.  Above is a photo of the actual desk
Austen used when writing her novels and correspondence.

Cross-writing is not as hard to read as you might imagine.  The
brain processes reading left to right and writing in another direction
basically becomes 'wallpaper' in the background.

Caroline Weston of Boston, an avid abolitionist, used cross-writing
in a letter to her sister, Deborah Weston, dated March 3, 1837.  It
is in the rare books and archives section of the Boston Public Library.

Scottish emigrant William Knox used cross-writing in a letter
to his uncle, Andrew Redford, when describing his journey to
Canada in 1838.

A cross-written letter dated Sept. 4, 1842, from
Richard Dadd (1817-1886) to David Roberts.

Special Collections
British Captain Christopher E. Blackett wrote a letter to his father
on Sept. 21, 1854, during the Crimean War.  The technique of cross-
writing was used by many soldiers to save paper.  The letter was
acquired by the Department of Manuscripts and University Archives
of the Cambridge University Library in 2000.

Library Land
Charles Darwin employed cross-writing in many of his letters.

Henry James, author of Washington Square (1880), Portrait of A Lady
(1881), The Bostonians (1886), The Ambassadors (1903), The Golden
Bowl (1904), and other novels and periodicals used the technique of
cross-writing for many of his manuscripts.

Most cross-written letters are fairly easy to read but one of James' personal letters, right, is almost indecipherable.

While cross-writing was employed in previous centuries to save money,
writers in the 21st century might consider using the technique to reduce paper
waste.  But, wait a minute - when was the last time you wrote a letter?!


  1. Wow, I have never heard of or seen this. Interesting post ... thank you!

    1. Thanks so much for stopping by. I've never seen an actual cross-written letter - most of them are in museums, I guess. Fascinating but also a little headache-inducing!

  2. I have heard about cross writing.
    And I do write letter and send cards. It is one thing that anyone can do that really shows someone that you did take time and sit down and send them a letter, note or card. I still look through my mail to see if someone sent me something.
    And I do use e-mail, IM, skpe and LINE because much of my family has to be all over the world and it is wonderful to reach them fast. Most of my family lives in Japan. And we always send mail to each other.
    But nothing beats a letter or card in the mail. You can't put a e-mail on your table or desk !
    Oh yeah, I sent you and e-mail for your Birthday between reading the news and the basketball scores.

    cheers, parsnip

    cheers, parsnip

    1. Yes, I miss letters. It amazes me that my sister and I exchanged so many letters when our children were little. We lived several hundred miles apart and long distance was too expensive. Kids today can't even relate, can they?!

  3. Very fascinating...Cross writing is new to me, but writing personal letters, cards, and keeping journals is something I've done for years, and doubt if I will stop. I too like parsnip, use computer, Skype, emails...but a card on your desk to remind you someone love you can't be beat!!

    1. Absolutely - it's such a thrill to get an actual letter in the mail. As soon as we could print our names my mother had my brother and I writing thank you notes and letters to our grandparents. I miss letters.

  4. That was interesting...never heard of cross writing before. Something never taught in school when I was younger. I think just writing a letter or sending a card is becoming a lost art....perhaps if we used the PO more often, instead of email and facebook or Skype.....maybe the PO would not be losing money??? Just a thought. Things were so much slower back in the old days...sitting down to write a letter took instant messaging has taken sad.

    1. I agree! Within the next 20 years no one will have heard of thank you notes and the anticipation of getting an actual letter in the mail.

  5. I have a headache just thinking about trying to decipher that mess!

    1. Honestly, I enlarged a couple of the photos and tried to read a few lines - not happening! And they had fountain pens, not even Bics!

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  7. WOW! That is amazing, and the fact that the brain can "read" through the lines of text - who knew??