The Lost Art of Letterlocking: Tutorials, Personal Experience, and Application in Bookbinding

The Lost Art of Letterlocking: Tutorials, Personal Experience, and Application in Bookbinding

When was the last time you wrote a letter? Put a piece of paper in an envelope and dropped it in a mailbox?

Nowadays when people talk about communication security, they usually mean computer encryption. The thing about being a bookbinder, though, is that you tend to have a fondness for outdated technology.

And before the internet, tracking numbers, and self-sealing envelopes, there was letterlocking.

The term “letterlocking” is used to describe a way of folding and securing a letter without an envelope. It’s a relatively new field of study, but it has attracted a dedicated group of professionals who are very enthusiastic about sharing their discoveries with the world.

To begin to wrap your head around the subject, you might explore the ever-growing Dictionary of Letterlocking, or watch a short documentary. For the truly intrepid individual, however, there is a fantastic youtube channel chock full of tutorials:

Let it never be said that I am not an intrepid individual.

Before I set out to lock a few letters, I needed some letters to lock. There’s something rather romantic about a handwritten message sealed with red wax, so I set out to write some Valentine’s Day letters for my friends. I’m hoping it’ll make up for the fact that I never sent Christmas cards.

Just to make sure I was in the right mindset for letterlocking, I broke out my dip-pen and used some good quality paper from an old sketchbook.

At least, it’s good quality for sketching. Perhaps not so much for letterlocking.

Butterfly Lock

The first tutorial I attempted was the Butterfly Lock. It was used by Mary Queen of Scots to secure a letter to her brother-in-law, the King of France, in 1587. As it turned out it was the last letter she ever wrote—she was executed the next day.

The lock is made using a slim strip of paper cut from the center fold of the letter. This strip is woven in a figure eight or butterfly-like pattern through a hole punched in the edge of the folded letter. It seemed straight forward enough. Unfortunately, my sketchbook paper did not seem to be up to the acrobatic challenge.

It broke.

Not to be discouraged, I tried again with the next letter. My perseverance paid off—a success! At least for a few seconds, until the pressure from the folded paper caused the seal to burst open.

The third time was the charm, but I’d learned to be wary. If you decide to try some letterlocking yourself, make sure your paper isn’t too thick or soft. I actually had much better luck with newsprint paper later on, and the added bonus is it’s cheap to practice with.

Walsingham’s Anti-Spy Letter

The second technique I tried was Walsingham’s anti-spy letter to Sir Ralph Sadler, from 1584. It seemed like it would be easier on my paper, which I now knew had the tendency to go to pieces under pressure.

Like the Butterfly Lock, it uses a piece cut from the letter itself to hold the letter shut. The benefit of this is that the receiver, after opening the message, can arrange the torn pieces back together to confirm that nothing has been tampered with.

With the help of a handy palette knife and a gentle hand, I did, in fact, have more luck with this lock. It gave me the confidence to try something more ambitious.

Dagger-Trap Letter

Something like Intelligencer Simeon Fox’s Dagger-Trap Letter, sent from Venice in 1601.

I mean, with a name like that, I couldn’t resist.

This one was actually quite fun, and you end up with a flashy-looking finished product. It involves a triangle of paper, still attached to the letter, which is woven back and forth through slits cut in the folded letter. Once the letter is completely folded, the triangle is concealed from view. Any unwary snoop who attempted to open the letter would get a shock when the triangle inside is torn as everything is unfolded. The recipient would know immedietely that their letter has been tampered with.

The dagger-trap got me thinking about how such techniques might be applied to bookbinding. That feeling of anticipation you get unfolding a letter is not too unlike the one you get when you open a book. So why not lock a book for fun?

I tried it out by making a straightforward three-signature pamphlet binding. I wrapped a triangle of tissue paper around the outside of the signature before I sewed it up, and I left the front and back cover long so I could fold them in a way that would mimic the dagger-trap lock.

It worked like a charm—the tissue tore immedietely when I opened the book. I think I’ll try to come up with a way to “deactivate” the dagger so that a person in the know can get into the book without triggering the trap.

I’d actually be interested in seeing some tutorials on how to break into a locked letter—the 16th century version of hacking if you will. I made another prototype binding the skill might come in handy for.

It’s a supported concertina binding, with the letter pages sewn into the binding before being folded and locked. I used newsprint paper for the letters here, which I had a much easier time with than the sketchbook paper. The trick with this binding was to make sure to sew the letter paper in the right spot so that it could be folded and locked properly.

I like to think of it as a book of secrets. I’m not sure what I would put in the letters if I fully develop the binding, but I’ve loved interactive books since I was a child. This one challenges the reader to sneak past the locks, or throw caution to the wind and change the book forever.

Of course, you could always leave the letters locked and let them keep their secrets.

It’s a choice I’m faced with right now, actually. After locking all those letters to my friends, I forgot to write their names on the outside.

This could get interesting.

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