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What Is a Crossed Letter?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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A crossed letter is a written letter where the writer overlaps two sets of handwritten lines at right angles. This helps to conserve space, and was once seen as a technique used to save on postage in past eras. It also has the effect of making handwritten writing very hard to read for some individuals. Some experts debate what percentage of recipients of crossed letters found it easy to read the communications the way they were written, and whether the custom of writing crossed letters worked against the efficiency of written communications in many cases.

In various countries, and at various times in history, postage rates were extremely high relative to average family earnings. In these situations, letter writers would sometimes use a cross letter strategy to pack more writing into a small space. Now, most postal systems assess postage by weight, and it rarely makes sense to use cross writing to allow for lower postage. Since digital means of correspondence have largely eclipsed handwriting, the crossed letter seems extremely quaint and archaic to many of today’s writers.

Many crossed letters from the past were written in specific cursive handwriting that represented a particular time period. The use of cross writing in letters produced some interesting designs and patterns. To many, these are stylistically appealing and visually attractive. In terms of function, cross letters can be very hard to read, which contributed to this practice quickly becoming obsolete as postage rates declined.

More than a few museums and other historic institutions have put cross letters on display for the review of visitors. Many more of these documents are kept in archives for posterity, or are kept by families as heirlooms. Examples of cross letter writing exist on the Internet as well, helping today’s audience to understand some of the writing techniques of past generations. Besides showing off the style of handwriting, the content of some crossed letters can provide much more on the general customs and lifestyle of those earlier times.

In an alternative context, referring to a single “crossed letter” can mean writing the horizontal stroke through a lower case "t" or other letter as appropriate. Some English speakers use the phrase, “cross your t’s and dot your i’s,” to refer to overall accuracy in writing or in any other type of project. In terms of an entire print communication, though, a crossed letter has the distinct characteristics mentioned above.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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