Stationery Speaks Louder Than Words


August 25, 1996

THIS is about Freddie the Frog, who is alive and well, and a dog that is dead, and engravers’ dies, which are somewhere in inbetween. We are talking stationery here. Very expensive stationery — engraved by palm, with tissue-paper-lined envelopes that keep prying eyes from reading the ideally formed prose inwards.

Make that ”writing paper,” as Nancy Mitford’s 1956 book ”Noblesse Oblige” (which turned snobbery into a salon game) prescribed. The ins and outs of writing paper may sound like something that only a Miss Mitford or a Jane Austen could care about, but Jane Austen is loving a renaissance and so is stationery. A fresh generation of correspondents wants to seem well brought up, even if the old-money crowd is sniffing and sneering at letter writers whose family crests have not been passed down for generations. And so, people in their 20’s and 30’s are worrying about the right paper, the right watermark, the right blind-stamping on the back of the envelope and the right type style.

Hint: none of these are created on a Macintosh.

”You can tell who someone is by their stationery — it’s truly like someone’s wardrobe,” said Peggy Post, the great-granddaughter-in-law of one of the undisputed queens of etiquette, Emily Post.

”Fine stationery is indeed special,” she added. ”It makes a nicer presentation, and it says, ‘This is significant, and I care enough to send you something truly special.’ ”

Rules, rules, rules:

Do not type a thank-you note — that is what fountain pens are for. Do not send a condolence note by E-mail — that is what private stationery is for. Do not put your fax number, your cellular telephone number or your E-mail address on your calling card — it is not supposed to be cluttered. Do not confuse your calling card with your business card. (Calling cards were traditionally left at someone’s home by a visitor. Now they are mostly enclosed with gifts so the recipient will know to whom the thank-you note should be sent. Which is another story.)

And do not use black-bordered stationery, as William Butler once did. Mr. Butler, now a marketing executive, was a student at the University of Delaware. He was about to miss a deadline on a term paper (typed on ordinary plain white stock that did not cost $300 a box). He desired the professor to give him more time — specifically, the entire summer — to do the research.

Mr. Butler found some stationery in a desk in his parents’ house in Bristol, R.I. — plain white with a black border. He sent off the note.

The professor, described by Mr. Butler as ”old guard Main Line Philadelphia,” responded instantly, telling that ”he had sympathy for the situation.”

Delighted he had bought some time, Mr. Butler spent the summer partying, sailing and doing whatever undergraduates do while their professors think they are doing research. When Mr. Butler ultimately turned in the paper, the professor gave him an A and wrote a note about how hard it must have been for Mr. Butler to concentrate following a death in the family. Only then did Mr. Butler realize that the professor had inferred from his note that a close relative had died.

No one will admit it, of course, but good writing paper is held up to the light to see the maker’s name in the watermark. Some recipients caress a finger over the sender’s name to see if it is engraved or merely printed. For engraving, a steel or copper plate called a die has to be made with the sender’s name. Tiffany keeps more than Ten,000 dies in a warehouse in Massachusetts. Cartier keeps thousands in the basement of its flagship Fifth Avenue store.

But upper-crust stationery connoisseurs complain that the dies used by Tiffany and Cartier are — horrors! — mechanically made. Elizabeth Ames, the Tiffany executive who runs stationery workshops on what kind of writing paper to use and what color ink to write with, admitted they are but said there is no discernible difference.

Smythson of Bond Street, which supplies paper to the British royal family, still uses hand-chiseled dies. Smythson (pronounced as in ”my,” not ”myth”) also boasts of making the light-blue letter sheet that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis used — ”Nile blue,” said Ann Patron, the president of Smythson’s American branch.

Mrs. Patron, who sat next to a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, said the paper looked more like the Caribbean than the Nile.

For years, the high-society stationery of choice came from Mrs. John L. Strong, who presided over a little showroom in a Madison Avenue town house until her death 17 years ago and was famous for die motifs that put everything from bows to horses on 40-pound vellum. That was then, and this is now: in 1993, Joy Lewis, the president of Mrs. John L. Strong, struck a deal to sell her merchandise also in a boutique at Barneys.

Now, about Freddie the Frog. He is perhaps the most popular creation of Dempsey & Carroll, another traditional stationery maker. No one knows how the little amphibian in the corner of a green-bordered card for informal notes came to be known as Freddie. He is popular with the summer-house set, which needs stationery for guests to use.

Matthew Flood, the manager at Dempsey & Carroll’s store on East 57th Street, says some people just take the entire thing too gravely. This is where the dead dog comes in.

”A very well brought-up youthful man one day picked out a very tasteful card,” Mr. Flood said. ”He knew all the etiquette, all worded to perfection. To announce the death of his dog.” As if that were not enough. Mr. Flood said, ”The customer also chose ideal party invitations for a gathering in memory of the poor, dead pooch.”

Such paper is not inexpensive. At Dempsey & Carroll, the cost of 100 invitation cards is $350. Bordered correspondence cards at Smythson are $200 for 100, with only a one-line name engraved at the top. A name and address on envelopes and cards, three lines of engraving, raise the price to $270. The good news is that dies last forever. Subsequent orders cost less because one’s die does not have to be recast. Unless, of course, one has switched one’s name.

”Honey, why are we spending $700 on stationery?” Margery Mayer asked her spouse, Ted, at Barneys as he signed the bill for 300 sheets of Mrs. John L. Strong creamy white paper with two engraved black address lines in medium gothic.

Then she answered before he could: ”We can’t afford a Park Avenue penthouse, so at least we can have the Rolls-Royce of stationery.”

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