Manners & Misdemeanors
The Fine Art of Letter Writing And Why You Should Keep It Alive
Sometimes, a text message, an e-mail or a post on Facebook just won’t do. Express your feelings with elegance the old-fashioned way-through a letter.
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Over the years, handwritten letters have been lovely expressions of elegance and intimacy, discretion and candor. At the heart of this tradition is a delicate alchemy, much like the joy of giving and receiving a gift. Letters, yellowed with age and kept in silk-lined boxes, awaken a kind of nostalgia, a vision of a life once dearly loved and now cherished by a precious few.

The art of letter writing was a phenomenon of the 19th century, an era when handwritten letters were the only accepted means of personal correspondence. An ability for writing indicated fine breeding, and both ladies and gentlemen were judged by their choice of paper, their penmanship, and the elegance and precision of their words. The use of scented ink was a preference of the discerning.

From formal letters to whimsical notes, the art of letter writing reflects a gracious lifestyle.

The great English novelist Jane Austen was famed for her voluminous letters. She used handmade paper and a quill pen, the making of which was an art in itself. Carved from the wing feather of a goose, the nib was cautiously cut so that the hollow core held just the right amount of ink and released it steadily under pressure. The letter was then sealed with a wax seal stamp that, in some instances, bore the family crest or the sender’s initials.

Victorian letter writing manuals included The Lovers Letter Writer that counseled what may seem archaic today: “Don’t underline words. Let your choice of vocabulary and expressiveness of thought convey your depth of feeling.”

Another fine point was the choice of paper. The first and finest paper was made from cotton almost two thousand years ago. In the 1800s, however, wood pulp came into use because it cost much less and there was a seemingly endless supply of trees.

Nonetheless, Crane only uses pure cotton. Its paper has a rich weight and texture that give it a special feel. The stationery at Tiffany and Bergdorf Goodman are equally exceptional, deliciously smooth and luxurious. Designed with flair, they are precious little gems of exquisite taste.

Literary masterpieces have been written in the form of letters portraying the social structure of an era. Love letters have been viewed as part of history...

The watermark also illustrates the quality of paper. As the manufacturer’s identification, it can be seen when the paper is held up to a light. Sometimes it is custom made, as in the wedding invitations of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, where their portraits are delicately visible. Although a genuine watermark looks slightly blurred, it should be readable and the text should be printed on the right side of the page.

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Literary masterpieces have been written in the form of letters portraying the social structure of an era. Love letters have been viewed as part of history, such as those between Napoleon and Josephine, or Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Sartre believed that “seduction and writing were rooted in the same intellectual process.”

In 1922 Emily Post, the sophisticated socialite and writer, published Etiquette: the Blue Book of Social Usage, which brought her acclaim and esteem throughout the world. In it she described the intricacies of a stationery wardrobe. The pleasure of exploring it, she wrote, may be likened to the delight of creating a fashionable wardrobe of designer clothes and trendy accessories. Similarly in crafting personalized paper, there is the excitement of choosing the perfect font or finding the definitive lining to match the finest envelope.

Note cards are the most imaginative stationery, and they range from the minimalist to the baroque. Many are reproductions from distinctive collections and may include modern masterpieces, period portraits, rare photographs, jewelry designs, decorative arts, sumptuous gardens and seascapes. Shopping for them in boutiques and museums around the world is always an aesthetic adventure.

Classic paper is more traditional. It can be engraved, blind-embossed, thermographed or flat printed. Engraving is the highest-quality printing, one of the oldest and most beautiful. Its appeal lies in the superb details created by its three-dimensional impression.

Similarly in crafting personalized paper, there is the excitement of choosing the perfect font or finding the definitive lining to match the finest envelope.

Letter sheets are the most formal and are usually in ecru or white. Because of their elegant simplicity, they are suitable for any type of correspondence, and may be adorned with a coat of arms, a monogram, a name or an address, or simply left blank.

Correspondence cards are among the most versatile, and the best to take when traveling. They are wonderful for informal invitations, thank-you notes and words of condolence. Flat, heavy cards, they are either plain or bordered, and a name or small monogram may appear at the top of the page. Of course, only the front of the card is written on, never the back.

Emily Post advised, “In writing notes or letters, as in all other forms of social observance, the highest achievement is in giving the appearance of simplicity, naturalness and force.”

Another distinguished voice of fine manners was Amy Vanderbilt, who published her Complete Book of Etiquette in 1952. “There is nothing more pleasant,” she felt, “than receiving a beautiful letter.” To her, such a letter was beyond a communication. It was a gift.

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With the same directness, she said, “Printed thank-you notes from a gift shop are not acceptable as tokens of gratitude. Gratitude does not come pre-packaged.”

In this century of technological wonders, the handwritten letter still retains a certain power and charm that cell phones, Palm Pilots and e-mails cannot replace. Perhaps it is because it asks that we slow down a little and take the time to shape our thoughts and write our words with precision and sensitivity. A gem of a line has the lyrical essence of a warm and happy friendship.

“Printed thank-you notes from a gift shop are not acceptable as tokens of gratitude. Gratitude does not come pre-packaged.”

During the first assembly of parents of new students in Phillips Academy at Andover, the headmaster ended his welcome address by encouraging parents to write their children once a week. “Your children are away from home for the first time. Your letters mean much more than you imagine. They can be read and re-read and can serve as tangible links to home. Phone calls aren’t good enough because one can’t hold on to them.” That was before the age of e-mails when messages can be sent—and deleted—in a flash.

Reams of letters, carefully collected, can become treasured family history or the basis for an epistolary novel. In the Philippines, an important book of manners written in Tagalog is Urbana at Felisa. Authored by Modesto de Castro in 1938, it is a compilation of thirty-four letters among members of a Bulakeño family giving each other advice on the proper conduct of a Christian family.

Before his inauguration, President Barack Obama wrote his children, Malia and Sasha, an open letter expressing the future he wished for them. “These are the things I want for you—to grow up in a world with no limits on your dreams and no achievements beyond your reach, and to grow into compassionate, committed women who will help build that world.”

Letter writing can be more intimate and touching than a conversation, more personal than a phone call. It is a lifelong skill that is ideally taught at a young age. In a spirit of playfulness, children may be encouraged to write short letters or thank-you notes, and to embellish them with colorful drawings.

Like many children, mine had personalized note cards when they were little. The boys had blue paper and the girls had pink. Years later when my daughter, Alessandra, studied graphic art at the Rhode Island School of Design, she learned about the alphabet that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York used for its famous M monogram.

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She recalls, “I had seen drawings of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of the human anatomy, and I knew he had created an alphabet based on those proportions. I wanted the A from that. So I wrote the Metropolitan, and they had to research it because Leonardo created it in partnership with someone else, and it wasn’t directly attributed to him. It took some time to find it, but I did get my A!” It has since become the blind-embossed initial on her ecru stationery, particularly stunning on the flap of the envelope.

From formal letters to whimsical notes, the art of letter writing reflects a gracious lifestyle. It is loveliness in traces of ink, eloquence in the whisper of silence. It is the ultimate gesture of fineness in a world that is elegant and timeless.  

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Rita Ledesma
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