Twelve Victorian Era Tips on the Etiquette of Ladylike Letter Writing

“The palm of good letter-writing has been universally awarded to the fair sex.”
Etiquette of Good Society, 1893.

Yes or No? by Charles West Cope, 1872.
(Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)

For Victorian ladies, there was much more to letter writing than simply dashing off a note. There were rules for proper correspondence, encompassing everything from acceptable shades of paper and ink to penmanship, wax seals, and conditions under which a woman must write in the third person. I can’t tackle all of these rules in a single article. Instead, I’ve gathered twelve quotes from various Victorian etiquette books addressing the basics of ladylike letter writing. I present them to you below.

1) Use Good Quality Writing Paper.

“There is a fashion in letter-paper and envelopes which is ever varying as to size and shape—sometimes small, at other times large; now oblong, now square; but one thing never alters, and that is the desirability of using good thick paper and envelopes, whatever the shape may be. Nothing looks more mean and untidy than thin sheets and envelopes of the same quality, through which the writing exhibits itself.”

Etiquette of Good Society, 1893.

2) Use the Proper Color of Writing Paper.

“Perfectly plain paper, thick, smooth, and white, is the most elegant. When in mourning, use paper and envelopes with a black edge. Never use the gilt edged or fancy bordered paper; it looks vulgar, and is in bad taste.”

The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1872.

3) Use a Good Quality Pen.

“Use good pens. Bad pens make bad writers, waste time, spoil paper, and irritate the temper. Therefore it is not economy to use bad pens because they are low in price. A bad pen will be a very dear one if, by spoiling your writing and irritating your temper, it should cause you to write a scrawl in careless language upon business of importance.”

Etiquette, Politeness, and Good Breeding, 1870.

Letter Writer by Johanne Mathilde Dietrichson (1837-1921).

4) Use the Proper Color of Ink.

“The color of ink most durable and tasteful, on all occasions and for all correspondence, is black. Red ink should never be used for the body of a letter. Blue ink may be. Fancy ink may answer for ladies, but is not in taste for gentlemen.”

Hand-Book of Official and Social Etiquette, 1889.

5) Pay Attention to Your Handwriting.

“The handwriting should be clear, and yet not too large and bold; it should possess some character and style, but not be adorned or ornamented with fine flourishes and dashes.”

Etiquette of Good Society, 1893

6) Begin with the Correct Salutation.

“The salutation is the term of politeness used to introduce a letter, as Dear Sir, My Dear Friend, My Honored Father. Business letters generally begin with Sir, Dear Sir, Messrs. or Gentlemen. Never use ‘gents.’ for Gentlemen, nor ‘Dr.’ for Dear. For a letter addressed to a married woman or a single woman not young, the proper salutation is Madam, Dear Madam, or My Dear Madam.

Polite Life and Etiquette, 1891.

The Letter by Alfred Émile Léopold Stevens (1823-1906).

7) When Addressing Friends, Write in a Conversational Style.

“Letter writing is, in fact, but conversation, carried on with the pen, when distance or circumstances prevent the easier method of exchanging ideas, by spoken words. Write, therefore, as you would speak, were the person to whom your letter is addressed seated beside you.”

The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1872.

8) When Addressing Strangers, Write in the Third Person.

“All letters to strangers and notes of formal character should as a rule be written in the third person, and must always be answered in the same way.”

Etiquette of Good Society, 1893.

9) When Addressing Gentlemen, Watch Your Tone.

“Ladies, when writing to gentlemen who are not related to them, should make their letters mediums of improving conversation, brilliant wit, and moral obligations, and always of so high and pure a tone, that they would be fit for publication should they ever be needed.”

Gems of Deportment and Hints of Etiquette, 1881

The Letter by Charles Baugniet (1814-1886).

10) Close Your Letter with the Appropriate Sentiment.

“‘Yours sincerely’ is the correct termination; and whatever the degree of friendship, we are inclined to think that great demonstrations of affection and terms of endearment are better avoided, or left only for the use of lovers.”

Etiquette of Good Society, 1893

11) Proofread for Grammar and Spelling Mistakes.

“Many persons do not naturally spell well, and so are obliged to keep a dictionary always at hand. Such persons should never write a word, about the proper spelling, of which they are uncertain, without looking it up. Bad spelling like bad grammar, is an offence against society.”

Letter-Writing: Its Ethics and Etiquette, 1890

12) Seal Your Envelope Properly.

“The gummed envelope, without a seal is perfectly correct, but a neat seal of red sealing-wax always gives a refined look to a letter and is a desirable adjunct thereto…If the writer is in mourning black sealing wax should, of course, be used, but no other colors except black and red are good form.”

Letter-Writing: Its Ethics and Etiquette, 1890

The Pillar Box by Alexander Johnston, 1876.
(Grundy Art Gallery)

I hope the above tips have given you some insight into the etiquette of Victorian era letter writing. In future (when I’m not working frantically to meet a July 1st book deadline), I will be writing on this subject in more detail. Until then, check out these articles from my archives on letter writing in nineteenth century literature and history!

“Be Not Alarmed, Madam, On Receiving This Letter…”

Napoleon vs. Wellington: The Art Of The Passionate Love Letter

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

Sources

Benham, Mrs. Georgene Corry. Polite Life and Etiquette; Or, What is Right and the Social Arts. Chicago: Louis Benham & Co., 1891.

Campbell, Lady Gertrude Elizabeth. Etiquette of Good Society. London: Cassell and Company Ltd., 1893.

De Benneville, Randolph Keim. Hand-Book of Official and Social Etiquette and Public Ceremonials at Washington. Washington: Randolph Keim De Benneville, 1889.

Eaton, Arthur Wentworth Hamilton. Letter-Writing: Its Ethics and Etiquette. New York: Frederick A Stokes, 1890.

Etiquette, Politeness, and Good Breeding. London: Ward, Lock, and Tyler, 1870.

Hartley, Florence. The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness. Boston: Lee & Shepard Publishers, 1872.

Rayne, Mrs. Martha Louise. Gems of Deportment and Hints of Etiquette. Detroit: Tyler & Co., 1881.

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Regan Walker
Regan Walker
4 years ago

Great post, Mimi! Will share.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago
Reply to  Regan Walker

Thanks so much, Regan :) I’m glad you enjoyed it!

Tory Ferrera
Tory Ferrera
4 years ago

Thank you for an excellent post! I always enjoy your blog, a true oasis of civility in a busy world!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago
Reply to  Tory Ferrera

You’re very welcome, Tory :) And thank you for the wonderful compliment!

Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
Lindsay Downs (@ldowns2966)
4 years ago

Yes, definitely an excellent post. I will have to use, some if not all, this information when I do my letter writing.
Yes, I have several friends and we exchange posts.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago

I’m glad you enjoyed it, Lindsay :)

authorangelabell
authorangelabell
4 years ago

An absolutely delightful post! I always enjoy reading excerpts from Victorian etiquette books.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago

Me too, Angela :) Victorian etiquette books are the best!

Marg Parsons
Marg Parsons
4 years ago

Disallowing for #8, I’d say very little has changed as far as letter etiquette. Thank you for this post!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago
Reply to  Marg Parsons

You’re very welcome, Marg :)

Donna Hatch Romance Author
Donna Hatch Romance Author
4 years ago

Most of that sounds like good advice for today’s letter writing, too–except the part about writing in third person, which seems ridiculous in the extreme!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago

That part is rather silly, but it certainly explains a lot for those of us reading letters of that period!

Wendy Brydge
Wendy Brydge
4 years ago

As someone who still sends pretty handwritten letters, values proper grammar, and loves that some people still value etiquette, this post was an absolute delight to read! Wonderful!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago
Reply to  Wendy Brydge

Thanks so much for your comment, Wendy :) I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

Ann Marie Ackermann
Ann Marie Ackermann
4 years ago

A great post, as always, Mimi. Will share.

I have to think of Sophie La Roche in the 18th century, who lived in my town in Bönnigheim. her cousin thought her letters were so good he suggested she write a book. The result, written here in our palace, became Germany’s first bestselling novel — “The History of Lady Sophia Sternheim.”

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago

What a great story, Ann :) I hadn’t heard of Sophia La Roche before. Now I’m going to have to read more!

Olivia
Olivia
4 years ago

“Bad spelling like bad grammar, is an offence against society”

Such fun! We forget how important letter writing was as the only form of long distance communication.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago
Reply to  Olivia

I’m glad you enjoyed it, Olivia :) And you’re right about the importance of letter writing in the 19th century. People took letters seriously!

Adventures of Avi Tinkerbell
Adventures of Avi Tinkerbell
4 years ago

Can you imagine what the rules would be for using online communications for ladies in the Victorian Era if the modern day technology existed back then.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
4 years ago

Rule #9 actually reminds me of the modern advice on sending emails, i.e. one should never send anything that one wouldn’t feel comfortable being read aloud to a room full of strangers.

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