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Crossed Letters – a vintage way to save paper (and money)

3 min read

We’re privileged to live in an age when paper, writing supplies and postage fees are generally affordable, so much so that most of us take them for granted.
But things weren’t always like this.
Back when paper and postage charges were prohibitively expensive, extremely high relative to average family earnings, people developed a technique to convey as much information as possible on as little paper as possible.

Back in the Civil War era and up until the 1900s, the paper that letters were written on and the postage charges were so expensive that people had to write on a piece of paper in multiple directions in order to save money.
This curious technique was called cross-writing, or cross-hatching and, despite seeming unreadable, back in the day everyone was used to it and could easily read every word.
Crossed letters essentially began as regular ones.
However, when the writer reached the bottom of the page, instead of grabbing a new sheet of paper, they would turn the written page sideways and write over the written lines. In extreme cases, masters of cross-writing could write not only at right angles, but diagonally as well.
In short, this was a common practice where you would write a letter – using not only the front and back of the paper, but also by turning the paper sideways, and continue to write.

Looking at vintage crossed letters, they look more like puzzles to be deciphered, but according to experts, the practice was so common during the 1800s that anyone who could read, could also read this system.
Apparently, the eyes get used to the these letters after enough practice that they simply ignore the background text, focusing only on the words written in a certain direction.

Cross-writing was so widespread at one point in time that even famous writers, scholars and characters such as Henry James, Jane Austen, and Charles Darwin used it to save paper and money.
Luckily, we live in a time when such intricate techniques are no longer necessary, but there is no denying the charm of vintage crossed letters.
Now, most postal systems assess postage by weight, and it makes no sense to use cross writing to allow for lower postage.
And, since digital means of correspondence have largely eclipsed handwriting, the crossed letter seems extremely quaint and archaic to many of modern writers.

Images from web – Google Research