Into the Archives!

  • Posted on: 3 November 2018
  • By: Heather Adkins

“It’s out of paper!” You scream in terror as your printer (leisurely printing your homework), grinds to a stop. You look around, but there is no extra paper to be found. These days, a simple run to the office supply store can solve your paper needs. However, paper has not always been as accessible.

In the 19th Century, letter-writing was a surprisingly expensive task. Producing paper was not cheap, and buying quality paper came at a cost. Early in the century, postmasters began charging for distance traveled and the weight of paper. Combine the price of paper with the budding idea of paying for postage – writing to loved-ones suddenly became a line item in the family budget. This added expense led many to find ways to save on paper.

One of those cost-saving methods was “cross-hatching.” Cross-hatch, or cross-writing, was a method of using up every available space on a single sheet of paper. Typically, the correspondent would write left-to-right on every face of the paper (as we do today); however, if they had more to say, they would turn the paper a quarter turn and continue to write in the gaps left by the previous lines. In doing so, they could pack in a lot of information, for the low cost of mailing a single sheet of paper.

[Mary F. Lewis to Myra Louis Lewis, her sister, 18 February 1843, Clay Collection, HMCPL Special Collections.]

We have many examples of cross-hatch in the HMCPL Archives. This letter comes from the Clay Collection. Mary Fenwick Lewis (1825-1898) married John Withers Clay (1820-1896) and became a matriarch of the Clays, an early Huntsville Family. At seventeen, Mary left the South to finish her education at a boarding school in Paris, France. From 1842 to 1844, she wrote long letters home describing her experiences.

Interested in more from the Clay Collection? Call (256-532-5969) or email ( the Special Collections. 

Join us on November 9 at our Special Collections open house, from 2:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. Special Collections is located on the third floor at the Downtown Huntsville Library.

Suggested Reading:
Rohr, Nancy M. An Alabama School Girl in Paris. Huntsville, AL: SilverThreads Publishing, 2001.