Victorian letter writing guides

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As letters became more and more popular as a means of communication, guides sprang up accordingly about just how one was to write a letter, what was proper, and what was out of the question. Many Victorian conventions shine through the guides, and are a valuable way of understanding certain tensions in nineteenth century England, such as a certain "artful artlessness" that came about as the result of the urge to speak from the heart, but never more than was proper.

Physical concerns[edit]

A letter’s physical appearance, in addition to content, was a key concern for letter-writing guides. For men, they advocated as plain paper as could be made available, and for women a light spritz of perfume was sometimes acceptable.[1] Other sources, however, disagreed, and suggested high outward ornamentation such as ribbons, flowery drawings, and interesting colors could be used by females, but part of this may have been the date of the guide, as vogue changed by the decade.[2] Earlier in the century, ribbons were very popular, but fashion changed to heavy cream paper in the 1880s and then monogrammed letterheads by the end of the nineteenth century. The manner of sealing the letter also changed over the course of the years. Originally it had been wax wafers and dried gum, but as time went on colored wax became more prevalent, the use of which was dictated by social conventions. Black wax was always associated with mourning, but red wax was to be used in letters between men, particularly those dealing with business, and letters from men to women.[3] Women were free to use a range of colors, no matter the correspondent. Even ink was hotly debated; though all sides agreed on bold black ink, blue was sometimes suggested as an alternative, and all other colors shunned, though most letter-writing guides acknowledged that they had once been in fashion.[4]


Letter writing guides simultaneously advised writing with absolute feeling and being cautious about saying too much, or saying the wrong things, regardless of whether or not these wrong things had real feeling behind them. Many guides cautioned that anyone could read your letters and thereby make inferences about you, even if those who you corresponded with assured you that they burnt your epistles.[5]

Matrimonial Letters[edit]

The caution about appearance in letters was doubly stressed in matrimonial letters, even as women and men were encouraged to still write from the heart. Men were warned against complimenting their chosen bride too heavily, as it seemed insincere; rather, their moral traits and the feminine virtue of indifference were set as prime subjects to appreciate in a marriage proposal.[6] Women, meanwhile, were urged not to be too unguarded in their letters, even in the acceptance of a proposal, to only thank and address the man’s moral qualities. Love letters did not end in ‘love,’ but more frequently simply as ‘ever your friend.’

Example Letters[edit]

The value of letters[edit]

Aside from their use as a means of correspondence, letters can be seen as an accurate representation of people’s lived experiences during different historical eras, and much information can be gleaned from what we read in letters both public and private.[10] Letters tend to be valuable for many reasons, and were used in Victorian times for several purposes. Some of these purposes are laid out by James Willis Westlake, who was a public school teacher born just prior to the Victorian era in England in 1830 and who moved to America at a young age, which is where he published his book.[11] First, Westlake says letters are valuable in acquiring knowledge of past people and events.[10] Secondly, he believes they are important in gaining insight into the moral lives of great people after which one’s own behavior could be modeled.[10] Finally, Westlake claims that one may use the letters of well-written and eloquent individuals to adapt and improve his or her own letter-writing style.[10] In the New London Fashionable Gentleman’s Writer, we find an example of the third usage of letter writing: a collection of quaint correspondences between hopeful men and the ladies they wished to court.[12] Such a manual may have been used by anxious men as they prepared to write to their love interests and express their feelings, and perhaps by women as they decided how best to accept or reject the advances.

One of Beatrix Potter's illustrated letters

Some prominent figures of the day turned to letter writing as a creative outlet. Emily Dickinson used her letters to push back against the constraints which women, herself included, faced during the era.[13] Letter-writing was one of the few literary pursuits in which women were allowed to participate, and Dickinson used this to her advantage, infusing traditional letter-writing with her own artistic flair in order to develop her skills as a writer.[13] George Howell, an amateur Victorian artist, used his letters to his brother as a space to entwine his words and his artistic works.[14] Similarly, Beatrix Potter, an author/illustrator, often included pictures in her letters as a means of comfort and relief from the pressures she faced from her family.[14]

Children were taught the art of letter-writing, as well; they were particularly taught to form letters neatly with instructive books filled with drawing and line instruction.[15] One of these such books, “Elementary Drawing Copy Books,” incorporated traditional alphabet practice with instructions on drawing elements of the natural world.[15] Aside from proper handwriting, young boys and girls were taught to compose letters for different reasons. Girls’ writing books taught them to use their writing skills for household management tasks, while those for boys taught proper form for business correspondence.[16]


  1. ^ Anonymous 1851, p. 37
  2. ^ Frost 1867, p. 99
  3. ^ Jacques 1857, p. 76
  4. ^ Anonymous 1851, p. 40
  5. ^ Frost 1867, p. 32
  6. ^ Frost 1867, p. 121
  7. ^ From Frost 1867, p. 126.
  8. ^ Frost 1867, p. 124.
  9. ^ Frost 1867, p. 124.
  10. ^ a b c d Westlake, James Willis (1876). How to Write Letters: A Manual of Correspondence, Showing the Correct Structure, Composition, Punctuation, Formalities, and Uses of the Various Kinds of Letters, Notes, and Cards. Sower, Potts & co.
  11. ^ Herringshaw, Thomas William (1914). Herringshaw's National Library of American Biography. American Publishers' Association. p. 648.
  12. ^ Richardson's New London fashionable gentleman's valentine writer, or, The lover's own book for this year : containing a very choice selection of original and popular valentines with appropriate answers. Boston Public Library. Derby : Thomas Richardson. 1828.CS1 maint: others (link)
  13. ^ a b Tingley, Stephanie A. (1996). 'A Letter is a Joy of the Earth': Emily Dickinson's Letters and Victorian Epistolary Conventions. The Emily Dickinson Journal. pp. 202–208.
  14. ^ a b Golden, Catherine (2010). "Benefits and Blessings, Letters Home, Friendship, Death Notices, Courtship, and Valentines by Penny Post". Posting it : the Victorian revolution in letter writing. University Press of Florida. pp. 201–202. ISBN 0813035414. OCLC 578666117.
  15. ^ a b Jordan, John O.; Patten, Robert L.; Curtis (2003). "The Art of Seeing: Dickens in the Visual Market". Literature in the marketplace : nineteenth-century British publishing and the reading practices. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521452473. OCLC 258611868.
  16. ^ Morison, Stanley (1962). The English Writing-Masters and Their Copy Books, 1570-1800; A Biographical Dictionary & a Bibliography. With an Introd. on the Development of Handwriting by Stanley Morison. Illustrated With Portraits of the Masters and Specimens of Their Hands. OCLC 624400989.


  • Jacques, D.H.. How To Write. New York City, New York: Fowler and Wells, 1857. Print.
  • Anonymous. The American Letter-Writer, and Mirror of Perfect Politness. Boston: G.W. Cottrell, 1851. Print.
  • Frost, Annie S. Frost's Original Letter Writer. New York: Dick and Fitzgerald, 1867. Print.

External links[edit]