The Victorians complained back in the 1890s that letter-writing was falling out of style

John Wanamaker by William Taylor

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Writing letters no more? The art of corresponding is now much neglected (1894)

Article from the Baltimore Sun (Maryland) March 7, 1894

Letter-writing isn’t as much of an art as it once was. Books had to be written about it years ago, and “The Ready Letter-writer” was as infallible and as essential as a cookbook is to many people nowadays.

It isn’t worthwhile to compare it to a book of etiquette, because time is casting the shadow of unpopularity over “The Habits of Good Society,” and it has moved down from the bookshelf where we keep the household classics.

If you are cultured, you are supposed to know how to behave and how to write a letter as well as the eminent literateurs who were popular years ago, and not so long ago, either, on account of their printed opinions on these subjects.

However, on the other hand, it is an undeniable fact that society at present could often profit by the occasional reference to a textbook on manners, and, as to letter-writing, the art of it has absolutely fallen into innocuous desuetude.

Handwritten letter from Samuel P. Langley to Alexander Graham Bell, June 7, 1894
Handwritten letter from Samuel P. Langley to Alexander Graham Bell, June 7, 1894

ALSO SEE: Typewriters and the decline and fall of handwriting (1922)

In colonial days, a letter was a mental, moral and social effort. Edward Eggleston, in a lecture on colonial times, reads a letter which illustrates excellently the formality which was a social feature of the period. The letter was written from one dear colonial dame to another, and reads as follows:

“Oh, my Marcia! How hard is our fate that we should be deprived of your dear company when it would complete our felicity, but such is the fate of mortals. We are never permitted to be happy. I suppose it is right, else the Supreme Dispenser of all things would never have permitted it. We should perhaps have been more neglectful of our duty than we are.”

The stilted phraseology is calculated to call forth a smile of derision and pity in our day of hurried communications, in which we emphasize the realism of life in our correspondence.

Sedgwick by Auguste Edouart

It is a generally-conceded fact, if not a philosophical law, that from a letter more evidence is to be gained of the character of the person to whom it is written than of the writer himself. The rule is a fascinating one to its practical application, and you can apply it personally after reading your own letters written to a friend, relative, lover or business acquaintance. Your own personality is naturally adjusted to the correspondence at a distance, in the same manner as your physical presence would be.

The day of crossing and recrossing the paper with horizontal, perpendicular and diagonal lines, which was a feature of two generations back and one in common use among the gentler sex, went out presumably with the reduction in postal expense. No regrets followed the decadence of this fashion, and there is no danger of its revival.

Letter writing is falling out of style 1894

The up-to-date writer, however, has playful characteristics which demand mention. Since the angular style of penmanship came into vogue, letter-readers have become experts in deciphering chirography.

Amelia B. Edwards, the Egyptologist, plunged into the hieroglyphics of the Orient with success, and something of the same persistence in the present active generation has rendered it possible for the modern feminine pen to be deciphered.

The modern letter has also an enigmatical aspect. It begins on the fourth page of the paper, and continues on the pages least naturally to follow. The intelligence of its recipient receives flattering acknowledgment in a quiet way and casts about for the sequence of ideas by means of the context. The modern letter of correct form never has its pages numbered.

There must come a reaction, and letter-writing must again become an art.

At present, the obligation is not regarded with due observance. Before the reaction comes, there will be a stage when a typewriter will come into the family, spring and fall, to do up the family letter-writing the same as the seamstress who comes to do up the white sewing.

We have too little time to waste on letter-writing at present. But it will be a fine art by and by.

ALSO SEE: What’s one thing that Civil War soldiers really wanted? Love letters

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