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10 Things You Did Not Know About Victorian Letter Writing

November 16, 2016

Being an archivist is a day-to-day self-instructed history class. Here are some things we learned working on two collections of correspondence, The Richmond Theological Seminary Collection and The Consolidated Bank Collection.

  • They used acronyms too, they were just in Latin.

One of the most common abbreviations we came across that we were not aware of before was “inst”. Inst is short for the latin term instante mense, or “in this month”. Many of the correspondents in this collection used it to talk about previous letters you received such as this letter below from American Baptist Home Mission Society secretary James B. Simmons to Richmond Theological Seminary president Charles Corey which reads,


“Yours of the 18th and 22d inst are received & carefully…”

Similar to inst, ult stood for ultimo mense or “last month”, as in the previous month that had just past.


  • They had symbols other than apostrophes to mark abbreviations.

The letters we place after numerals to denote order are called ordinals. For example, the “nd” in 2nd or the “th” in 4th. Many times people will place these ordinals in superscript, sometimes Word even does it automatically. The reason for this is because “2nd and “4th” are abbreviations.

When letter writing was your primary means of communication, people ended up doing a lot of it so they came up with lots of ways to make it easier, including using lots of abbreviations. So that the reader would know that a word had been abbreviated, the writer would put the section after the omission as a superscript and generally either underline it or place two dots underneath. Hence “Virginia” became Va or “received” became recd.


That’s not a question mark, but rather a superscript “d” with a dot underneath for “received”

Even names got this treatment. In this collection you will often see Chas for “Charles”, Jas for “James”, and Wm for “William.”


An example of Charles Corey’s name being abbreviated

So, following this “first” came to be shortened to 1st, “second” to 2nd, even today you sometimes still see the ordinals underlined though that slowly faded out of style. Sometimes they couldn’t even be bothered to write out the full abbreviation and abbreviated it further by simply putting hash marks after the number so that it instead of 23rd it became simply 23”.


  • Margins were optional.

A typical letter from James B. Simmons

When you are writing letters every day, empty space can add up. Especially if your job was to be a corresponding secretary like James B. Simmons. Luckily, he did not constrain his writing to Microsoft Word’s formatting. He packed as much as he could into a single page while others went so far as to write on top of what they had already written!










  • Letterhead and stationery spoke volumes.

You could say a lot in a letterhead and not just by the text. However, the American Baptist Home Mission Society did make sure it said a lot by the text as well. Pre Printing stationery with a large letterhead allowed the Society to mail its latest news to its many connections with a personalized note without having to copy things out over and over again like D.W. Phillips had to above. Many times the last digit of the pre-printed year was even left blank so the stationary could be used for several years.


A typical American Baptist Home Mission Society Letterhead

However, pre-printed stationery created some unique problems for the American Home Mission Board. It could get expensive, as Simmons informs Corey in a ???? letter, it left Simmons with less room to write, of course, and it could cause conflict as Simmons tells Corey in October 1871, “I have used your heading so long that I fear other schools will be jealous.”


  • Fasteners came in all shapes and sizes.

Different fasteners from the Consolidated Bank Collection

Some fasteners looked pretty similar to the paperclips or staples we use today but as you can see from the small array of fasteners taken from correspondence in the early 1900s, they came in all shapes and sizes. Pins were commonly used in banks to attach drafts or bank notes to their corresponding invoice so much of the correspondence in our Consolidated Bank collection comes fastened together with pins. Archivists generally remove metal fasteners and replace them with plastic ones because the metal can rust and damage the documents. Archivist Healthcare 101: Make sure your tetanus shot is up to date.


  • Envelopes were optional.

Although we have quite a few of the original envelopes from the Consolidated Bank collection, none of the envelopes from the Richmond Theological Seminary collection were kept. However, it’s interesting to note that for many of the checks in the Consolidated Bank’s correspondence collection, there probably wasn’t any envelope. The stamps are affixed directly to the check themselves!


  • Pre-paid postage is not a new thing.

An indicium from the Consolidated Bank Collection

Now-a-days a lot of commercial mail comes without an adhesive stamp. The postage has been paid for and some sort of notification of that has been printed in the corner of the envelope. You don’t have to lick a stamp anymore, or even peel and stick one. But having the postage already affixed to the envelope is not a new thing. In the late 19th/early 20th century you could buy envelopes in the US with the postage embossed directly into the corner. These were known as indicium, a Latin word for “identifying mark”. There are many examples of this type of postage in the Maggie Walker Consolidated Bank collection.


  • Handwriting has changed.

“…hope he may under the blessing of God become an able minister of…”

Cursive is slowly fading out of our culture as electronic correspondence becomes the most prevalent form of communication. Language, and handwriting, has always be an ever-changing thing. One such prominent example from the Richmond Theological Seminary collection is the transcription of words possessing a double “s” such as “possession” or “blessing” as in the example above. A double ‘s’ resulted in a figure that appears to the modern eye more like a backwards ‘f’ than an ‘s’. This is called a “long s” and when a double ‘s’ appeared in the middle of a word, the convention was to write the first one as a ‘long s’ and the second as a regular, or ‘short s’. By the dates of these letters (late 19th century) the practice was fading away, but these older men continued to write as they had probably had learned to do so when they were younger.


  • The Seal
United States Treasury Wax Seal, Close-Up

Before the self-adhesive envelope or even the gummed-type that you like to stick, wax seals were a common way to make sure your letter remained private until it reached the hands of its intended recipient. By the mid-19th century, wax seals were falling out of favor as businesses has begun to stream-line the process of making pre-gummed envelopes. But every once in awhile, an official government letter pops up in a collection that still has its seals, such as this one from the United States Treasury in the Consolidated Bank Collection.


  • Without modern technology, sending something to multiple people was tough.

No scanner, no printer, no copier, no mimeograph machine in 1870s Virginia. When D.W. Phillips wanted to send Charles Corey a copy of a letter he had received from J. W. White, he had to copy it out long hand. If he hadn’t been nice enough to mention in his own accompanying letter that this one was a copy or had not added the small comment he did at the end that reads,

“I have corrected the spelling of some records but have made no other change – D.W.P.”

Looking at it now we might not have ever realized that it was not the original without that final sentence.

Sometimes, when the original was not needed, the original receipt simply added his own note and resent the letter creating something akin to a modern email thread.

So there you have it, as my grandfather used to say, “Did you learn anything new today?”


Jessica Bennett
Special Collections and Art Librarian

If you are interested in learning more about the 100-year-old junk mail in the Consolidated Bank Collection, check out our previous blog entry.

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