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Brush with writing’s story a straight line to present

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Imagine when instant recording devices didn't exist. When a "mechanical aid" meant a pencil and the word pencil referred to what we would recognize today as a brush. When the earliest sensation of "information overload" led to erasable notebooks or tablets -- the Renaissance period's version of today's Palm Pilot.

Old is new, and new is old, technically speaking, in the Folger Shakespeare Library's current exhibit, "Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print." The display challenges viewers' definitions of what technology has meant in different periods of history and how the tools of communication have evolved since the printing press was invented in the 1440s.

The age in question is a broad span of time, ranging mainly from the 15th to the 17th centuries and beyond, from the Middle Ages to the start of the modern world, and concentrated primarily in England because that is the library's chief focus and source of its plentiful display materials. The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 17 at the library on East Capitol Street Northeast, is ambitious, encompassing as it does the evolution of writing styles and "lifestyle" habits as well as an examination of tools and equipment.

The Folger Library's Heather Wolfe, one of three curators responsible, calls the exhibit "a research work in progress for all three of us. We were aware there is so much more to discover, as scholars are only just coming to study the 'materiality' of writing. A lot of it was looking at the [Folger] collection in a different way."

Research involved considerations of practical matters in everyday life at the time and an understanding of how valuable things such as ink and graphite were made. This was a period when beautifully decorated manuscripts -- literally, scripts or writing done by hand -- were still being produced by specially trained artisans while, at the same time, the invention of the printing press was inspiring more people to learn to read and write.

The need was father to the deed, in many instances. If the language of the period is not always instantly familiar to modern audiences, many innovative writing techniques seem eerily reminiscent of contemporary modes. Shorthand, for instance, made possible the first real transcript of a court trial, among other texts that required rapid dissemination. Invisible ink and other forms of "secret" writing were introduced for various purposes.

An example of the latter is a so-called casement letter. The word casement today generally refers to a hinged window. A casement letter such as the one on view in the Folger contained a message that could be understood only by the sender and the receiver, who would have the same casement -- a sheet of paper with windows cut out -- that, when held against the letter, would reveal the key words in the text, forming the true message.

"Casement letters might be compared to encrypted messages or shorthand or even an abbreviated text on a cell phone," Ms. Wolfe says.

Invisible writing wasn't just the fantasy of science fiction, even way back then. Guest curator Peter Stallybrass, professor in the humanities and English at the University of Pennsylvania, puzzled over a line in Shakespeare's "Hamlet," written in 1599, that had Hamlet say, "Yea, from the table of my memory/I'll wipe away all trivial fond records." He chose a literal interpretation and so had to ask himself how words written in ink could be made to disappear before the eraser had been invented and lead pencils still were too new to be commonplace.

The first picture of a graphite pencil is dated from "1560 or 1570," he says, but it didn't really catch on until the middle of the next century. The word pencil itself comes from Latin and means "little tail," whose strict definition was that of a brush, according to Ms. Wolfe.

More sleuthing was required because, as Mr. Stallybrass indicates in an interview, most certainly Shakespeare was not referring to wax tablets (i.e. "tables") that appeared before papyrus in classical times. Before the exhibit even was planned, he had found some notebooks in the Folger collection labeled "writing tables," which contained some leaves at the back coated with what looked like plaster. They resembled an erasable writing surface.

"He could see indentations where the writing had been and then had been ripped out," Ms. Wolfe says, noting that people of the period used the term writing tables, rather than "erasable," in reference to older wax tablets that came in pairs and were "a notebook that closed on itself."

So-called erasable notebooks were "useful when traveling," Mr. Stallybrass conjectures, "and, in my view, were first used by merchants very much like the Palm Pilot today. The comparison is easy because both fit into one hand."

A comparison with today's portable computers is equally valid, he suggests.

Frank Mowery, the Folger's head of conservation, re-created the coating from a mixture of glue and gesso, making a surface upon which a person could write with pen and ink or with a thin metal stylus. Instructions in the notebook Mr. Stallybrass found even told how to wipe clean the "tables."

Notebooks made of tiny, thin sheets of ivory were popular in the late 17th century, about the same time graphite pencils were in circulation and were used by Thomas Jefferson and Jane Austen, according to Mr. Stallybrass.

The exhibit necessarily concentrates a great deal of esoteric information in a small space. E.J. Truax, a volunteer guide at the Folger, says that at first she doubted what she would learn, but she rapidly became enthusiastic. Visitors from the Lebanon, Pa., campus of Harrisburg Area Community College came under her tutelage recently.

"Someone had a lot of time on their hands," was the reaction of one 18-year-old student who was looking at a mid-17th-century embroidered sampler showing the letters of the alphabet.

More receptive was Joan Weaver, a teacher of English composition, who said she had a special interest in the history of writing. "It's interesting to see the combination of print and handwriting," she noted. "It's similar to what is found on a Pennsylvania German birth certificate. Parents would get the certificate from the printer and then add to it in their own hand."

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