Monday, July 16, 2012

"For a letter, timely writ, is a rivet to the chain of affection."

Whenever I enter an antique shop (which is to say, as often as I can), I make a beeline for the shelf or section that holds old books. One never knows what treasures might be discovered among the dusty tomes.

To my delight, recently I stumbled upon a charming book titled, Good Form and Social Ethics, written in 1913 by Fannie Dickerson Chase, who promises in the preface to "suggest . . . some seed that seem worthy of a place in the garden of life, that some might possibly enter upon their career with more confidence in regard to the proprieties and conventions of society: for one remains shackled by timidity till one has learned to speak and act with propriety."

With my propriety sorely in need of a good polishing, I flipped through pages Mrs. Chase's advice on topics like "Visiting Cards," "Borrowing and Returning," "Order and Neatness," and the rather stern "When Not to Laugh," in which Mrs. Chase quotes Tennyson: "He never mocks, for mockery is the fume of little hearts." (Oh, but, Mrs. Chase, it's so much fun!)

I was especially intrigued by the chapter on "Letter- and Note-Writing." When was the last time you received a nice, chatty letter in the mail? Not an e-mail, not a post on Twitter or Facebook, not even a name scrawled at the bottom of a greeting card, but an honest-to-goodness letter, with paper and ink and a stamp and everything? Writes Mrs. Chase, "A tactful, cheery note may be prized by the receiver more than a costly gift would be. Even those of the home circle often prize these tokens of affection."

If only for nostalgia's sake, why not shock a friend by sending him or her a letter today? For inspiration, here are a few of Mrs. Chase's juiciest bits of advice concerning the writing of letters, circa 1913 (note that some of it applies equally well to e-mail. Some things never change):

*Friendship letters are written for the sole purpose of giving pleasure; then one should be careful not to detract from the pleasure by illegible penmanship.

*Read over letters before answering them. (Amen.)

*Read over letters before sending them. (Ditto.)

*Use jet-black ink, and plain unruled paper or delicately tinted paper.

*Avoid beginning a letter with the pronoun I.

*Write short letters to persons upon whose time you have little claim.

*The anonymous letter is in disfavor in good society. (Blog commenters everywhere, take note.)

*If you are writing to another, avoid saying, "I am so very busy I can't take time to write more this time," for such a statement is quite likely not to carry with it the idea that the correspondence is a pleasure.

And my personal favorite:

*Refrain from writing letters expressing unkind or angry sentiments; but if you write them, never send them. 

The Letters I Have Not Sent
I have written them keen and sarcastic and long,--
With righteously wrathful intent,
Not a stroke undeserved nor a censure too strong,--
And some, alas! some of them went!

I have written them challenging, eager to fight,
All hot with a merited ire;
And some of them chanced to be kept overnight,
And mailed, the next day--in the fire!

Ah, blessed the letters that happily go
On errands of kindliness bent;
And much of my peace and my fortune I owe
To the letters I never have sent.

--Amos R. Wells

What are your thoughts on letter writing? As always, we're eager to read your comments (in black ink on delicately-tinted paper, please . . . )


Jennifer Rova said...

What a treasure in finding this book. Some pieces of etiquette never go out of style. I think letter writing has been replaced by shorthand, often ungrammatically correct emails. A friend prints out and saves all message from individuals. What a sorry legacy we are leaving to reflect upon of our current society 100 years from now.

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

I agree, Jennifer. E-mails don't lend themselves to be tied up with ribbon into sentimental bundles. What will there be left for future generations to find in the attic, besides creepy crawlies, antique computer equipment, and cartons of old Tupperware?