My darling husband - Letter writing

My darling husband....




Copyright - May not be reproduced without permission from:  Victoria Rumble  

Period Correspondence and Letter-writing

Throughout the nineteenth century letters were what bound business deals, and what kept loved ones in touch with each other when separated.  Before the days of telephones and instant communications letters were beautifully written and a pleasure to receive. We can easily duplicate the etiquette of period letter writing and incorporate that into our impressions, or revive a practically lost art and communicate with friends and family bringing them the same joy our ancestors experienced when receiving a creatively penned missive.    

There were three guiding principles of writing a business letter:  first “Never to waste time in more compliments than are demanded by the common courtesy due from one man to another”; the second, “never to say anything that has nothing to do with the subject”; and third, “always to say all that the subject really requires, and to say that clearly”.  The writer was cautioned that the person receiving the letter might have limited time to spend reading the letter and that it should be kept concise so as not to waste that person's time.

In less formal correspondence which was half business, half personal these principles were somewhat relaxed, and the writer was allowed the privilege of “speaking on paper which is the great and true perfection of letter-writing.”  Even in friendly letters the writer was cautioned against using slang and vulgarity, improper grammar and punctuation which took away from the refinement and gracefulness of the written letter, “which enhance even the most tender passages of love and friendship.”  

The art of letter writing was considered a necessary talent for any social class.  “To the poor it is a comfort, a solace, a blessing; with the middle and higher classes of society, it is an indispensable acquirement --an exhaustless source of enjoyment and pleasure.”  A well-written letter might receive an affirmative response in proposing marriage, enforce one's feelings for a friend, or secure assistance during a time of need.  The tone and wording often determined the response of the person receiving the letter, and the writer knew his character and habits would be judged according to his writing style. 

There were certain phrases common to 19th century letters which we should familiarize ourselves with, for example, “I take pen in hand to write you these few lines,” or “We beg to inform you.”  During the Victorian era there were also subtle ways of addressing certain topics such as childbirth, “Mother has been confined, and the baby is a boy.”    

A letter should flow continuously in a manner similar to poetry - not switch from one topic to the other losing the reader in the process.  A suggested way of covering all topics so that the writing continued without backtracking was to write down on a scrap of paper all the points one wished to make in the letter.  Number these from one to end with those of the most significance first.  As you begin writing the letter progress from one topic to another bringing out all the phrases you wish to use and all the points you want to make as you go.  

Once your topics and selected phrases have been committed to paper begin to write using the same style in your writing that you would if you were talking to the recipient in person.  When reading original letters today and attempting to duplicate them we must remember that these letters did not require the inventiveness reproducing a period letter does.  They were sent to people well known to them and discussed people and situations of interest to both the writer and the reader.  If your first person impression is known to the recipient  of your period letter this same familiarity can dictate the topics and style of your writing.

 Going straight to the heart of the matter saved time for both the writer and reader.  Even if your letter is to be a long and descriptive one stay focused and do not use an entire paragraph in explanation before making your point.  Two shorter sentences that clearly state the idea are better than one long rambling sentence which may leave your reader without a clue what point you are making.  

 Using proper grammar allows the reader to revel in the beauty of the letter and the sentiment being expressed rather than puzzling over jumbled words and phrases to ascertain the meaning of what has been written.  Misspelled words, and incorrectly formulated sentences leave the reader to wonder at the intelligence of the writer, and tend to devalue the opinions being expressed.  

The various components of a well-written letter combine to form a whole that is pleasing to the eye and clearly conveys the ideas of the writer.  Tools of letter writing include punctuation, spelling, sentence structure, and paragraphs to separate different ideas.  Even between the best of friends proper etiquette was observed in letter writing.  A proper salutation might be, “Dear Boy”, “My Dear Sir”, “My Dearest Annie”, “Dear Miss ____”, “Honored Sir”, etc.    
A letter might end with, “Your affectionate Son”, “Your friend and kinsman”, “Your obedient servant”, “I remain your loving Husband”, “Believe me to remain ever yours affectionately”, “Your affectionate and Devoted”, “Yours ever sincerely and devotedly”, “I remain, Sir, your sincere and well-wished friend”, “Your devoted servant until death”, etc.

The stamp was always placed in the top right hand corner, and an envelope was used for all but strictly business correspondence.  The envelope kept the letter from getting soiled in the mail and insured privacy.  Use of the best pens, paper, and ink was recommended for all correspondence, and the writer was advised not to soil the paper while writing.  Failure to adhere to this advice indicated slovenliness on the part of the writer. When finished the letter was to be neatly folded before being placed into the envelope.

Letters of condolence were to be written on black-edged paper and sealed with black wax, even if the writer were unfamiliar with the deceased. The return address and date of writing was to be entered at the head of every letter.  Postscripts were to be avoided as they tended to indicate lack of concentration on the part of the writer resulting in an inability to cover all topics of interest in the body of the letter.  They also spoiled the beauty of a well-written letter.  
Long letters are more easily written than short ones, but they indicate less concentration  on the part of the writer.  This is not to say that long letters are improper, but the length should be determined by the content.  As long as you have new information to present continue to write, but do so in a concise manner without a descriptive narrative.

Choose your words carefully, go straight to the point, and express yourself just as you would were you in the presence of the receiver and speaking to them face to face.

Chesterfield`s Letter Writer and Complete Book of Etiquette.  1837.  Dick & Fitzgerald.  New York.

The Sophronia Winn Smith Letter

The following letter was written by my ancestress, Sophronia Winn Smith.    

Sophronia was the wife of Lieut. William Robert Smith, Co. C, 6th TX Cav.  William was serving with his brother, Capt. Joshua Lafayette Smith, and Joshua is the "brother" addressed in the letter. Rev. James A. Smith was the father of William, Joshua, and a third brother, John Wesley Smith, who served first in the Dallas Light Artillery, and later in the l9th TX Cav.  James settled in Dallas in 1846 where he established a Methodist church, and built one of the first gins and grist mills.  James' wife, was Anne Killen Smith, daughter of James and Ann Nancy McDougal Killen.  Ann Nancy accompanied her daughter and son-in-law in their move to Dallas and is buried in Pioneer Park along with the Smith's and their family.  

After the war John Wesley Smith moved to California and started a new life for himself and his family.  In 1848 he and Lafayette had served as Texas Rangers. Lafayette was murdered in 1867 in Dallas by an attaché to the Freedmen's Bureau.  His murderer was never prosecuted. William and Sophronia lived out their lives in Dallas.  Their oldest son, a law student, was murdered on Christmas Eve 1889 in Greer Co. TX.

Sophronia's letter was typical in content of many received during the war years.  Despair and suffering took a toll on those left at home, and many died - lost to history.  The letter describes the conditions in the South during the war years, and we can only imagine how the two men who received the letter felt - far from home and loved ones.  


Dallas, Texas
April l7th l863  

My darling Husband and Brother:

 It has come upon us and we have to bear up under our troubles and bereavements the best we can.  Your dear Papa is dead.  Oh, how it makes my heart sad to write to you. He died on the night of the l5th 25 minutes before 8 o'clock.  The day before he was a great deal better than usual.  Mrs. Linsey stayed with him that day and he was cheerful, talked a great deal about you both and cousin Ed.  Sat up that night before supper until l0 o'clock and Dock said he was satisfied he was going to get better.  At l o'clock Sena Armstrong and myself got up and sat with him.  About 8 o'clock he awoke and told us his feet were cold, for us to get a hot rock for them which we did, but could not warm them.  And from that time on he seemed changed.  We tried to arouse him every l5 minutes, to turn him but could not get him to do it.  He was in a great stupor, but we were not alarmed.  At 5 o`clock I laid down, and in an hour they woke me saying that Mr. Smith was a great deal worse.  I went to his room and he had a right bad smothering spell-his feet and hands were very cold, we did all we could to revive circulation but all to no avail.  In about 2 hours he had another, when he suffered a great deal, after that he got comparatively easy.  Brother Marston, Pa and Ma and brother and sister Howell were there.  He asked Bro. Marston to pray for him, which he did.  He said he could not talk much-he was glad he had expressed himself so fully before.  Brother Marston said, 'Brother Smith, you have no fear`?  He said, 'No, none at all`.  Fanny was sitting with him and Dock was lying on the other side.  He laid his hands on Fanny's head and talked to her and asked a blessing on her.  He then ordered another chair to be placed by his bed and called Dock and Sarah Ann and told them to sit by his bed.  He reached out his hand and laid it on Dock's head and prayed for him and invoked a blessing on Sarah Ann in the same manner.  He told them to get up and called me and my cousin Mary to come and oh, my husband, can I ever forget those words of admonition and prayer, that solemn earnest prayer to Almighty God to take care of us, me and my dear husband and all that pertaineth to us?  I hear his voice now, so solemn and tender and heaven-like and feel his hand as it so rested on my head.  After which he called all his grandchildren and blessed each one separately.  He then called the negroes and shook hands with and talked to each.  When he shook hands with Uncle Tom, he said, 'Farewell Tom, it won't be long, do all the good you can as long as you live, Tom.`  This of course exhausted him and he talked but little afterwards.  Slept most of the time.  Later that evening I asked him if he was suffering much?  He said, 'No, not much`.  About dark he had another bad spell, after which he was perfectly calm and died without a struggle.  Poor Fanny suffered most.  It looks like she can't be reconciled, it is mighty hard on her, and she is so delicate, too.  Your pa was buried today by the Masonic Fraternity.  There was a large concourse of people in attendance.  It will be some consolation to you to know, that though it is these hard times, we got everything for the burial that we could have wished for.  Had a very nice suit of clothes and fine broadcloth to cover the coffin.  Oh, what we would have given if you could have been here, both of you.  You would have seen him die as only the Christian can die, and would have thought it was sweet to fall asleep in Jesus.  He was the most natural looking person I ever saw after death-such a calm heavenly countenance-not the slightest contraction of a single muscle.  But now we are without a father, and oh how well blessed we were having such a one.  You can't imagine how lonely it is at home now-how much we miss him.  More I know than if he had been well at the time-but now he is gone let us try to live like him, so that, like him we may die and all live in heaven.  Oh, boys do try to live like him, and imitate his example.  I could write a good deal more if I would follow the inclinations of my heart and feelings, but it is getting so late I must quit.  Mr. Linsey has just brought me a letter from you which was gladly received, but it makes me feel bad to know how little you know of the trouble awaiting you.  I am anxiously expecting to hear that order is counter minded - but if you have to go, may God of Love and tender mercy guide and protect you both from all harm and bring you back safe to your loved ones.  Trust in God, ready your bibles daily as your pa enforced the importance of that.  May we all live to enjoy the peace for which we have sacrificed so much, and I earnestly pray that though Father and Mother are both gone, we may continue to live as one Family.  




 18th Century

 19th Century

   20th Century