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  • Carole Conn

Reading and Writing in the Good Old Days

We all spend an incredible amount of time reading stuff: newspapers, virtual newspapers, emails, instruction sheets, surfing the net and occasionally reading an actual book.

And we write a lot, too, even if it is using just our thumbs to pound out a message in lower case and full of abbreviations. Once in a while we may also write a long hand thank you note, too.

So much has changed about the way we communicate with each other in just the last 20 years. I began to wonder what it must have been like to do these essential tasks in the 18th century in rural New England.

First of all, what was there to read? Children, mostly male children, were given textbooks in school, and even young girls were taught to read if they were lucky enough to attend school. But this was educational reading. Boring.

Every home had a bible and maybe a hymnal. Religious reading was encouraged.

There were also newspapers and broadsheets which announced events and dealt in local gossip. There were books intended to be read for pleasure, too, but this was discouraged in puritanical New England.

I have become completely enamored with old books, particularly those with leather bindings and hand written notes in them. It almost doesn't matter to me what the book is about. I just like the look of it. I buy them whenever I find them and they are affordable. Recently, I bought a lot of 17 of them. I didn't examine them very closely, and when I got home I found this:

It says, "Josiah Parks Litchfield Conn". It was written on the back of the front cover of a leather bible published in 1824 in Brattleborough VT. I live in Litchfield, CT, so I was blown away. Josiah Parks was a prominent Litchfield resident, born in 1797. He operated the stagecoach between Litchfield and Hartford in the early part of the 19th century.

Another of the books, also a bible, has a family history written in it - there was a blank page meant for this in the book. This family was mainly from Philadelphia. So interesting!

You can find leather bound books at shows, and sometimes at flea markets. The bindings should be in tact, and most of the pages in good shape, but a little battered and worn is good, in my opinion. Plan on spending $30-$100 for one. Most nice ones can be had for $45-75. Rare ones, or those with special features will be a lot more.

Writing long hand letters was the only way to communicate with someone who was far away. Early days, that meant a feather quill dipped in ink, used to write on a piece of parchment which was then blotted with paper or sand from a sander. As the 19th century developed, paper became available and even real pens, also dipped in ink.

Country inkwells are another category I just love, and are the subject of a blog post (see Country Inkwells, Sept. 7, 2015).

I really prefer the country ones to the fancier ones. They are made of soapstone, wood, lead, basalt and glass. Since they are all hand made, most are one-of-a kind, although there are common forms. They range in price all over the place. Plan on spending in excess of $100 for a good old soapstone one.

Reading and writing were mostly done in daylight. Lighting was an issue. But reading for relaxation, and writing to exchange family news and gossip had to be done in the evening after all the chores and duties were completed. That meant that these things were done in artificial light, which, in the 18th and early 19th centuries meant candles and oil lamps.

Early colonial lighting is a big subject, not to be covered in this blog. Suffice it to say that homes were lighted with oil and candles.

Whale oil and fish oil were available along the New England coast very early. These oils were burned in oil lamps. Interiors must have really stunk! What a smell. Think of the fishiest smell you can imagine.

Once settled, most households made their own candles either by dipping wicks in hot wax or by pouring the wax into molds. Dark rooms were illuminated by candles in sticks and in lanterns. The "hogscraper" - the ubiquitous rolled iron stick of the 19th century, often had a "chair hook". It hung on the back of a wooden chair so that the light shined over your shoulder. Just don't burn your hair!

Other "personal" lights were book lights - candle holders with a tab that you could stick into the pages of your book.

And then there is the chamberstick - so called because you carried it up to bed at night. These were small, often with a wide tray and a thumb loop.

Rooms were illuminated by lanterns and open flame candles, but lanterns were safer. They could be hung from beams or they could sit on a table. The glass magnified the light. These were a practical and safer choice.

Rooms with old books, inkwells, pens, and candle lanterns look so romantic and cozy. But I often think about how really difficult it must have been to enjoy a book or write a coherent letter in those days, especially with "older" eyes.

I guess we're lucky to have electric lights -- but there's nothing like a candle lit room, an old leather book, and a nice glass of wine.


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