Lost Art of Letter Writing

Bob's envelope to Jinnie

Lost Art of Letter Writing

Victorian woman composing a letter
Letter writing was once an important and intimate form of communication

Over the past 120 years, we lost the intimate connection between our thoughts and a pen and paper.

During the Victorian era, letter writing became commonplace: more people could read, mail delivery had become more reliable, and it connected loved ones who were too far away to visit.

“While most [letter] examples are terribly verbose or overly effusive by today’s standards one should always take such things in the context of the time,” blogger Dons says on The Lothians. “It was a source of great pride to be able to write a good letter and indeed such was expected of all well educated people.”

Rules, Rules and More Rules

A letter Queen Victoria wrote her uncle
A letter Queen Victoria wrote her uncle

In the Victorian era, written communication came with its own set of long, complicated rules. The Victorians, however, were people known for their long, complicated rules, so this shouldn’t be surprising.

Here are some examples:

  • Men used plain paper.
  • Women spritzed their paper with perfume.
  • The type and color of paper used depended on the fashion of the day. Sometimes the paper was intricately decorated, but it should never be lined. Those in mourning used paper bordered with black lines.
  • In the days before lick-and-stick envelopes, correspondence had to be sealed with wax. Men used red wax, but women could use any color. Black wax was used while in mourning.
  • 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 writer had to start over when a mistake was made.
  • Letter writing was considered a talent and a sign of good breeding.

Hidden Symbols

Bob's letter to Jinnie
Bob’s letter to Jinnie

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.

Bob’s Letter to Jinnie

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

Bob's envelope to Jinnie
Bob’s envelope to Jinnie

If all the rules and symbolism aren’t foreign enough to modern writers, there were other social aspects related to letter writing that seem odd today.

  • The placement of a stamp as well as whether it was right-side-up, upside-down or sideways 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.


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Updated: 15 October 2020
Melina Druga
Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

4 thoughts on “Lost Art of Letter Writing

  1. This was interesting! Everything done nowadays would be considered such a faux pas. I have a couple of pen pals so letter writing is still very much part of my life. Nothing like getting a letter in the mail. Email/texts just don’t compare. 🙂

    1. Thanks for commenting, Claudia. How wonderful that you have pen pals you keep in contact with. I had one as a child, but it petered out pretty quickly. All my long distance friends are e-pals, although we do exchange birthday cards and the like.

  2. How interesting. I don’t remember where, but I had heard of stamp placement being a code way of answering questions. So many of these other rules would seem so completely foreign if someone were to attempt to introduce them today, I think. I can understand the typewritten letter being a faux pas, though, probably because typewriters were used by businesses for business correspondence and would therefore seem less personal if used to write a personal letter. Sealing wax had been used for many years, so I am sure that when the lick and seal envelope was invented it took some time for it to catch on.

    I used to have a number of postal pen pals. A few of them lasted for many years, but, over time, it has dwindled to only hearing from them in a card at Christmas. I have tried to start a number of new pen pal correspondences, but none seem to really stick, which is rather sad to me. Oh well.

    Thank you for a fun article!

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