Throughout the history of letter writing, experts have continually produced manuals designed to guide and improve the technique of writing a letter. As early as the fifteenth century, when letters were carried across England on horseback and the amount of space left between the body of the letter and the signature indicated the social position of both the writer and the addressee, letter manuals have been a part of literate society. The theory behind them is that letters are a permanent reflection of the writer’s character and sophistication, so it is very important to craft a letter that will show the writer in the best light. The necessity for such instruction manuals has continued throughout American history, and it continues to change shape as letter writers face concerns that were unimaginable when the tradition began.
Though teaching students the proper form and language for writing letters has always been part of the American education system, letter writing manuals reached a zenith of popularity in the late eighteenth century. Historian Konstantin Dierks, in his essay “Letter writing and social refinement in America, 1750-1800,” explored their function as tools for establishing and embellishing social position. Dierks suggested that the nature of letter writing changed during this time, bringing about the advent of a new form of correspondence—the “familiar” letter. Familiar letters are “expressions of affection and duty among family and friends,” messages written not to share vital information but simply to keep in touch with loved ones. As they became more and more popular in the late 18 th century, large numbers of letter manuals were published, each one aiming to teach readers the proper way to write a letter.
This “proper” way, Dierks goes on to argue, was really the social standard for the literate class. The emerging middle class, a class of businessmen and merchants that was new on the social scene, was searching for a way to secure upward mobility and increased social status. Being able to write a thoughtful, well-worded letter, a skill that had previously been reserved for the well-educated upper class, was seen as a sign of social refinement, and was therefore highly to be sought after among the new middle class citizens. For this reason letter writing manuals were in high demand, and the books, which “demystif[ied] the rules and conventions of letter writing, a social practice traditionally symbolic of power,” became an important tool in the developing social re-configuration of the late eighteenth century.
Throughout the nineteenth century an elegant but unforced letter writing style remained a social necessity, and letter writing manuals continued to do a brisk trade. It also became the vogue for books on social etiquette in general, which swelled in popularity in the late nineteenth century, to contain sections on the etiquette of writing letters. A popular volume, Youth’s Educator for Home and Society, 1896 opened with the injunction, “The man or woman who can talk well, can write a letter equally well,” and proceeded to instruct the reader in the proper materials to use, the proper writing method to employ (“Crossing your pages [writing on the back of sheets of paper so that the ink bleeds through] is positively an insult”), and, of course, the choice of proper correspondents. “Young girls often thoughtlessly begin a correspondence with strangers,” admonished Mrs. Anna R. White, the book’s author. “A romantic girl whose training has been neglected may begin this dangerous amusement. But it had best be discontinued at once. A young man who writes thus to a young girl is usually lacking in lady friends, and a young lady must be wanting in self-respect to permit such a breach of propriety.”
One of America’s most well-known experts on etiquette and social deportment began her ascent to fame in the 1920s. Emily Post, whose handbook Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage was published in 1922, quickly became the country’s foremost authority on proper behavior in almost every situation. Post devoted several chapters to the etiquette of letter writing, beginning by bemoaning, as many others have done both before and since, the fact that the practice is diminishing. “The art of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking,” she declared, “until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a post-card. Since the events of the day are transmitted in newspapers with far greater accuracy, detail, and dispatch than they could be by the single effort of even Voltaire himself, the circulation of general news, which formed the chief reason for letters of the stage-coach and sailing-vessel days, has no part in the correspondence of today.” Post argued that the youth of her day, the “smart set,” did not see the value in putting forth the effort to write a letter when a simple phone call would do. Though complaints about the apathy of youth come from every older generation without fail, the nation’s advances in communication technology made this particular version of the lament likely to be at least partly true.
In her lengthy section on letter writing, Post described for readers the style and flavor that a well-written letter should have. Trying to evoke the desired feeling, she said, “A perfect letter has always the effect of being a light dipping off of the top of a spring. A poor letter suggests digging into the dried ink at the bottom of an inkwell.” At the end of the day, however, the most important rule to remember in writing a letter is that kindness demands a pleasant and conversational tone. As Post puts it, “You certainly would like to convey the impression that you want to be with your friend in thought for a little while at least—not that she through some malignant force is holding you to a grindstone and forcing you to the task of making hateful schoolroom pot-hooks for her selfish gain.”
After Emily Post retired from the etiquette business, her work with the organization she’d founded, the Emily Post Institute, was continued by her granddaughter-in-law, Elizabeth. In 1995 Elizabeth too retired, and the Institute is run today by Emily’s great-granddaughter-in-law, Peggy Post. The Institute continues to dispense etiquette tips on a regular basis, and even has a website where it can advance the cause of socially correct conduct online. A new section has joined the Institute’s discussion of letter writing, a section that addresses the etiquette of e-mail and other forms of online communication. The rules for “Netiquette” include some obvious holdovers from the days of letter writing, like “Junk mails and forwards are one thing, but you should always respond to a real message, whether it’s to invite you to a meeting or a hello from an old friend,” and “It’s best to always reread your message before sending to make sure there are no grammatical or spelling errors.” Among the new rules made necessary by the innovation of e-mail, however, are “Use the Subject line to alert the receiver to the subject matter of your message—you’re likely to get a faster response,” and “Consider using an address book function that doesn’t list all recipients in the “to” header. Having to scroll past a long list of addresses to get to the message itself is annoying to many,” and “people may not like having their e-mail addresses displayed to others.”