Properly constructing a letter was paramount to status and clarity of message during the Victorian Era.
Manners and propriety were some of the cornerstones of Victorian culture. Numerous manuals have been published on such and a great deal of those dealt with the proper way to write letters. They included everything from the proper way to address a person with the correct title to how to create the proper sort of love letter.
According to Eras of Elegance, “The proper Victorian lady was obliged to convey news and information through an attractive letter. Her talent for letter writing was not only a social obligation, but a skill that she was expected to cultivate, naturally or through practice. Her aptitude for letter writing indicated fine breeding. Both ladies and gentlemen were judged not only by the elegance and economy of words chosen, but by their penmanship.”
Emily Post (1872-1960), famed etiquette writer, dedicates a chapter of her 1922 book “Etiquette” on Notes and Shorter Letters.
Some of her advice includes:
- Natural and simple tone
- Avoid flowery and pretentious phrases
- Letters are a reflection of taste
- Use matching paper and envelope
- Use grammatically correct language
- Evenly spaced words and margins
She also details types of paper to use for different occasions (black border for mourning and condolences) to proper ways to date a letter.
“The Ladies’ and Gentleman’s Model Letter Writer” is an older (1870s) manual for “correspondence on all subjects” and includes examples from everything to inviting someone to a dinner party
Mr. and Mrs. G. request the pleasure of Mrs. P.’s company at dinner on Thursday, the 19th of December, at six o’clock. Riversham Park, December 10th.
to inviting a friend to be your bridesmaid
Roehampton, October 12th, 187––
DEAR SARAH MARIA,
For many days, we have been endeavouring to call upon you, but have been kept prisoners by the number of friends calling to congratulate us on Harriet’s approaching wedding. The day is now fixed, –– Tuesday, the 23rd February –– and we all wish you to act as one of the bridesmaids. If you do not object to the colours, we thought of asking the bridesmaids to wear very light tarlatan dresses, trimmed with blue. Would you mind calling to-morrow about luncheon time –– we shall be so glad to see you, –– and I could then show you the exact colour and material we mean.
William is an excellent, good––natured creature; we think that Harriet will be very happy with him, for he has no thought for self; all his care appears to be how he can render “Harrie,” as he calls her, happy. Mamma joins us all in kindest love; pray come if you can.
Yours very affectionately,
It also includes how to ask your lover if they are being unfaithful, what type of note to send to a sick person along with a fruit basket. The list goes on.
In 1879, Dick& Fitzgerald published “The Worcester letter writer and book of business forms for ladies and gentlemen” in New York. It introduces the book with “The art of letter writing is among the social accomplishments to which comparatively few attain.”
Despite the popular use of the telegraph in the early 1800s and the invention of the modern telephone in 1876, letters and notes were the primary form of communication. It also was a simple way to determine how well-bred a person was through their writing and style. This communication of messages and status was critical importance to Victorian society. It is no wonder so many manuals existed to explain the exact way to craft a letter for any situation.