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Victorian Letter Writing
Etiquette Of Letter Writing
In The Victorian Era

In Victorian times, strict etiquette ruled every aspect of correspondence, from love notes to business letters. But more than that, it governed most every detail of one's life. It was to be strictly adhered to.

Few of a proper Victorian lady's accomplishments were considered more important than the ability to write a good, and attractive, letter. Letter writing wasn't just a means of communication - before the invention of the telegraph and telephone, it was essentially the only means of sharing information and news. It was also a social obligation, a talent that the woman of the house was expected to acquire and cultivate, either naturally or through practice. Naturally these skills were expected to be passed to the daughters of the household.

The basic accoutrements for letter writing were and still are paper, pencils, pens, ink, envelopes, stamps and sealing wax, which of course in the late 20th and beginning of the 21st century, are out of date. The right sort of stationery was crucial to making a suitably genteel impression, but the definition of acceptable stationery changed with every decade. Colored notepaper with flowers in the corner was in common use in the 1850's, but by the turn of the century only thick, white or cream-tinted, unruled paper was considered truly tasteful. Whatever its appearance, to economize on a flimsy, substandard paper would have been most unwise, because a writer was judged by the look of a letter as much as by its contents.

Monogrammed stationery enjoyed a vogue in the mid-1800's, but by the end of the century it too was out of fashion. By then monograms were used only by those whose special design had come to be almost a trademark. The legendary Sarah Bernhardt, for one, used blue paper accented by a pale gray line on the top; the flap of the envelope bore a complex device: a theatrical "mask of tragedy" underneath a design made up of Bernhardt's initials and a scroll bearing her defiant motto: "Quand meme", which translates roughly as "even so", or "in spite of everything".

Elaborate Victorian mourning rituals also influenced many aspects of letter writing. People in mourning wrote all their letters in black ink on black-bordered writing paper. (The one exception was letters of congratulations, which were written on plain paper). Even the width of the border was regulated. Like the black border on visiting cards used by the bereaved, it indicated his or her relationship to the deceased and how much time had elapsed. Generally, the closer the relationship and the more recent the loss, the wider the border. It was never correct to write a letter of condolence on black-bordered paper unless the writer himself was in mourning. During "second mourning", when the most rigid rules restricting the dress and behavior of the bereaved were somewhat modified, many writers adopted pale gray paper without a black border. By the end of the century, as much of the etiquette surrounding mourning became less formal, many people discarded the use of bordered paper in any case, the use of bordered papers had to cease as soon as mourning garb was put away.

Envelopes, too, came under close scrutiny. At mid-century light-brown envelopes, through which handwriting on the enclosure could not be seen, were preferred. Later, white became the only acceptable color. A letter was generally folded square and placed in a square envelope of good quality. Oblong envelopes became fashionable by the end of the century, although they usually were smaller than the modern legal-sized variety.

Original letters written in the 19th century sometimes appear to have been written in brown ink, but this is almost always a case of blue or black ink that has oxidized and faded. Actually, if all Victorians had followed the advice in etiquette books they would have used jet-black ink exclusively. But although polite society frowned on other colors, they were used, especially by younger correspondents. Recipes for various colored inks can be found in the 1855 edition of "The Cyclopedia of the Useful Arts", and commercial manufacturers offered a variety of colors that ranged from a discreet blue-black to racy shades of blue, green or violet.

Sealing wax was used throughout the 19th century. For centuries, the point of sealing letters had been to ensure privacy - an unbroken seal was proof that a letter had not been opened and read on its journey. And until the post-Civil War era, sealing wax provided a useful function, keeping envelopes closed. Every well-stocked writing desk included a stick of wax, which came in many colors and varieties. It was headed until a single drop fell onto the back of the envelope, a seal, either store-bought or uniquely personal, could then be used to make an impression before the wax cooled.

But by the 1890s, this once-necessary addition to letters became purely ornamental. Sealing wax was made superfluous by the invention of glued envelopes. For several decades after envelopes with glued flaps were developed, sealing wax was continued to ornament letters of all sorts, with very definite rules about which colors were suited to which occasion. Red was for business letters, white for wedding invitations and letters to a fiance', gray for friendship, violet for letters of condolence, black for letters from those in mourning, and brown for letters of invitation.

The form of a correctly written letter had six distinct parts: the date, the address, the body of the letter, the friendly closing, the signature of the writer and the writer's address. In business and strictly formal letters, the address of the correspondent followed the date, in private correspondence, the address was above the date.

The salutation was considered a part of the body of the letter and instructions about what was proper was very well-defined. Some sources listed every possible method for greeting recipients of letters. The most acceptable salutation for a friendly letter was "My dear friend" - note that only the first word is capitalized.

Lists could be found in various publications telling writers how to address everyone from royalty to clergymen, business tycoons to family members, and when and how to use honorary titles. There was little room for error when using the proper form.

Penmanship in a clear, precise hand was expected. Flourishes and appendages were considered distracting and vulgar. Of course, some careless or hurried correspondents dashed off letters in a scrawl that was impossible to read, but writers were supposed to show consideration by writing in a clear, easy-to-read hand.

Although many Victorian letters were worded in a manner we would consider very formal, period manuals often emphasized that the chief charm of a letter was to write as naturally as one would talk. This method was particularly recommended for letters to close friends and relatives. One was never to write simply for effect because this would create a stilted style. News was to be related without descending to gossip. Writers were reminded that written words could rise up in judgment against them when the spoken word was long forgotten. The writer was also cautioned always to remember that if a letter has a purpose, such as a business letter or an invitation, it should not be diluted by trivial babble or unrelated commentary.

Specific advise was available for every type of letter one could ever wish to write. However the following are some basic dos and don'ts:

  • Don't write anonymous letters.
  • Don't conduct private correspondence on a postal card.
  • Don't use lined paper for formal letters.
  • Don't write on a half-sheet of paper for the sake of economy.
  • Don't underline words.
  • Don't erase misspelled words in letters of importance; recopy the entire letter.
  • Don't use a postscript except in very friendly letters.
  • Don't fill up margins with forgotten ideas and messages but instead add an extra sheet to the letter.
  • Give every subject a separate paragraph.
  • Don't refold the letter; be sure to fold it correctly the first time.
  • Read the letter over carefully before sending.

In this day of the computer and e-mail, it's difficult to remember that once everyone - from the famous authors of weighty, three-volume novels to the most obscure correspondents - wrote every single word by hand. When they were inspired, the writers of the 19th century took pen in hand, dipped the point into an inkwell and set their ideas on plain paper. Perhaps we and our modern technology have made communicating easier, but as anyone who enjoys letter writing knows, it will never again be so personal.

I hope that my visitors have enjoyed this little 'window' into the past and into an era of elegance and grace that has long since disappeared. If you liked this page, then please click and share with a friend.

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