We live in an age of email, texts and instant messages. Somewhere along the line we lost that intimate connection between our thoughts and committing them to paper with a pen.
During the Victorian era, letter writing became more commonplace: more people could read, mail delivery had become more reliable and it connected loved ones who were too far away to visit.
While writing a letter sounds very straightforward, in Victorian times it came with its own set of long, complicated rules. But as you may know, Victorians were people known for their long, complicated rules, so this shouldn’t be surprising.
Rules, Rules and More Rules
Here are some of the rules that dictated Victorian letter writing.
- Men should use plain paper.
- Women should spritz their letter with perfume.
- The type and color of paper used depended on the fashion of the day. Sometimes the paper was intricately decorated. It should never be lined. Those in mourning used paper bordered with black lines.
- In the days before lick-and-stick envelopes, they had to be sealed with wax. Black wax was used while in mourning. Men used red wax but women could use any color.
- No colors other than black and blue ink were to be used. Some letter-writing guides even said blue was unacceptable.
- People were cautioned to be honest without giving away too much of their true feelings. Love letters were rarely signed love, but instead with “ever your friend”.
- Postcards were considered lowly compared to letters.
- Nothing could be crossed out. The letter writer had to start over when a mistake was made.
- Letter writing was considered a talent and a sign of good breeding.
Victorians were dictated by the rules of society as to what they could and could not say. The letter was an extension of polite society. Therefore, if one wanted to express certain feelings, such as love, symbolism and figures of speech were used.
Sometimes the opposite of what was meant was said, yet at the same time, people were encouraged to be truthful in feeling. In informal letters, people were told to write in the same manner they spoke.
Here is an example of an informal letter written on Dec. 30, 1897. It is part of a collection that appears on Victorian Love Letters and originally appeared on a BBC radio program about the history of the post office.
My dear Jinnie,
Many thanks for your dear letter. I hope you are keeping well and enjoying yourself, no doubt you are though. I have nothing much to do here and no where to go to so shall be very pleased when they come home. I don’t quite see what you have done to our Nance. I hear they went to Lees for Xmas day. I am glad he is better though. Mother was not very well the last time I heard from her; I hope she is better now.
That letter you forwarded to me was from Poll. She must have forgotten I have left Cowpers.
Our People don’t come back here until next Saturday. Please tell Ted that I shan’t want him on the 10th – not so many coming. They are hunting from Brocklesby this year again, so perhaps I may get a few days off then.
So my own, I must wish you a very happy new year. With fondest love from your own Bob.
Some other Victorian Oddities
As if all the rules and symbolism isn’t foreign enough to contemporary writers, there were other social aspects related to letter writing we would find odd today.
- The placement of a stamp as well as whether it was right-side-up, upside-down or sidewise gave clues to a person’s true feelings and could even answer a yes-no question.
- A shy man could propose to his beloved via letter.
- Books were written on the art of letter writing. Two popular ones were The Lover’s Casket and The Lovers Letter Writer.
- Abbreviations and underlining were considered in bad taste.
- Typewritten letters were considered in bad taste as well.
Do you miss the art of letter writing? Leave a comment below.
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