Tag: sociability

Lost Letters in the Eighteenth Century

Copies of William Dockwra’s postal markings used in 1680-1682. Credit: Michael Romanov, Wikimedia Commons.

Copies of William Dockwra’s postal markings used in 1680-1682. Credit: Michael Romanov, Wikimedia Commons.

Sending a letter around the turn of the eighteenth century was an uncertain business. Although the Penny Post (1680) had enabled the daily delivery of letters within ten miles of London, letters were generally sent with travellers or servants or, perhaps, by diplomatic channels, over longer distances. As Alice Marples recently hinted, warfare, lost ships, highwaymen, pirates and unreliable bearers were potential barriers to delivery. Hans Sloane’s correspondents, not surprisingly, had much to say on the matter of postal problems–including, sometimes, the letter-writer himself!

The path of sending letters was sometimes complicated. William Fraser forwarded Sloane a letter from Dr Martini in Riga. Fraser had left Martini’s letter behind in Hamburg by accident and had only just received it once more. Any replies were to be directed to Fraser at Robin’s Coffeehouse, which he would then forward to Martini in Riga. Fraser’s letter was undated, so there is no telling how long it took for Martini’s letter dated 20 December 1717 to reach Sloane. Jacob Scheuchzer of Zurich had a detailed back-up plan that he needed when he did not hear from Sloane, despite sending several letters, in 1716. He wrote to John Woodward in England who then forwarded Sloane a copy of the original letter.

This was a wise decision when letters and packages might be lost. Letters sent between countries were especially at risk.  Denis Papin, for example, only learned in 1709 that Sloane had sent a letter to him in France when a mutual acquaintance told him. Johann Philipp Breyne, writing from Amsterdam, was disappointed in 1702 when he discovered that Sloane had never received his letter from Rome, which had included (tantalizingly) a “curious account”. But even letters sent within England might go astray. In April 1702, Abraham de la Pryme, writing from Thorne, was unsure whether or not Sloane had received his last month’s letter about a man bitten by a rabid dog. To make matters worse, the Philosophical Transactions that Sloane had sent him had also not arrived!

Despite the problems, people seem to have trusted the post enough to send valuable items through it. William Sherard reported in 1701 that several prints had arrived from Paris and were at the post office awaiting payment of customs fees. Sherard also promised that his brother, once returned from Paris, would send Sloane some books. John Ray, in 1697, let Sloane know that he had finally received Sloane’s package of flower specimens.

Of course, sometimes lost letters were the ones ignored buried under Sloane’s piles of correspondence. In May 1704, Nehemiah Grew wrote to Sloane about one of Ralph Thoresby’s letters (subject unspecified). Sloane had apparently not yet responded to or returned the letter, despite his promises for over half a year. This, Grew complained, put him in a difficult position. He demanded that Sloane return Thoresby’s letter immediately. Sloane presumably returned the letter and it seems likely that the letter was eventually published in the Philosophical Transactions (1704) as the (delightfully titled) “An Extract of a Letter from Mr Ralph Thoresby, F.R.S. to Nehemiah Grew, Fellow of the College of Physicians and R.S. concerning a Ball voided by Stool”.

Sloane’s lack of a reply to Grew and Thoresby does, however, make me wonder how many of these ‘concerns’ about lost letters were actually Sloane’s correspondents issuing polite reminders to reply— a strategy that is as useful  in the age of electronic communication as it was in the eighteenth century…

October 9 is World Post Day: the celebration of the Universal Postal Union, founded in 1874, which allowed for the development of a reliable international postal service.

For more on early modern letters and post, see James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England (2012).

Contracts and Early Modern Scholarly Networks

By Ann-Marie Hansen

In the face of such an extensive collection of correspondence as Sir Hans Sloane’s, one might well ask how a person could establish such a network of contacts in the days before electronic social-media. Each relationship tells its own story, of course, but Sloane communicated with many scholars within what was known as the Republic of Letters. This intellectual community had a set of rules governing the proper way of establishing a written exchange. (For recent commentary on the need for rules in online academic sociability today, see here, here and here!)

One such practice was the epistolary contract, which allows us to understand how such relationships were established. This was a formal agreement between correspondents that determined their respective responsibilities and subsequently formed the basis for all further communication. Such contracts were especially necessary in cases where the correspondents never met and so couldn’t discuss the details in person; as a result we find evidence of several such contracts in Sloane’s correspondence with French scholars.

Jean Paul Bignon. Engraving by C. Duflos after H. Rigaud, 1708. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In the crucial first letters of an exchange a relationship would be offered and, if accepted, the specific terms would be negotiated such that the ensuing “commerce de lettres” would suit both parties. The language used reveals a contractual nature of the proposed exchange, for example referring to conditions and obligation. There is, however, also a hint of the relationship’s commercial nature. The goods and services to be provided by one or both sides were discussed, as well as the fair compensation for these favours. This was ordinarily payment in kind, such as scientific news from France being traded for scientific news from England. This was the case in the exchange proposed by the Abbé Jean-Paul Bignon, who wrote:


My wishes would be fulfilled if […] it would please you to enter into some sort of exchange with me, and from time to time send me news of what is happening in the learned world. […] To make an advance on the dealings that I am proposing, the principal gain from which will be mine, I am sending you literary news which particular reasons keep us from printing in our journals. (Sloane MS 4041, f. 324)

Epistolary contracts sometimes stipulated how often each person had to write, and if either party did not meet these obligations they could expect to be reprimanded for their silence. Sloane himself was scolded in November 1695 for neglecting his recently established correspondence with the journalist Henri Basnage de Beauval. Having heard of Sloane’s recent nuptials with Elizabeth Langley (in May 1695), Basnage admitted that taking a wealthy wife was sufficient reason for having lately been overly occupied, but insisted that Sloane’s new situation did not free him from his prior commitments.

But please, you are not henceforth excused from the obligation to which you committed yourself. It is time that I remind you that you offered me an epistolary exchange, and that is a commitment which I do not accept to have been annulled by the other duties that you have recently taken upon yourself. Be so good then as to fulfill what you promised me, and recognize that it is well that I should ask you to do so. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 219)

Sloane must have replied promptly enough after that, as the two men exchanged news for some years to come. Moreover, given how vast a network of contacts continued to communicate with Sloane, this temporary failing on his part seems to have been a rather rare occurrence. He did only marry the one time after all.

Original French Quotations

(1) Je serois au comble de mes souhaits si […] vous voudrés bien entrer dans quelque sorte de commerce avec moi; et me mander de temps en temps ce qu’il y aura de nouveau par rapport aux Lettres. […] Pour faire des avances du commerce que je vous propose, et dont le principal ­­fruit doit me revenir, je vous envoye les nouvelles Litteraires que des raisons particulieres nous empechent d’imprimer dans nos Journaux.

(2) Mais vous n’etes pas s’il vous plaist dispensé pour toujours de l’obligation oû vous vous estes engagé vous mesme. Il est temps que je vous fasse souvenir que vous m’avez offert un commerce de lettres, et c’est un engagement que je ne pretends point qui soit rompu par les autres soins dont vous venez de vous charger. Ayez donc la bonté d’executer ce que vous m’avez promis, et trouvez bon que je vous en sollicite.