Our written history as humans began simple enough. With thick charcoals accented by yellow and red ochre, our Paleolithic ancestors painted on stone cave walls in about 40,000 B.C. to communicate messages and share stories. Over centuries, the true meaning behind these etchings of animals, hunts, and handprints have had many interpretations. Are they describing ritualistic practices that honor a hunt or devotion to an animal, transcribing stories, teaching, or simply for decoration? Whatever their original meanings, such cave paintings—discovered scattered around present-day France, Spain, Indonesia, and Australia—paint the beautiful beginnings of the art of correspondence from one person to another.
The first form of written communication emerged in the city of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia during the 31st century B.C. The ancient Sumerians formed one of the first great cities with thousands of people located in a single area. Out of this civilized society grew a need for permanent written organization. The solution was cuneiform, a script form characterized by its wedge-shaped marks, which were typically made in moist clay tablets with sharpened reeds. Tablets such as those exhibited in The Met contain correspondence letters delivered by a courier and paid for upon arrival to the intended recipient. These messages ranged from merchants’ logs describing business deals and partners to high-ranking officials asking the king for more troops.
A more familiar form of early writing are hieroglyphs that originated in ancient Egypt. Like the Sumerians’ writing, hieroglyphs were inscribed on clay tablets or etched into stone. The Egyptians advanced their writing skills with the creation of papyrus, a paper-like dried mixture of pressed reeds, and ink that would be applied with a stylus of wood, metal, or bone.
With the rise of population in cities, so did the need for written language expand beyond organizational purposes. Writing morphed into three official versions of the script: the most formal for religious documents; one for literature and official documents; and one for private letters. In combination, the growing use of papyrus and writing tools spurred the first official organized courier services.
The letter here is written by Heqanakht to the Overseer of the Delta Herunefer. It is a single sheet with no joins, written in red and black ink. The letter was discovered unopened, tied with string and sealed with a lump of mud.
Inspired by the creation of hieroglyphs and their ingenuity of creating messages with images, this book and stamp collection is a creative and intriguing way to write out your own letters. Just remember to keep the corresponding letter key close by!
During this time of advancements in writing, extremely limited resources could not keep up with the demand for papyrus. This pushed Western civilizations to produce their own form of paper: vellum and parchment produced from animal skins. Books were invented in the Roman Republic around 23 B.C. and proved another great advancement. Rather than transporting cumbersome scrolls, pages laid flat against one another and bound along one edge allowed for easier transport and improved the longevity of the pages. Access to modern writing implements improved the rate of literacy worldwide, and soon not just royalty or religious leaders could read and write, but also members of the upper class who could afford books and schooling.
This gave way to more people learning to read and write and in turn, more permanent forms of communication via paper. In the Far East around the 10th century A.D., cotton paper and then linen rags became popular. By the 14th century, all of Europe had adopted them due to their superior strength and durability.
One of the very first creators of exquisite paper is Fabriano. Established in Italy around the 13th century, Fabriano paper was used by famous artists such as Michelangelo Buonarroti and is found in specialty art shops around the world. One of our favorite partnerships produced these sketch and notebooks featuring Fabriano paper, each colorfully covered with art motifs from around The Met.
As writing allowed the recording of spoken word, vocabulary grew along with it. In this case, the word epistolary was formed from the Latin noun epistle, which refers to a composition written in the form of a letter to a particular person or group. The European upper class was enamored with the idea of epistolary love during the art movements of Neoclassicism, Baroque, Rococo, and Romanticism as artists pulled away from traditional religious paintings to feature beauty found elsewhere around them. The common motif of the love letter can be seen in many European paintings, exhibiting the importance of letters as a heartfelt communication between people rather than businesses.
Two fine examples of this obsession with composed love are in the paintings of Ochtervelt and Fragonard, both on view in the Museum in the European Paintings galleries.
Further advances in writing came with John J. Loud’s first patent for the ballpoint pen in 1888, which would revolutionize the act of “putting pen to paper,” eliminating the need to dip a stylus into ink and work with the uneven flow of a fountain pen. In The Met Store, we have adapted our favorite inspirations to adorn such smooth writing utensils reminiscent of Loud’s ballpoint. This Iznik Tile Pen is based on Turkish ceramics made during the age of the Ottoman sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566).
As technology progresses, the art of communication through letters has succumbed to automation. The time and care put into a single verse, a poignant paragraph or a handwritten page has now become digitized. In the process, the connection between writer and recipient has become increasingly distant and impersonal.
Tap into these ancient tools to send a creative, heartfelt message to a friend or loved one. Visit our stationery selections to find unique notecards, pens, and other creative writing instruments to help you share and enjoy the fine art of correspondence.