Handwritten Letters: One of History's Finest Rituals

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#1
yesnocope.jpg

"Yes or No?" by Charles West Cope, 1872. (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
During the Victorian era, there were clear rules for proper correspondence. Ladies were expected to use acceptable shades of paper and ink, proper wax seals and to write in the third person under certain circumstances. The guidelines below are from various Victorian era etiquette books and address the basics of ladylike letter writing. Do you still write letters? If so, do you follow any of these rules in your correspondence? Do you keep the letters folks write to you?

1
There is a fashion in letter-paper and envelopes which is ever varying as to size and shape—sometimes small, at other times large; now oblong, now square; but one thing never alters, and that is the desirability of using good thick paper and envelopes, whatever the shape may be. Nothing looks more mean and untidy than thin sheets and envelopes of the same quality, through which the writing exhibits itself.”

— Etiquette of Good Society, 1893

2
Perfectly plain paper, thick, smooth, and white, is the most elegant. When in mourning, use paper and envelopes with a black edge. Never use the gilt-edged or fancy bordered paper; it looks vulgar, and is in bad taste.”

— The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1872

3
Use good pens. Bad pens make bad writers, waste time, spoil paper, and irritate the temper. Therefore it is not economy to use bad pens because they are low in price. A bad pen will be a very dear one if, by spoiling your writing and irritating your temper, it should cause you to write a scrawl in careless language upon business of importance.”

— Etiquette, Politeness, and Good Breeding, 1870

4
The color of ink most durable and tasteful, on all occasions and for all correspondence is black. Red ink should never be used for the body of a letter. Blue ink may be. Fancy ink may answer for ladies, but is not in taste for gentlemen.”

— Hand-Book of Official and Social Etiquette, 1889

5
The handwriting should be clear, and yet not too large and bold; it should possess some character and style, but not be adorned or ornamented with fine flourishes and dashes.”

— Etiquette of Good Society, 1893

6
The salutation is the term of politeness used to introduce a letter, as Dear Sir, My Dear Friend, My Honored Father. Business letters generally begin with Sir, Dear Sir, Messrs. or Gentlemen. Never use ‘gents.’ for Gentlemen, nor ‘Dr.’ for Dear. For a letter addressed to a married woman or a single woman not young, the proper salutation is Madam, Dear Madam, or My Dear Madam."

— Polite Life and Etiquette, 1891

7
Letter writing is, in fact, but conversation, carried on with the pen, when distance or circumstances prevent the easier method of exchanging ideas, by spoken words. Write, therefore, as you would speak, were the person to whom your letter is addressed seated beside you.”

— The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1872

8
All letters to strangers and notes of formal character should as a rule be written in the third person, and must always be answered in the same way.”

— Etiquette of Good Society, 1893

9
Ladies, when writing to gentlemen who are not related to them, should make their letters mediums of improving conversation, brilliant wit, and moral obligations, and always of so high and pure a tone, that they would be fit for publication should they ever be needed.”

— Gems of Deportment and Hints of Etiquette, 1881

10
Yours sincerely’ is the correct termination; and whatever the degree of friendship, we are inclined to think that great demonstrations of affection and terms of endearment are better avoided, or left only for the use of lovers.”

— Etiquette of Good Society, 1893

11
Many persons do not naturally spell well, and so are obliged to keep a dictionary always at hand. Such persons should never write a word, about the proper spelling, of which they are uncertain, without looking it up. Bad spelling like bad grammar, is an offence against society.”

— Letter-Writing: Its Ethics and Etiquette, 1890

12
The gummed envelope, without a seal is perfectly correct, but a neat seal of red sealing-wax always gives a refined look to a letter and is a desirable adjunct thereto...If the writer is in mourning black sealing wax should, of course, be used, but no other colors except black and red are good form.”

— Letter-Writing: Its Ethics and Etiquette, 1890


letterbaugniet.jpg

"The Letter" by Charles Baugniet.​



Source: “12 Letter-Writing Rules for Victorian Ladies” by Mimi Matthews.
 

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#2
Ellie. Once again a great thread with very interesting information on our Victorian friends. Letter writing is a lost art in this country with the unfortunate advent of phone technology. Technology has caused individuals to cease to communicate with one another. If people don't have that stupid phone next to their ear then it is in their hands. I still communicate with my friends as well as my clients via written letters and outright refuse to allow myself to communicate via email or a stupid fancy telephone. I am strongly against technology that replaces a person's ability to think and improve themselves intellectually. Ellie. Thanks for allowing me to pontificate. David.
 
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#3
Ellie. Once again a great thread with very interesting information on our Victorian friends. Letter writing is a lost art in this country with the unfortunate advent of phone technology. Technology has caused individuals to cease to communicate with one another. If people don't have that stupid phone next to their ear then it is in their hands. I still communicate with my friends as well as my clients via written letters and outright refuse to allow myself to communicate via email or a stupid fancy telephone. I am strongly against technology that replaces a person's ability to think and improve themselves intellectually. Ellie. Thanks for allowing me to pontificate. David.
I’m so glad you shared this David. I hesitate to admit this sometimes, but I don’t have an iPhone. As a principal I was required to have an iPhone by my superintendent. I got rid of it when I retired. I spent years carrying that thing around, constantly checking for messages, typing texts and sending emails so when I left my office for the last time I said goodbye to the iPhone. I grew to hate it over the years. It robbed me of precious time by intruding on my meals, vacations and fellowship with friends and loved ones.

Now I carry a very old flip phone in case of an emergency. I haven’t missed the iPhone one bit. And I’m always amazed by the number of folks I meet who say how much they envy me.
 

DaveBrt

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#4
In the elementary school I attended (late '50's) we not only had classes in penmanship, but also in letter writing. Couples were paired by lot and letters on assigned topics were written -- grades for penmanship, form, clarity, spelling, etc.

During my 25-year Navy career, I wrote close to 1,000 letters by hand. Most were to my wife, of course, but I had an active correspondence with several dozen people.

In regard to paper color, it was common during Vietnam for the ladies to write their men in a particular color paper/envelope so they could be easily and quickly identified upon arrival. I clearly remember arriving in Subic Bay, PI after two weeks at sea, and finding a pile of bright orange envelopes for me -- love without even opening them!
 
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#5
The art of letter writing , in general, has gone the way of so many other things. The elaborate cursive letters of that era were a real challenge to read. Trying to make out cartouches on firearms has you pulling your hair out. In the early 50's we were taught both cursive and printing. There are still times where letters are appropriate and even required. Time was not considered as critical back then and was basically the only way other then telegraph to communicate distances. The phone sounded the death bell for letters followed by computer.
 
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#6
In regard to paper color, it was common during Vietnam for the ladies to write their men in a particular color paper/envelope so they could be easily and quickly identified upon arrival. I clearly remember arriving in Subic Bay, PI after two weeks at sea, and finding a pile of bright orange envelopes for me -- love without even opening them!
Thanks for sharing this! "-- love without even opening them!" Now that's just wonderful!!!

The art of letter writing , in general, has gone the way of so many other things.
So true.
 
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#7
I’m so glad you shared this David. I hesitate to admit this sometimes, but I don’t have an iPhone. As a principal I was required to have an iPhone by my superintendent. I got rid of it when I retired. I spent years carrying that thing around, constantly checking for messages, typing texts and sending emails so when I left my office for the last time I said goodbye to the iPhone. I grew to hate it over the years. It robbed me of precious time by intruding on my meals, vacations and fellowship with friends and loved ones.

Now I carry a very old flip phone in case of an emergency. I haven’t missed the iPhone one bit. And I’m always amazed by the number of folks I meet who say how much they envy me.
I too have an old fashioned flip phone that my sister insists that I carry in case of emergency. David.
 

Ole Miss

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#8
I also learned cursive but arthritis has caused me to type everything except writing checks. I insist on seeing where my money goes and who gets what.
Regards
David
 

luinrina

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#11
Thanks for the interesting thread, Ellie! Some of the points are common, others sound a little weird, like #8:
All letters to strangers and notes of formal character should as a rule be written in the third person, and must always be answered in the same way.”
:confused: I haven't yet come across a letter written in third person.


I used to write letters with my best friend from school when my family moved to a different town. We kept up correspondence for quite some years. That changed to messaging when we both created facebook accounts. Eventually, our messages became less and less until contact died. I kept the letters for quite a while, and I might still have them (I would have to search for them though lol).

In a sense, I'm still writing letters - I send postcards from my vacations and Christmas cards to family. :smile:
 

diane

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#12
Handwriting is remarkably like the person writing! I have letters from my grandmother and other family members that show their personality as much as if they were standing here talking. An email or text just doesn't do it. And, I suddenly realized one day I couldn't recognize my daughter's handwriting or her signature - just never have seen it. :O o:

Flip phones are high-tech for me. Just got rid of my land line and that was only because we moved!
 
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#13
:confused: I haven't yet come across a letter written in third person.
I thought the same thing Lu. Third person is not the narrative mode of our time. Yet it somehow makes sense to me for our Victorian friends to write this way. I think it's rooted in a more thoughtful era, a time with fewer distractions and, simultaneously, more awareness of one’s place in the larger social context of the world.

Thinking of this more globally, my impression as an avid reader is that over the last decade there has been a significant shift toward first person as the default mode of storytelling - the tell-all, the blog post, the tweet. Can you imagine Jane Austen not writing Emma in third person?

I don't want to veer too far off topic, but I'd love to hear some other thoughts on this.
 
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#14
I have two lifelong friends with whom I have been corresponding for 50+ years. I have two boxes stuffed full of letters from these two friends and I cherish them. Over the last number of years we have been corresponding by e-mail and I now have two large folders on the cloud containing our correspondence. Honestly, I find no difference between the old paper letters and these new ones made of pixels and ones and zeros. The same thoughts, the same family stories, the same sentiments - merely a different medium.
 
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#15
View attachment 261779
"Yes or No?" by Charles West Cope, 1872. (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)
During the Victorian era, there were clear rules for proper correspondence. Ladies were expected to use acceptable shades of paper and ink, proper wax seals and to write in the third person under certain circumstances. The guidelines below are from various Victorian era etiquette books and address the basics of ladylike letter writing. Do you still write letters? If so, do you follow any of these rules in your correspondence? Do you keep the letters folks write to you?

1
There is a fashion in letter-paper and envelopes which is ever varying as to size and shape—sometimes small, at other times large; now oblong, now square; but one thing never alters, and that is the desirability of using good thick paper and envelopes, whatever the shape may be. Nothing looks more mean and untidy than thin sheets and envelopes of the same quality, through which the writing exhibits itself.”

— Etiquette of Good Society, 1893

2
Perfectly plain paper, thick, smooth, and white, is the most elegant. When in mourning, use paper and envelopes with a black edge. Never use the gilt-edged or fancy bordered paper; it looks vulgar, and is in bad taste.”

— The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1872

3
Use good pens. Bad pens make bad writers, waste time, spoil paper, and irritate the temper. Therefore it is not economy to use bad pens because they are low in price. A bad pen will be a very dear one if, by spoiling your writing and irritating your temper, it should cause you to write a scrawl in careless language upon business of importance.”

— Etiquette, Politeness, and Good Breeding, 1870

4
The color of ink most durable and tasteful, on all occasions and for all correspondence is black. Red ink should never be used for the body of a letter. Blue ink may be. Fancy ink may answer for ladies, but is not in taste for gentlemen.”

— Hand-Book of Official and Social Etiquette, 1889

5
The handwriting should be clear, and yet not too large and bold; it should possess some character and style, but not be adorned or ornamented with fine flourishes and dashes.”

— Etiquette of Good Society, 1893

6
The salutation is the term of politeness used to introduce a letter, as Dear Sir, My Dear Friend, My Honored Father. Business letters generally begin with Sir, Dear Sir, Messrs. or Gentlemen. Never use ‘gents.’ for Gentlemen, nor ‘Dr.’ for Dear. For a letter addressed to a married woman or a single woman not young, the proper salutation is Madam, Dear Madam, or My Dear Madam."

— Polite Life and Etiquette, 1891

7
Letter writing is, in fact, but conversation, carried on with the pen, when distance or circumstances prevent the easier method of exchanging ideas, by spoken words. Write, therefore, as you would speak, were the person to whom your letter is addressed seated beside you.”

— The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1872

8
All letters to strangers and notes of formal character should as a rule be written in the third person, and must always be answered in the same way.”

— Etiquette of Good Society, 1893

9
Ladies, when writing to gentlemen who are not related to them, should make their letters mediums of improving conversation, brilliant wit, and moral obligations, and always of so high and pure a tone, that they would be fit for publication should they ever be needed.”

— Gems of Deportment and Hints of Etiquette, 1881

10
Yours sincerely’ is the correct termination; and whatever the degree of friendship, we are inclined to think that great demonstrations of affection and terms of endearment are better avoided, or left only for the use of lovers.”

— Etiquette of Good Society, 1893

11
Many persons do not naturally spell well, and so are obliged to keep a dictionary always at hand. Such persons should never write a word, about the proper spelling, of which they are uncertain, without looking it up. Bad spelling like bad grammar, is an offence against society.”

— Letter-Writing: Its Ethics and Etiquette, 1890

12
The gummed envelope, without a seal is perfectly correct, but a neat seal of red sealing-wax always gives a refined look to a letter and is a desirable adjunct thereto...If the writer is in mourning black sealing wax should, of course, be used, but no other colors except black and red are good form.”

— Letter-Writing: Its Ethics and Etiquette, 1890


View attachment 261780
"The Letter" by Charles Baugniet.​


I cannot add much to the replys that have already been posted. However, I do remember being taught in grade school that it was always best to write thank you notes etc by hand not using a typewriter. Yes they had typewriters when I was young. I am also, grateful that my daughter is still training our grand children to handwrite their cards and thank you notes. I love reading some of the letters that I have uncovered during my research. It just amazes me that this tradition is going away. Some schools are already stopping the cursive courses that we as youngsters took when in elementary school. Thank you again for this posts. I look forward to more.
 



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