When is a letter?

When is a letter? The Manifold Writer, the merchant and the frontier business-woman

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘When is a letter? The Manifold Writer, the merchant and the frontier business-woman’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/when-is-a-letter/ and also provide the paragraph number as appropriate if quoting.

1. The question of ‘when is a letter?’ might seem a nonsensical or at the least a curious one because seemingly self-evident. The plain woman’s response here might be that “the ‘when’ of a letter is when it starts, and this ‘when’ continues until it stops at its end”. However, letters are better than that! In particular, they are often tricky and curious in the sense of having flexible boundaries and so intermingling with epistolarity and ‘letterness’ more generally on the one hand, and on the other shading into and out of a plethora of other forms of writing. They raise interesting ontological issues in consequence.

2. Jpeg 1The ‘Curiosities’ section of the WWW website is all about such epistolary ontological matters regarding shifting boundaries, overlaps of form, the changes that occur when one morphs into another. Such matters are explored here concerning a lengthy correspondence that occurred from 1840 to 1848 between a Cape Town merchant and an Eastern Cape business-woman living in Cradock. The merchant was WJ Smith, the business-woman was the widowed Harriet Townsend nee Hockly, who ran a shop and also a mail-order service selling upmarket ‘high end’ items, with Smith her supplier of goods, occasional banker and adviser. The letters concerned are part of the Pringle collection, one of the focuses for WWW research, and they expedite the dynamic of business exchanges and their transfers of material goods, credit, and money between Smith and Townsend in the form of ‘favours’ or orders of goods received and acted upon and payments for these made, or not made.

3. What throws these questions about ontology and the ‘when-ness’ of letters into relief, rather than them having a quieter, less obtrusive and background presence, is Smith’s use of a curious new technology known as the Manifold Writer (shown in the advertisement in the image above) and his recommendation to Townsend that she should use it too. Its use makes such things literally visible. His letters survive, while alas hers do not, and thus the discussion following necessarily focuses in the way it does.

4. The Manifold Writer was an early process (invented in the 1830s) for making multiple copies, taking the form of a portable machine-like device. It had the capacity to revolutionise business practice, because enabling a writer to easily make copies that could be kept – aka filed – for future reference; and it was in this spirit that Smith made his recommendation. Smith used it like this. But also his usage subverted, expanded, undermined, mixed, the possibilities of what – and when – his letters were. This was the age of mechanical reproduction, but in no wise was it done so simply as with the photograph! Please take note, Mr W. Benjamin! To explain…

5. Consider the example of Smith using a Manifold Writer shown in the second image here. This was written on 5 January 1844 and in such a way as to show – literally to show – what was involved in using it. The middle part of this communication was produced using the Manifold Writer, while the ‘I have none of your favors to reply to… at the bottom and the PS ‘I forgot…’ at the top are ‘the thing itself’ and not a copy and were written after the (Manifold copied) middle.

6. This mixed form, this ontological epistolary gruffalo or labradoodle, is generally typical of how Smith wrote and structured his letters to Harriet Townsend after 3 May 1843 when a letter ‘announces’ his purchase of a Manifold Writer and extols its use. The main element was provided by him writing in very business-like terms concerning the favours he had received from her and how he had responded to and expedited them, commenting in itemised detail on goods, prices and transportation methods. This was inscribed using the Manifold Writer. Then, at the bottom of a sheet, or at the end of a second or third sheet, there is a more personal enquiry as to health, a report on his wife and children, an enquiry after hers, some comment on people known in common, all inscribed in a bolder ink and the ‘top’ handwritten version, rather than the carbonated ‘bottom’ Manifold instantiation.

7. Although generally typical, this is not the only way that Smith deployed the Manifold Writer to indicate different kinds and forms of epistolary communication with their different ways of writing, modes of address, topics of concern. A different example is where he ensures there is a sharp divide between the business and the interpersonal aspects of his letter-writing. This is shown by the images below.

On the left above is a printed list of goods which had arrived by ship into Cape Town, with beneath this a business message made using the Manifold Writer. On the right above is a letter dated 4 April 1845 written in response to favours received and in which Smith also encourages MrsTownsend to send further favours, with thie scissored out clip on its side her way of recording that she had dealt with its contents. The  printed list was folded inside of the letter, and the letter itself – on a double sheet of paper – was folded and Mrs Townsend’s name and address written on the blank side of the paper.

8. There are other examples that are ‘all favours’, or rather all focused response to favours received, and which are itemised in a Manifold Writer format, with a 16 June 1845 example shown here. Smith tended to write in this way in particular circumstances, and particularly when he was being very formal and ‘business-like’ in the narrow sense. Regarding this specific example, it was written at the point when his formerly independent business amalgamated with the larger Twentyman’s and he appears to have been feeling his way cautiously regarding his degree of independence. The result is that Smith sent Mrs Townsend what is in effect an extended list of goods, denuding the letter of more personal communications and enquiries, which are always ‘top’ hand-written, apart from the bare formalities of opening and closing, although the hand-written address for this example does provide a small more personal element.

9. The final example for comment is ‘Manifold Writer free’. That is, it is ‘a letter’ in the usual sense as shown by the ink on the manuscript. However, it is the frostiest and most impersonal of Smith’s extant communications to Mrs Townsend and is dated very near the end of their correspondence, at a point when a major turning-point occurred. It is dated 15 June 1848 and it is all business of a ‘final reckoning’ kind, although also with a mild recrimination at its start. The circumstance was that Smith had been told by a third party of Mrs Townsend’s forthcoming marriage, and thus that their business connection was ‘likely to cease’, as he phrases it. He was clearly caught on the raw – she owed him a great deal of money, as the letter spells out and requests payment of; he had put himself out over eight years or so to aid her well beyond the requirements of commerce; and she had failed to tell him when she told others. It is all statement from him to her – there is no response to her most recent favour, no inquiries about kith and kin, nor her own well-being or activities; and nor does it invite or suggest any reply from her except in the form of payment of her debts. It is a letter, then, that lacks some of the key aspects of letterness. In particular, its content is not emergent and responsive, and it does not invite any response other than payment.

10. Some important questions arise.

11. Does use of the Manifold Writer produce a copy? And if it does, does it constitute a copy in the same way when the ‘top’ is sent to its addressee as when the ‘bottom’ is sent to them? In common-sense terms, a copy serves a different kind of purpose from a letter and is intended for the writer rather than the addressee. However, when using the Manifold Writer, Smith sometime sent Mrs Townsend the hand-written ‘top’ and sometimes the Manifold Writer produced ‘bottom’ and which it was seems to depend on the particular circumstance, hints of which are provided by the contents of his letters.

12. Does response or its absence matter? Yes it does in the context of this correspondence, for clearly Smith was being quite deliberate in writing in the way that he did in his June 1848 frosty letter. And does impersonality and being about ‘business’ narrowly matter? Yes, this too does matter in the context of this correspondence, for Smith used the Manifold Writer or printed material or intemised lists and so on deliberately and in a way marked out from his other ways of writing to Harriet Townsend. Do these things matter for leter-writing more generally? This surely is a matter for empirical investigation and not abstract pronouncement.

13. When is a letter and when is it not? Relatedly, are all of Smith’s communications to Harriet Townsend to be seen as letters, regardless, or are some of them other kinds of writings and only become letters when, at specific points on the pages, they stop being lists, invoices, notices and so on? And when do they end, and is this when they start presenting lists, invoices, notices et cetera? Clearly and visibly, there are differences between his different ways of writing, and he intended and made visible the different purposes that the different components of his communications were to serve. But.

14. But should Smith’s letters to Harriet Townsend perhaps be taken and read as a whole, rather than disaggregating them in this kind of way? On one level, they are all epistolary communications and should be seen as such. However, on another level, to ignore the different aspects that have been teased out here would be to fail to recognise the complexity of both what Smith was doing when he wrote to Mrs Townsend, and also of the epistolary form itself.

Last updated: 23 December 2017