The Model Letter-Writer by Arthur Etheridge
London: Frederick Warne & Co 1866

It is not an easy thing to write a good letter. Few possess the art, or gift, whichever it is, and those who do cannot impart it. But in the present day, we are all compelled to be letter writers. That is one of the effects of the cheap postage system.

The opinion that "genius is only another name for industry" is often strongly exemplified in regard to letter-writing. Moreover, there is much that can, as well as much that cannot be taught, as to the practice of it. For example, however badly a gentleman may express his sentiments in a letter, it can only make matters worse if it is improperly addressed, wrongly subscribed, and written in violation of those minutiae which form part of the etiquette of correspondence.[There] are points on which all can inform themselves, and ignorance of them is not without reason regarded as a sign of vulgarity and ill-breeding.

Remember that in writing a letter you are using an artificial means of communicating to another at a distance what if he or she were present you would say and they would listen to.

Endeavor therefore to write as nearly as you would speak. Carefully avoid all attempts at "fine writing," high-flown language, or modes of expression which you would not use in conversation.

As a rule, be brief. Put what you have to say into as few words as will convey your meaning clearly and explicitly. Brevity in style does not necessarily imply that your letter should be short. There is a great charm to many persons in a "nice long letter" - particularly to invalids and persons living in the country; but then a letter to be both long and "nice" must have matter in it closely packed. Nothing is more provoking than [a letter which] promises a treat from its length, but which turns out to be one part apology, one part string of wordy nothings of no interest, and the remainder fulsome compliments and empty verbiage. A short letter, concise and to the purpose, is infinitely better than this.

Writing Materials

Ladies are permitted to indulge their taste to a great extent in the matter of letter and note paper. All the fancy varieties are especially manufactured for their use. Of tinted papers, especially, they are the great consumers, and it is permitted them to use three-cornered envelopes, scented paper, and so forth. Some even go to the length of embossed stationery; but this is generally regarded as vulgar.

If tinted paper is used, the best colours to select are mauve, green, or maize; thin laid French paper of the very best quality and perfect transparency should be chosen. Vivid colours, such as bright pinks, are to be avoided.

Gentlemen write on white paper only: it is foppish and affected to use what is called fancy stationery. The envelopes should be more nearly square than those used by ladies, and they should fit the paper. Nothing looks more slovenly, or is more unsafe, than an envelope that is two or three sizes too large for its contents.

With regard to pens and ink little need be said, except that the better both are, the neater and more attractive the writing is likely to be. When ordinary ink gets thick it may be rendered liquid by the use of a very small quantity of prepared ox-galls.

These may be bought at any artists' colour shop. Ladies may indulge their tastes in the use of violet, magenta, and other coloured inks, but gentlemen should only use those which are black.

Steel pens have almost superceded the use of the quill, except for special purposes.

It is a good plan to keep a common nail in the inkstand - it must be free from rust when put in, so that the action of the acid in the ink may be expended on it. The ink will not then destroy the pens so much.

Having secured proper writing materials, the next point of importance is the writing - that is, the handwriting as distinct from composition.

This is very important. The time has gone by when an illegible scrawl was considered a mark of good breeding. It is now taken to mean.that [someone] is insulting his correspondent by writing carelessly; because he does not think it of much importance whether he is understood or not. The late Lord Palmerston particularly resented such as was hard to decipher, "People had no business," he said, "to save their time at the expense of his."

Ladies are apt to acquire a very tantalizing Italian hand, as it is called - the sort of hand which teachers propose to impart the secret of in six lessons. Ladies whose writing is merely a straight line, with loops for g's and l's, and y's, must not be expected to be read.

One often receives a letter in a plain legible hand; but with a signature so tangled and elaborated, that it is impossible to decipher it. Nothing can be more absurd. The very first point of interest on looking at a letter, is to ascertain who it comes from.

Forms of Address

There are certain invariable forms observed in addressing letters, and these rules apply to persons in all ranks of life, from the highest to the lowest.

In writing to Her Majesty the Queen, it is not customary simply to drop a letter into the post-office with the royal name and residence on the envelope.

Letters for her majesty are sent under cover, either to the prime minister of the day - or which is the better and more direct way, to whoever has charge of her Majesty's private correspondence at the royal residence at which the sovereign may be staying.

It is sufficient to direct the enclosure "To her Majesty the Queen." Formal official
communications are often addressed "To the Queen's Most Excellent Majesty."

In writing to her Majesty, commence "Madam," or "Most Gracious Sovereign," or "May
it please your Majesty." Conclude, "I have the honour to remain, with the profoundest
respect, Madam, your Majesty's most faithful and dutiful subject."

Familiar Correspondence

Avoid a slip-slop ungrammatical style in the most familiar correspondence. This sort of thing is insufferable in conversation, and is worse in writing. It is really a worse habit than that of indulging in slang.

It was once the fashion to neglect grammar, as it is now with certain people to write illegibly, and in the days of Goethe, a man thought himself a genius if he could spell badly.

There is a cynical rule as to writing well worth bearing in mind. It is this: "When you have nothing to say, say it." Brevity is far better than tedious and empty prolixity; a letter all words, and nothing but words, is insufferable.

In his novel of "Armadale," Mr. Wilkie Collins gives a spiteful woman's description of a woman's love-letter, which is, after all, not an exaggeration. We have met with many such productions. " It was outrageously long and rambling, and confused. I had to wade through plenty of vulgar sentiment and lamentation, and to lose time and patience over maudlin outbursts of affection and nauseous kisses enclosed in circles of ink.." Ladies may, perhaps, take a hint from this ill-natured sentence.

It is said that the pith of a lady's letter is always in the postscript. This is an exaggeration; but certainly the fair sex do abuse the privilege of the postscript to a great extent.

Foreign Letters

Should you be sending letters to India, China, or any hot climate, be careful not to use sealing-wax, as it frequently melts in transit., causing much damage not only to your own packet, but also to others that may be in the same mail-bag. The best fastening is gum or the old-fashioned red wafer: if you must use wax be careful to use only that which has been especially prepared for the purpose.


Be careful to put a stamp on the envelope at the top right-hand corner.

To read a model letter for proposing to a woman in 1866,
complete with the woman's reply