Friday, September 4, 2015

America’s Victorian Era Love Letters

by Kristin Holt, USA Today Bestselling Author

Fans of Mail Order Bride (sometimes abbreviated as MOB) historical romances know that many of these marriages of convenience involved letter-writing for a couple to become acquainted and perhaps eventually marry. Men and women would exchange tender sentiments, sometimes written in artful and poetic language to express feelings of the heart, sometimes bold and direct

The curious thing is that writing and love letters between a courting couple wasn’t a phenomenon for those separated by distance. Connected couples in the Victorian Era United States often sent love letters to one another as part of their courtship, even when the other party resided nearby.

Etiquette of the era governed acceptable use
of love letters and correspondence.


1.  In a time when all correspondence was written by hand, love letters were given the utmost attention and prepared most carefully. After all, they’re the most read, re-read, and will be cherished (hopefully) for a lifetime.

2.  Love letters were written with great care for perfection. Spelling, grammar, sentence structure, turn of phrase, and determination to retain dignity were all of concern. Young ladies were cautioned by parents (and specialists in social etiquette) to exercise restraint in writing of all letters to suitors; feelings change with time, her love may be unrequited, and no highborn young lady would expose herself to potential ridicule by a careless man.

3.  If the courting couple mutually determined to end their romance, both parties would return all love letters and other mementos of affection. It was deemed very poor conduct to retain love letters after the demise of a relationship, speak of the contents with anyone else, or allow others to read them.

4.  In most cases, correspondence was appropriately conducted only with the assent and approval of the young lady’s parents and the young man’s parents.

5.  For a young lady to make light of sentiments expressed by a beau in a letter was considered most unseemly.

6.  No gentleman (emphasis on gentleman) would think of boasting of love conquests among his peers. It was deemed most inappropriate to disclose to his chums any details of correspondence between himself and a young lady.

7.  Gentlemen were allowed to contact a young lady, to whom he’d had no formal introduction, by letter, to request permission to call on her. First, he had to find one who knew her name and address. Such letters generally spoke of the circumstances and location where he’d glimpsed her, why he wanted to call on her (visit her at home), and who in town could speak for him. This was considered most risky, for the young lady could just as easily express disinterest in a return note as welcome his interest.

8.  When circumstances did not allow an enamored young man to determine the identity of a young woman he’d seen on the street and had a grand first impression, it wasn’t uncommon to post a personal advertisement in the papers. Culturally, this happened with great frequency in the United States. Young ladies were cautioned to exercise extreme caution, to never disclose her name or address until she’d received a reply (addressed to the newspaper office) revealing his motivation for contacting her and provided character references. Often these unconventional introductions began a beautiful correspondence and courtship… but just as often, young ladies became a laughingstock among young men (note the absence of gentlemen) posting notices for sport.

9.  Etiquette allowed for either a young lady or gentleman to terminate a courtship (and correspondence) in writing. Such letters would often speak frankly, expressing regret along with precise reasons why they had determined pursuing the possibility of further romance a poor idea.

10.  It was not uncommon, nor was it considered poor manners, for a nervous young gentleman to propose marriage in writing. Often these proposals would request a return note within the hour, including a parting phrase something like, “I anxiously await your reply”. If in the presence of his beloved, young men also had the freedom to pass her a note wherein he’d written his question.

My selection of Top Ten Things You (Probably) Don’t Know About American Victorian Love Letters was gleaned from reading The Essential handbook of Victorian Etiquette, (1994, Bluewood Books) an adaptation by American Professor Thomas E. Hill between 1878 and 1890 (ISBN: 0912517123). 

Recommendation: Love Letter Collection (A Timeless Romance Anthology Book 6). This anthology contains six sweet novellas (3 historical and 3 contemporary), all with the theme of love letters.
Do you have access to historic love letters written by ancestors? If so, how does this glimpse of their personalities or courtship affect your connection to them?
Have you read a favorite historical romance that included an element of love letters? What did you enjoy most about it?

Thanks for stopping by and spending a few minutes with me and two of my favorite subjects: Romance and American History. I'm fascinated by days gone by, how things have changed, and  the elements of human nature that remain the same.

I enjoy hearing from readers. 

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Copyright © 2015 Kristin Holt, LC


  1. Great post, Kristin. Thank you for sharing some sources of genuine love letters. Just think of the history in those old saved and cherished communications -- something our grandchildren will see less and less of in this digital age. Theoretically, we can copy and paste an email and save it digitally, but how many people do? And how many take the time to bare their heart and soul digitally?

    1. So true, isn't it? We have a few love letters written by my grandfather to my grandmother, preserving his precise and gorgeous penmanship, and they are treasures. It's possible to see how very in love they were as young people, and brings their courtship and personalities into focus. It helps me know a grandfather who died before my birth. I think it's regrettable that love letters have become, by and large, a thing of the past.

      Thanks for reading and your kind response! ~ Kristin

  2. I loved this post! I had no idea there was so much etiquette involved and that men actually proposed through love letters. My father wrote my mother a "fun" love letter once when they were dating and I would sure like to see it! What a different era we live in now--and I'm afraid we have lost some of the waiting and yearning that would happen between letters which made receiving a letter such a monumental moment.

    1. Thanks, Kathryn! I'm nodding! You're so very right. Today, those in love send quick text messages or PM on Facebook. Somehow, it's just not the same thing. I think sweet, handwritten, poetic letters confession tender feelings must have been a cherished part of many courtships. I intend to ensure my books include at least one meaningful love letter from here on out. =)

  3. What an enlightening read. I've read the Manners and Morals fo Victorian America by Wayne Erbsen, and found it a delightful read. Thank you for sharing these ten unknown facts. Doris McCraw/Angela Raines

    1. Thanks, Doris/Angela. I appreciate your book recommendation. Must find a copy. I'm always looking for the next informative read to fuel the creative process.

  4. Such a fun post - and such a lost art! I love receiving letters in the mail. Guess I need to be better about writing more of them! :)

    1. Thank you, Shanna! I have a fondness for handwriting, for words expressing tender sentiments such as love, approval, congratulations, and more. Letters, altogether, are becoming so old-fashioned. It's amazing they were once a significant cultural piece of courtship.