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The art and science of letterlocking

MIT Libraries’ conservator shares historic letterlocking techniques
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Jana Dambrogio, MIT Libraries’ Thomas F. Peterson Conservator
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Jana Dambrogio, MIT Libraries’ Thomas F. Peterson Conservator
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Photo: L. Barry Hetherington
Facsimiles of historic locked letters
Caption:
Facsimiles of historic locked letters
An example of a letterlocking technique
Caption:
An example of a letterlocking technique

Long before email, text, and instant message, important words were passed discreetly from closed palm to palm with a knowing glance and nod. These hand-written notes were often elaborately folded, sealed with wax, and rigged with anti-tamper devices to ensure their protection and authenticity.

The technique of “locking” letters involves folding the parchment, papyrus, or paper securely so that the letter functions as its own envelope. Well-known historical figures such as Queen Elizabeth I of England, Marie Antoinette, and even MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers, used locked letters for their private communications.

“Letterlocking has been around for centuries, and has been used by prominent figures as well as everyday people,” says Jana Dambrogio, MIT Libraries’ Thomas F. Peterson Conservator. “Some of the earliest examples on paper are found in the Vatican Secret Archives and date back to 1494.”

Dambrogio, who is the conservator of MIT’s rare books, archives, and manuscripts, will demonstrate the technique of locking letters in two upcoming events at MIT: Historic Letterlocking: the Art, Technology and Secrecy of Letter Writing on April 23 during the Cambridge Science Festival, and April 29 during MIT Libraries’ Preservation Week.

Dambrogio first became interested in “letterlocking” (a term she coined) as a fellow at the Vatican Secret Archives. In the Vatican’s collection she discovered paper letters from the 15th and 16th centuries with unusual slits and sliced-off corners. Curious if the marks were part of the original letter, she discovered that they were indications the letters had originally been locked with a slice of paper stabbed through a slit, and closed with a wax seal. Letters sealed this way could not be opened without ripping the slice of paper—revealing the letter had been tampered with before reaching the intended recipient.

“Physical nuances in these letters may provide clues about the letter’s author, its recipient, and the historical importance of the subject matter,” she says.

Dambrogio has also studied locked letters in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and the collections of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the British Library, and Harvard’s Houghton Library. She’s interested in locked letters as artifacts, and also as conversation starters — tools for introducing the topic of conservation.

“I’ll hand someone a locked letter, and they look at it like a problem to solve. They don’t want to break the paper lock, but they want to open it. It’s a hands-on experience that gets people engaged,” she says.

Dambrogio will give away facsimiles of historic locked letters at both events, for those who would like to try their hand at locking and unlocking letters.

Press Mentions

Atlas Obscura

Writing for Atlas Obscura, Abigail Cain spotlights how Jana Dambrogio, a conservator at MIT Libraries, is building a dictionary cataloging the historical practice of letterlocking. Dambrogio explains that to accurately recreate some of the more intricate locks requires “looking at thousands of artifacts and having the ability to remember them.”

New York Times

New York Times reporter Eve Kahn writes about how Jana Dambrogio, a conservator at the MIT Libraries, is researching how letter writers kept their correspondence sealed and private, a process she refers to as “letterlocking.” “This is such a brand-new field of study,” Dambrogio relates. 

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