The Language of Love Letters

From Jackie:

We are so excited that we have had the opportunity to once again offer Friday morning lectures in our museum parlor this fall. As usual, we challenged ourselves to get creative with topics, asking friends and colleagues for favors and ideas. We are lucky to have so many knowledgeable and willing friends! Our lecture series kicked off this past Friday with Brittney Smith, a friend of the Hunter House and of Asst. Director Kelly Kubiak. We were thrilled when she mentioned her interest in Victorian love letters and her willingness to give a talk on the subject. At our request, she has written the following excerpt to provide those who missed the program with an opportunity to learn more.

From Brittney:

I’ve long been intrigued by love letters and the flowery poetry that seems to rise from simple heartfelt strokes of a pen, scrawled longingly or angrily across the unscarred page. The passion of the Victorian love letter flows from their every word and pours into the readers mind like well-aged bourbon mingling slowly with the melting of an ice cube. Victorians were amazing letter writers. They wrote letters of all kinds; apology, congratulations, introduction, love and business in addition to many many others. After all, it was the social obligation of every Victorian lady to convey news and information through well written letters. One was judged on the quality of their letter by its elegance, the words they chose and penmanship. It is thought that the better the skill of letter writing, the finer the breeding.

What is a Victorian love letter?

Such a fantastic question with no explicit definition. Think of it, what is love? If the question were posed to three individuals there would be three similar albeit DIFFERENT responses. Yet, in the Victorian era, the definition was clearly defined in several publications; The Lover’s Casket and The Lovers Letter Writer. Both very popular etiquette manuals for letter writing of all kinds.

What we can say, with full confidence, is a love letter is often a romantic way to express feelings of love in written form. This written form could be delivered by hand, mail, carrier pigeon, or romantically left in a secret location (SIGH). Letters range from a short and simple message of love to a lengthy account of feelings. Love letters may, and often do, move through the widest range of emotions – devotion, disenchantment, heartache and crossness, poise, ambition, intolerance, guilt and resignation.

The Lovers Letter Writer provided answers to correct letter writing of the day. It covered love, courtship, marriage, friendship, relationships and business; totaling 66 examples. The samples covered every conceivable social need along with a very handy-dandy formula for a penning a cryptogram.  Like many amazing things, was born of Female Ingenuity. The contents of the letter were meant to be read between the lines.  This example of a cryptogram was used by a newly married young lady who was obliged to show her husband ALL the letters she wrote.


I cannot be satisfied, my dearest friend;

blest as I am in the matrimonial state,

unless I pour into your friendly bosom, which has ever been in unison with mine,

the various sensations which swell

with the liveliest emotions of pleasure,

my almost bursting heart. I tell you my dear

husband is the most amiable of men.

I have now been married seven weeks, and have found the least reason to

repent the day that joined us.

My husband is

 in person and manners far from resembling

ugly, cross, old, disagreeable and jealous

monsters, who think by confining to secure a wife;

it is his maxim to treat, as a bosom friend and confidant, and not

as a plaything or menial slave, the woman

chosen to be his companion. Neither party,

he says should always obey implicitly;

but each yield to the other by turns.



I cannot be satisfied, my dearest friend,

unless I pour into your friendly bosom,

the various sensations which swell

my almost bursting heart. I tell you my dear

I have now been married seven weeks, and

repent the day that joined us.

My husband is

ugly, cross, old, disagreeable and jealous.

It is his maxim to treat as a plaything or

menial slave; the

woman he says, should always obey implicitly.


What makes a Victorian love letter?

The letter’s physical appearance, in addition to content, was a key concern for letter-writing guides.  Men were encouraged to use plain paper, and a light spritz of perfume was sometimes acceptable.  Other sources disagreed and suggested high outward ornamentation such as ribbons, flowery drawings, and females could use interesting colors.  What was considered acceptable changed over time. Early in the century, ribbons were very popular, but later, fashion changed to heavy cream paper and then monogrammed letterheads became the norm by the end of the nineteenth century.  The driving force of letter decoration was friendship rather than romance.  Victorian women used their ingenuity and clever hands to fashion objects to give away including letters that carefully wrote.  One example was turning the plain ordinary envelope into a work of art complete with illustrations and / or painted calligraphy.

Letter seals and ink changed throughout the period as well.  Originally wax wafers and dried gum were considered acceptable.  As century progressed, colored wax became all the rage.  However, the use of wax was heavily dictated by social conventions; black wax was always associated with mourning while red wax was to be used in correspondence between men – particularly those dealing with business and letters from men to women.  Women on the other hand, were free to use a range of colors no matter the correspondent.  Meanwhile, ink was a hotly debated topic among letter writing guides.

All agreed on the use of a bold black ink, blue was also considered acceptable.  The use of any other color was shunned whereas scented ink was encouraged.  One ink recipe requires the blend of approximately 100 drops of essential oil (preferably rose or lavender) with a teaspoon of vodka.  The mixture should be adding slowly, into two ounces of ink (deep colors worked best); stir and it was ready to use.

Rules to writing a Victorian Love Letter

Most guides of Victorian letter writing advised letters should be expressive of sincere esteem and affection, written in a dignified tone and in such a style as to not provide embarrassment to the recipient if someone else should happen to find and read it, even if the reader promised to burn their letters after reading them (gasp)!As with all the other forms of proper decorum dictated by Victorian etiquette, there are guidelines for writing letters as well. To name a few:

  1. Never write an anonymous letter. It is the sign of a coward.  Anyone who receives such a letter should not give any consideration to its content
  1. Never write personal conversation on a postcard. They are considered a “cheap” version of a letter
  1. Formal letters should never be written on lined paper.
  1. Always use a full sheet of paper for your letters. A half sheet is considered cheap.
  1. Never use underlining in a letter to emphasize your meaning.
  1. Do not abbreviate – it is the sign of hurried writing
  1. Do not erase or cross out misspelled words in a letter. Should you make a spelling error, the letter should be rewritten
  1. Avoid the “postscript” in everything. This should only be used in the most friendly of letter
  1. Do not write ‘missed’ thoughts in the letter’s margins. Place them on a separate page
  1. Give every subject its own paragraph.
  1. Letters should always be handwritten
  1. Always match the style of writing to the letter type of letter being written. A business letter should be polite but distant in tone.
  1. Fold your letter correctly the first time. A person should never attempt to refold; rewrite the letter in its entirety as opposed to refolding.
  1. Read the letter over carefully before sending it.


Etiquette for composing a Victorian Love Letter

As all correspondence was written by hand, love letters were given the utmost attention and preparation, after all, they would be read, re-read, and cherished for a lifetime. Spelling, grammar, sentence structure, turn of phrase, and determination to retain dignity were the greatest concern. Young ladies were cautioned to exercise extreme restraint in writing to suitors. After all, feelings change with time, her love may be unrequited. No noble young lady would expose herself to potential ridicule by a thoughtless man.

If a courting couple mutually determined to end their romance, both parties would return all love letters and other keepsakes of affection. It was deemed very poor behavior to retain love letters after the demise of a relationship, speak of the contents with anyone else, or allow others to read them. Typically, correspondence was conducted with the acceptance and approval of the young lady’s parents and the young man’s parents. It was deemed highly inappropriate to disclose any details of correspondence with a young lady. A young lady never made light of sentiments expressed by a beau in a letter as it was considered most unseemly.

As for a gentleman, he would never think of boasting his conquests to his peers. Gentlemen were allowed to contact a young lady even though he may not have been formally introduced. They were expected to send a letter, to request permission to call on her. First, he had to find one who knew her name and address. The letter should include the circumstances and the location where she was glimpsed, why he wanted to call on her, and who in town could speak for him. This was highly risky. What if the young lady expressed disinterest in a return note.

When the gentleman couldn’t identify the young woman he had become so enamored with, it wasn’t uncommon to post a personal advertisement in the papers. Oddly enough, this happened with great frequency in the United States. Young ladies were cautioned to exercise extreme caution and never disclose her name or address until she had received a reply, addressed to the newspaper office, revealing his motivation for contacting her AND provide character references. Often this unusual introduction began a beautiful correspondence and courtship. However, just as often, young ladies became a joke among young men posting notices for sport.

Etiquette allowed for either party to terminate the courtship and thus correspondence in writing. These letters would often speak bluntly and express regret along with precise reasons why the correspondence should be terminated. It was not unusual, nor was it considered poor manners, for a nervous young gentleman to propose marriage in writing. These proposals would often request a return note within the hour. If in the presence of his beloved, young men may even pass her a note in which he had written his question.


Interested in our upcoming Friday morning lectures? Check out the schedule here:

Events are free, but we would appreciate a reservation to ensure we have enough seats and refreshments.

Did any of the information in this post surprise you? Do you prefer snail mail to email? I know I do!


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