Friday, 25 November 2016

Emperors’ Correspondence – Pencils and Lacquer

Alexander von Humboldt visited President Thomas Jefferson in the White House on June 2nd, 1804. In Andrea Wulf’s ‘The Invention of Nature – Alexander von Humboldt’s New World’, she wrote “… Jefferson hated idleness. He rose before dawn, read several books at the same time and wrote so many letters that he had bought a letter-copying machine to keep a record of his correspondence …”

Photograph (below) of Jefferson’s letter-copy machine in Monticello

On May 20th, 1829 Humboldt arrived in St. Petersburg at the invitation of Nicholas I for a six month all-expenses-paid expedition to examine the mines throughout Russia. Nicholas I prided himself on his technical and engineering abilities. His meetings with Humboldt would have deeply interested him with a number of wide-ranging topics.

Mysteries I hadn’t thought to investigate what system did the Imperial Court use to copy correspondence, documents, etc.? When did typewriters and carbon paper appear in Russia? Kamer-fuersky journals (volumes of lists of staff and goods, inventories, etc.) were written in elegant script.

A little known fact is Nicholas I’s writing with a pencil and an aide then applying lacquer to preserve the document.

The historian Grand Duke Nicholas Mikhailovich wrote in his preface on the letters of Alexander I that ‘after many years of fruitless searching’, he finally located the correspondence. They were ‘not copies, but the actual originals and written, in many cases, in pencil’.

Photograph (below) of a gold pencil c1840s

Photograph (below) of an Imperial Ballroom Notebook with Pencil c1840s

Nicholas II also wrote in pencil. In Petra Kleinpenning’s book on the ‘Correspondence of Empress Alexandra with Ernst Ludwig’ on October 17th, 1894 Alexandra wrote to her brother “…darling Nicky’s sitting near me signing heaps of papers for the Feldjager to take back to Petersburg – it reminds me of you & beloved Papa – the Randbemerkungen [marginal notes] in pencil …”

Illustrations (below) of pencils c1880s

N. Nabokov’s 1895 Winter Palace Designs (below) 1895 – note the upper left with Nicholas II’s ‘Nyet’ in pencil and lacquered

When leaving St. Petersburg in December 1829, Humboldt ‘returned one-third of the money he had been given for expenses, asking the Russians to use it to fund another explorer’. An incredible man, the first pay-it-forward I am aware of.


  1. Thank you, Joanna. The letter-copy machine in the first picture looks very similar to the ‘Hawkins & Peale’s Patent Polygraph No. 57’ shown on It worked like a pantograph.

    Interestingly, this article on Obama’s use of an autopen also says that Hawkins & Peale’s machine was a “precursor of sorts to the autopen”. This reminded me of the letter which Alexandra wrote to her brother on 26 December 1913 / 8 January 1914. She started her letter announcing that she was writing with an autopen. It suggested that she used this ‘autopen’ to write the entire letter, not just to sign it. I now understand that she may have used ‘autopen’ in the meaning of pantograph/copy machine. Do you know whether it has been preserved and, if so, where it is now?


  2. Thank you Petra. I had forgotten the autopen mentioned in your book. I am wondering if it may have been a fountain pen. Alexandra usually wrote sitting on a chair or chaise lounge so she needs an implement of ease. When talking with a friend, she showed me a fountain pen she inherited. It is a Watermans that was patented on February 9th, 1909.

    Some remember the fountain pens that had an ink tube you inserted, but originally the nib was placed in the inkwell and a lever would draw in the ink.

  3. Before, I also thought that it might have been a fountain pen, but I still had doubts, because I have never heared the term 'autopen' being used for a fountain pen. But then you may be right. :-)