An Original Free Frank of General George Washington, From 1780, To James Jay, Who Invented Washington’s Disappearing Ink

Rare piece of Washington related to wartime espionage; It has not been on the market for at least a century.

Spycraft was of one Gen. George Washington’s highest priorities during the American Revolution. He used it to acquire key intelligence about British troop movements, supplies, and battle plans, and to communicate his own instructions and orders to both his spy network and his officers who are operating at a distance. Because such...

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An Original Free Frank of General George Washington, From 1780, To James Jay, Who Invented Washington’s Disappearing Ink

Rare piece of Washington related to wartime espionage; It has not been on the market for at least a century.

Spycraft was of one Gen. George Washington’s highest priorities during the American Revolution. He used it to acquire key intelligence about British troop movements, supplies, and battle plans, and to communicate his own instructions and orders to both his spy network and his officers who are operating at a distance. Because such intelligence and instructions could not be overtly communicated to him, or sent from him, without placing his agents at great risk, or revealing his own plans, Washington sought a secure method of communication. Hiding letters was one option, but as Major Andre discovered to his sorrow in the Benedict Arnold affair, hidden letters can be found. Ciphers and secret codes were another option, and were used to ensure that the contents of a letter could not be understood if correspondence was captured. In ciphers, letters were used to represent and replace other letters to mask the true message of the missive. The letter’s recipient utilized a key to decode the document’s true message. But this too had its limitations, as is made manifest by Washington’s inability to communicate with Lafayette in 1781 because Lafayette lacked the cipher.

A method favored by Washington was use of invisible ink. Rudimentary forms of this existed before the Revolution. But Washington wanted something more, an ink that could only be revealed by a unique, specially formulated reagent. Sir James Jay answered the general’s call. Jay, brother of American patriot and Continental Congress member John Jay, was a physician that dabbled in chemistry. He created a chemical solution out of tannic acid that was a superior form of invisible ink, which he supplied to Washington. Washington would then pass it on to the Continental Army’s spymaster, Major Benjamin Tallmadge who in turn provided it to others in his network.

To avoid suspicion, Washington instructed his spies to write seemingly banal letters and insert their secret messages between the lines; these secret messages could only be discerned by treating the letter with heat or a chemical substance.

Autograph free frank signed, Headquarters, Morristown, April 9th, 1780, to Jay, entirely in Washington’s hand. The letter it covered related to invisible ink, making this free frank a fine association piece.

This is an extremely rare piece of Washington related to wartime espionage.  It has not been on the market for at least a century.

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