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The Victorian Art of Letterwriting

Before the age of mass e-mails and faxes, handwritten letters were considered the only acceptable means of intimate correspondence. Victorians wrote letters of apology, letters of congratulations, letters of introduction, just to mention a few. 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.

The correct choice of stationery was crucial to making a suitably genteel impression, although the definition of acceptable stationery changed with every decade. Colored notepaper adorned with flowers in the corner was in common use in the 1850s, and was appropriate for intimate letters. By the turn of the century, however, only heavy, white or cream tinted, unruled paper was considered tasteful. Monogrammed stationery enjoyed a vogue in the mid-1800's, but by the end of the century, was hopelessly out of fashion. Equally important was the choice of ink. When inspired, writers of the 19th century took pen in hand, dipped the point into an inkwell and set their ideas on paper.

The polished writer often sought consultation about the appropriate contents and style of a letter through a variety of letter-writing manuals popularized during the Victorian era. For example, The Lovers Letter Writer, a popular Victorian manual, supplied the answers to correct letter writing for every stage of a relationship: acquaintance, business, courtship, marriage, and friendship. In all, there were 66 examples covering every conceivable social need, along with a handy formula for a cryptogram meant to be read between the lines. Faint-hearted suitors who could not muster a proposal often found a convenient outlet in a well-written letter. According to The Lover's Casket, a 19th century book of courting etiquette, proscribed such a solution to a shy gentleman wanting to declare his affections without facing potential rejection in person. In addition, would-be lovers often used cryptic messages to convey their desires. Regardless of its purpose, however, each letter was expected to conform to the following basic do's and don'ts:

1. Don't write an anonymous letter.
2. Don't conduct private correspondence on a postal card, as they are considered a "cheap" version of a letter.
3. Don't use lined paper for formal letters.
4. Don't write on a half-sheet of paper for the sake of economy.
5. Don't underline words. Let your choice of vocabulary and expressiveness of thought convey your depth of feeling.
6. Don't use abbreviated words, as it indicates the letter was written hastily.
7. Don't erase misspelled words in letters of importance; do recopy the entire letter.
8. Don't use a postscript except in very friendly letters.
9. Don't fill up margins with forgotten ideas and messages but instead add an extra sheet to the letter.
10. Do give every subject a separate paragraph.
11. Do write letters by hand; the typewriter was considered the most vulgar thing to use on a personal letter!
12. Do match the writing style to whom the letter was addressed to; for example, a letter to a business tradesman should be polite but distant in its tone.
13. Don't refold the letter; rather, do be sure to fold it correctly the first time.
14. Do read the letter over carefully before sending.
Oftentimes, writers took care to create "fragments of friendship" such as illustrations and/or painted script, and even addresses rendered with intricate pin pricks on the envelope itself. Sealing wax was a favorite way to protect the contents of the envelope. Of course, the Victorian writer had to be sure to use the right color of wax. For instance, letters of mourning were sealed with black wax, while letters of business used red wax, and so on.