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How To Write Letters: A Vintage Guide to the Lost Art of Epistolary Etiquette, 1876

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“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence, but also as a work of art.”

As a lover of old letters, I have a special soft spot for the lost art of letter-writing — an art robbed of romance and even basic courtesy in the age of rapid-fire, efficiency-obsessed, typed-with-one-thumb-on-a-tiny-keyboard communication. So I was utterly delighted to discover a rare and remarkable little book titled How To Write Letters (UK; public library; public domain) — a “manual of correspondence, showing the correct structure, composition, punctuation, formalities, and uses of the various kinds of Letters, Notes and Cards,” written in 1876 by J. Willis Westlake, an English Literature professor at the State Normal School in Millersville, Pennsylvania. From how to address the recipient and sign your name to the conventions of business vs. social vs. personal letters to the most elegant way to fold the sheet, Westlake presents a guide not only to the craft of writing letters, but also to the conceptual elements of composition and the role of letters as social currency.

At once delightfully dated in many of its cultural assumptions — particularly the epistolary norms for the sexes — and charmingly urbane in its practical prescriptions, this tiny treasure tells us as much about the long-lost era of its origin as it does about the standards we’ve chosen, and chosen to leave behind, in our own. Above all, it reminds us that sentiment lives not only in what is being communicated but also in how it is being communicated — an osmosis all the more important today, when cold screens and electronic text have left the written word homogenized and devoid of expressive form.

Westlake begins:

Nearly all the writing of most persons is in the form of letters; and yet in many of our schools this kind of composition is almost entirely neglected. This neglect is probably due in some measure to the fact that heretofore there has been no complete and systematic treatise on the subject of letter-writing. When it is considered, that in the art of correspondence there is much that is conventional, requiring a knowledge of social customs, which, if not early taught, is obtained only after many years of observation and experience; and that the possession or want of this knowledge does much to determine a person’s standing in cultured society,– the value of this art, and of a thorough text-book by which it may be taught, will be duly appreciated.

[…]

As letter-writing is the most generally practiced, so also is it the most important, practically considered, of all kinds of composition.

He makes a note on quantity vs. quality:

Take pains; write as plainly and neatly as possible — rapidly if you can, slowly if you must. Good writing affects us sympathetically, giving us a higher appreciation both of what is written and of the person who wrote it. Don’t say, I haven’t time to be so particular. Take time; or else write fewer letters and shorter ones. A neat well-worded letter of one page once a month is better than a slovenly scrawl of four pages once a week. In fact, bad letters are like store bills: the fewer and the shorter they are, the better pleased is the recipient.

He then goes on to list several guidelines for an excellent letter:

  1. Style of Writing. — All flourishing is out of place in a letter. The writing should be plain and, if possible, elegant, so that it maybe both easy to read and gratifying to the taste. The most fashionable style for ladies is what is called the English running-hand. A rather fine hand is preferable for ladies, and a medium one for gentlemen. A person who writes a large hand should use large paper and leave wide spaces between the lines.
  2. Skipping Pages. — After reaching the bottom of the first page, it is generally better to continue the letter on the second, instead of passing to the third; because the writer may find more to say than he at first thought of, and after having filled the first and third pages, may be compelled to go back to the second, and thence to the fourth.
  3. Crossing. — Many persons, ladies especially, have a habit of crossing their letters. It is better not to do it. If one sheet is not large enough to hold all you have to say without crossing, take an extra half-sheet, or a sheet if need be. Crossing does not seem to be entirely respectful to your friend; for it implies (though he may not so understand it) that you do not think enough of him to use any more paper on his account. Besides, crossed writing is hard to read; and you have no right to task your friend’s eyesight and tax his time by compelling him to decipher it. Cross-lining came into use when paper was dear and postage high. Then there was some excuse for it. Now there is none.
  4. Blots and Interlineations. — Of course no blots are allowable. Better rewrite the letter than send a blotted one. And avoid, as far as possible, interlineations and erasures. A few words my be interlined in a very small hand, but even a single interlined word mars the beauty of a page. A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence, but also as a work of art. As beauty of words, tone, and manner adds a charm to speech, so elegance of materials, writing, and general appearance, enhances the pleasure bestowed by a letter.

A separate chapter explores the rhetoric of letters, “the art of expressing thought and feeling in letters with clearness, force, and elegance,” emphasizing the importance of an incubation period for ideas and the organization of knowledge, and stressing the curatorial element of composition:

The general principles applicable to the composition of letters will be discussed under two heads : 1. Invention; 2. Expression.

Invention is the action of the mind that precedes writing. In all kinds of composition, there are two things necessary: first, to have something to say; second, to say it. Invention is finding something to say. It is the most difficult part of composition, as it is a purely intellectual process, requiring originality, talent, judgment, and information; while expression is to some extent a matter of mechanical detail, and subject to rules that can be easily understood and applied. A person can write out in a few weeks or months a work the invention of which requires the thought and labor of many years. Yet both parts of composition are equally essential. It is certainly a noble thing to have great thoughts, but without the power of expressing them the finest sentiments are unavailable.

Invention includes two operations : (1.) The collection of materials; and (2.) their proper and orderly arrangement.

But perhaps most fascinating of all is a section on the etiquette and subtleties of paper and ink selection, itself a special kind of art that can communicate an extraordinary range of sentiments — something entirely lost to us in the age of digital type on sterile screens. Westlake advises:

Paper. — The paper used should be such as is suitable and intended for the purpose. It may now be had in infinite variety, adapted to all tastes and wants.

[…]

Never write a private letter on foolscap paper: to do so is awkward, clumsy, and generally inexcusable. If compelled to use it, for want of any other, an apology should be offered.

Never send a half-sheet letter, except on business: and never send less than a half-sheet under any circumstances. For a social letter, even if you write only a line or two, use a whole sheet. To use part of a sheet looks mean and stingy, and is disrespectful to the receiver.

Color. — No color is more elegant and tasteful than white, for any kind of letter, and gentlemen should use no other. Ladies may use delicately tinted and perfumed paper if they choose, but for a man to use it is, to say the least, in very bad taste. For business letters, no color is allowable but pure or bluish white.

Persons who have lost a near relative may use ‘mourning paper’ — that is, paper with a black border — and envelopes to match; the width of the border corresponding somewhat to the nearness of the relationship and the recentness of the bereavement.

He then moves on to envelopes:

The envelope should be adapted, both in size and color, to the paper.

[…]

Gentlemen may use either white or buff envelopes in writing to each other ; but it is not allowable to send a buff envelope to a lady, nor do ladies use that kind at all. If tinted paper is used, the envelope must have the same tint.

[…]

Both paper and envelopes should be of fine quality. It conduces to fine penmanship, and perhaps inspires the writer with fine thoughts. Coarse paper, coarse language, coarse thoughts, — all coarse things seem to be associated.

And let’s not forget the ink:

Never write a letter with red ink. Indeed, it is in better taste to discard all fancy inks, and use simple black. It is the most durable color, and one never tires of it. At one time purple ink was used in the War Department at Washington; but the discovery was afterwards made that this color would fade, and an order was issued that all the records that had been made with purple ink should be recopied with black ink.

Even today, we read a great deal into email sign-offs — their warmth or coldness, the degree of familiarity they connote, the expectation they imply. Westlake offers several examples, including ones by famous historical figures, of what is known as the “complimentary close”::

The Complimentary Close is the phrase of courtesy, respect, or endearment used at the end of a letter.

As in the salutation, the particular words used vary according to circumstance.

Social letters admit of an almost infinite variety of forms of complimentary close. The following are a few out of many examples that might be given: –

Your friend; Your sincere friend; Yours with esteem; Yours very respectfully; Your loving daughter; Your affectionate father; Ever yours; Yours affectionately and for ever (Jefferson); Ever, my dear Fields, faithfully yours (Dickens); Ever your affectionate friend (Dickens); Yours heartily and affectionately (Dickens); Now and always your own; Ever, my dear Mr. — , most gratefully and faithfully yours (Miss Mitford); I am, my dearest friend, most affectionately and kindly yours (John Adams to his wife); Believe me always your affectionate father (Sir Walter Scott); Yours very sincerely (Hannah Moore); Your obliged and affectionate friend (Bishop Heber); Sincerely and entirely yours.

Westlake concludes with a few general notes on the value of letter-writing:

There is no other kind of writing that possesses for us such a living, human interest, as letters; for there is no other that comes so near to the private lives, ‘to the business and bosoms,’ of the writers. Though written, as all genuine letters are, for the private eye of one or two familiar friends, and without any thought of their publication, they nevertheless often form the most interesting and imperishable of an author’s productions.

[…]

And it is this natural and unstudied character that renders their style so attractive. In other productions there is the restraint induced by the feeling that a thousand eyes are peering over the writer’s shoulder and scrutinizing every word; while letters are written when the mind is as it were in dressing-gown and slippers — free, natural, active, perfectly at home, and with all the fountains of fancy, wit, and sentiment in full play.

He ends by making a case for the value of letters in culture and society, recognizing the importance of influence in forming one’s own style and the role of imitation in all art:

Epistolary literature is valuable, in the first place, to the student of history and biography. ‘Nothing,” as Horace Walpole justly observes,’ gives so just an idea of an age as genuine letters; nay, history waits for its last seal for them;’ and Bacon says that ‘letters of affairs . . . are, of all others, the best instructions of history, and to a diligent reader the best histories themselves.’ To a biographer, this literature is almost indispensable; for in his letters we get nearer than anywhere else to a man’s inner life — to his motives, principles, and intentions. A man will often confide to the ear of friendship things that policy or pride compels him to withhold from the public. Our best biographies, indeed, are those that are most autobiographical; those that are drawn most largely from the letters and conversations of their subjects.

It is valuable, secondly, to the general reader ; and for three reasons: –

  1. Because of the knowledge it imparts of the persons and events described.
  2. Because of its moral influence. It brings us into intimate companionship with the great and good who have lived before us ; laying bare, as it were, their inmost hearts for our inspection; showing us how they thought, felt, suffered, and triumphed ; and leading us to emulate their virtues and avoid their errors.
  3. Because it is a means of literary culture. Besides the general literary influence that it has in common with other good reading, it has a direct and powerful effect in the formation of a good epistolary style. Whatever may be said to the contrary, every man’s style is formed, to a great extent, by unconscious imitation.

Complement How To Write Letters with Philip Hensher’s bittersweet The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting, then fast forward a century to this 1981 guide to the art of great presentations.

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