Tuesday 26 August 2014

The Art of Letter Writing - Early 19th Century Style

The Famous Writer and Popular Novelist
Charles Dickens seated at his desk writing,
in this instance using an earlier quill pen
[Source : Wikipedia]

There is something very personal and satisfying about writing and actually receiving a letter. But in this high-tech age the art of writing a traditional letter has increasingly fallen victim to the ubiquitous and informal email or simply writing a short and often hurried message inside a Christmas, gift or condolence card.

"The Imperial Letter Writer", including
examples of letters to titled persons
[from my own collection] 

By the Victorian era letter writing was truly an art and high standards were expected. As with so many other things, there was a correct and proper way to do things and no one should be in any doubt as to how this should be achieved. The etiquette around how to compose a letter, be it either for personal or business mail, was clearly laid out in popular letter writing manuals which covered the general format of most commonly written letters. While most examples are terribly verbose or overly effusive by today's standards one should always take such things in the context of the time. From an early age all educated children would have the basics of letter writing instilled in them simply because there was no other means of communication available to them should a personal visit not be possible. It was a source of great pride to be able to write a good letter and indeed such was expected of all well educated people.

"The Art of Traditional Letter Writing"

So, as a little bit of period entertainment, let me personally guide you through the process of writing a personal letter using items from my own collections which would have differed very little from the first few decades of the 19th century. Our intended recipient is the Father of a women to whom he wishes to express his close affections - but etiquette dictates that this requires her Father's permission. If in any doubt as to the standard format and wording we should consult our helpful letter writing manual.

Our paper will be one - and only one - sheet of English A4 sized (210mm by 197mm) good quality white un-lined paper (US A4 sized paper can be used and folded to suit final sizing later). The reason for the size and the limit of one sheet of paper will become very apparent later. The paper, which is hand-made, will ordinarily have a visible watermark and will have been made of recycled and bleached fibre extracted from cotton and linen rags. This actually produced an excellent acid-free paper which has thus lasted extremely well, especially when it was used for printing newspapers. In fact it was the then commonly used and corrosive "iron gall" inks which have caused the most damage to surviving early letters. Acidic wood pulp for manufacturing paper did not commence until after 1843 but good quality "rag" paper generally continued to be used with formal letters for many years after this date.

My mid 19th century Coromandel Wood "Writing Slope"

We shall also need our writing slope which normally holds all our writing requisites in various compartments. The general design of writing slopes had changed very little since the late 18th century, the Novelist Jane Austen having a very similar one which still survives, being preserved at the British Library. My own circa 150 year old brass-bound coromandel wood writing slope with interior mahogany joinery dates from the era 1840's to 1870's, having been brought to New Zealand in early 1879 by my 28 year old Scottish Grandfather on the 100 day non-stop voyage of the sailing ship "Dunnottar Castle". But it most likely originally belonged to his own Grandfather who died in 1870 or his parents who died in 1862 and 1865 respectively. As with many writing slopes, this one includes a secret compartment with small drawers to hold valuable items.

A Selection of Steel Nibs for Dip Pens.
Steel nibs were mass-produced from 1822
[Source : Wikipedia]

We shall next need a steel nib "dip" pen along with a bottle or container of ink. New mass-produced steel nib pens became very popular after 1822, prior to this quill pens were in commonly use. The latter were long feathers which had the end cut to form a fine point but required frequent sharpening, this process being called "dressing".

My writing slope contains two small glass ink-wells with both black and dark brown ink. But black would be the standard colour to use for our purposes. Blue ink appears not to have been in common use at this time. We shall however use our earthenware ink-well, being of a type in common usage as the ink would be sold in these stoppered containers which also came in a larger size. Dip pens, using removable nibs and which were required to be frequently dipped into the ink, came in fine, medium and wide variations. Some types of nibs were more suitable for particular styles of writing than others and gave more control over the amount of ink applied, just as with ball-point pens today. Fountain pens were not in general use until the 1850's although early variations on this theme existed.

"Routledge's" Letter Writing Manual 

To compose our letter, let us consult our letter writing manual. A flowing style of handwriting was fairly standard, partly on account of nib pens being more suitable for this style of writing lest the ink dribble and cause unsightly ink spots.

To avoid smudging we occasionally need to carefully "blot" the writing with a "blotter", being absorbent card used to remove any excess ink. This could either be a flat card or a "hand blotter" with a blotting card attached to a curved block of wood with a handle which we would place over the writing with a rolling motion. The latter could be quite elegantly detailed in brass or silver and perhaps even forming part of a full gentleman's or lady's writing set.

The "Sheridan Improved" Dictionary, 1813
[Source : Wikipedia]

A dictionary will guide us in regards to correct spelling and even grammar, the revised version of Thomas Sheridan's popular English Dictionary of 1780 being very helpful.

An Example of "Cross-Writing"
[Source : Paperblanks.com]

Should we run out of room on our page, and remembering that we should only write on one side, we could as a somewhat casual but convenient expedient turn the page 90% and "cross-write" sideways. This practice would have been considered as more appropriate for personal mail to a family member or close friend and would normally be kept to a minimum due to the likely loss of legibility. But this did not stop some well-known Novelists in indulging in "cross-writing" whole pages of their letters, even those sent in envelopes. One could however write on the rear of the two side "flaps" of the letter (explained below) but that portion of the letter could be viewed during transit so would not be confidential.

The format of our letter
Finally, upon completing and signing our letter we can move onto the final stage of creating our "envelope".

A letter from 1840 showing the position of the four folds.
Note that the reverse of one side flap has been written on.
[Source : Regency Stamps]

Now with a ruler and holding the page length-ways with the writing facing toward us, we fold the two sides edges almost vertically inwards so that the two folds just touch each other. Next, holding down the two side folds and again using your ruler, fold the letter horizontally upwards about 76mm from the bottom of the page. Now, again with your ruler, fold the very top of the letter horizontally downwards about 30mm from the top of the page. This now enables us to tuck the top fold into the bottom of the letter to form a self-made envelope measuring around 148mm by 100mm. Finally, ensuring that where the two parts are slipped into each other on the reverse of our "envelope" is at the bottom, write the recipients name and address on the front but leaving room for the postal stamp impression at the top.

The wax seal on a letter from 1836
[Source : Grosvenor Auctions]

The last part of the process would be to seal our letter in order firstly that it did not burst open in transit and secondly that it was not fully opened by prying eyes, either in transit or upon delivery. Even now, by pushing apart the top and bottom sides you will see that our writing is fairly well obscured by the original folded side flaps. While hand made envelopes as we know them today were in fact available these were generally only used by the aristocracy and the very well to do. Prior to 1839 the use of an additional envelope meant that the letter was then counted as two sheets of paper rather than one thus an additional postal charge would be levied.

Gold Wax Seal with Carnelian Intaglio (in middle foreground)
with sealing wax and another family owned gold seal at rear
[From my own collection]

We now make use of our wax seal by using a candle or preferably a wax taper (used to light oil lamps) to melt one end of our stick of sealing wax, allowing a sufficient amount to dribble onto the centre of the join on the reverse of our "envelope". We must ensure that we do not heat the red wax so much that it blackens or worse still, catches fire. By my own experience this only comes with practice! Alternatively, granules of the red wax could be melted in a spoon over a candle and placed on the paper. Very quickly before the wax dries we place our wax seal firmly over the soft wax thereby leaving an impression from the seal and ensuring the wax has adhered firmly to the paper. The letter cannot be fully opened without breaking this quite effective seal and signs of any tampering would now be very evident. By keeping the seal at the same side as the bottom of the address on the reverse (front) side this should ensure that the Post Office hand stamp impression will not be placed anywhere near the wax seal, either cracking it or risking an indistinct stamp impression.

The family owned gold seal I have used holds an inset carnelian intaglio bearing the engraved intials,"J.H." in a Flemish style script, being for my Great Great Great Grandfather Mr John Hall, a "portioner" [land-owner] residing in Roslin village, Midlothian in Scotland and who died in 1835.  The second gold seal at rear belonged to my Great Grandfather, a Merchant in Edinburgh, who died in 1862. Most individuals of reasonable means owned personalised seals.

This mid-directed letter from 1835 is proof that
mis-sent mail was then a common problem
[Source : "British Postal Museum & Archives"]

Finally we must entrust our sealed letter to the postal system although we could not guarantee a speedy delivery. Letters prior to 1840 were carried by means of a rather archaic postal system which the great Post Office Reforms of 1839 and 1840 sought to address. Up to this date local Post Office Agencies took a fee and stamped the letter with a rubber stamp, each town or post office having their own unique stamp which might be the name of the town, a number, or the date or a combination of all. This or another stamp may also show that the required postage had been paid although, quite oddly, it was much more common for the recipient to pay the postage charge upon delivery of the letter.

Post Office Postal Charges
from the 10th Jan 1840
[Source : Wikipedia]

An aged family relative wrote in 1883 that a good many old buildings were still standing in the Candlemaker Row in Edinburgh, "...notably the Harrow Inn, where in the times of our Fathers, was the place where all the letters for Roslin [village] were left till they were called for by some one who happened to be going out…"  

Such a haphazard payment and delivery system was inefficient and no longer appropriate as the amount of postal mail increased exponentially.

The famous "Penny Black",
introduced in 1840
[Source : Wikipedia]

Under the reforms proposed by Rowland Hill, and upon the introduction in Great Britain of the famous adhesive "Penny Black" in 1840, postage was now based on weight. Slowly a more ordered postal system evolved, an efficient postal system also aided commerce and the general transaction of business.

Image Copyright : Unless otherwise stated, all images are from my personal collections and may be freely copied provided this site is acknowledged.

Bibliography / Rārangi Pukapuka :
  • Personal family archives and artefacts
  • Various Internet Resources

Tuesday 19 August 2014

"Southland's Tribute to Belgium" 1914 -1918

A Belgian Family Leaving Alost
under German Bombardment.
[From my own collection]

The deprivations suffered by the Belgian people during "The Great War" [World War One] as their nation was overun by the Imperial German Army engendered considerable sympathy throughout New Zealand. The plight of the Belgian people brought forth all manner of co-ordinated provincial fundraising in order to make the lot of the displaced Belgians somewhat easier. All funds and donations were co-ordinated at a National level but how those funds were raised was decided at local level.

Belgian Cavalry Making Straw Shelters in which
to Hide from German Aeroplane Scouts.
[From my own collection]

By September 1914 the southern Province of Southland had begun actively campaigning for funds to contribute to the National Appeal for Belgium. This was in addition to fundraising for "The Patriotic Fund" [general fundraising] and the "Lady Liverpool Fund" [specifically for Soldier's comforts] but all fundraising activities appear to have been complimentary so that no one fund was disadvantaged for long. That Belgium, with an area of 11,400 square miles, was of a similar size to the Province of Southland but had a population of 7,000,000 to support as against 70,000 for Southland was also highlighted. More than a million Belgian men, women and children fled their homes "before the German tide", mainly seeking refuge in Britain and France.

A Belgian Bridge Blown Up by the Germans
and Temporarily Repaired by the Belgians.
[From my own collection]

The following month the Editor of "The Otautau Standard" implored its readers to support this worthy cause :

"... the Belgian nation is being ruthlessly trampled on, thousands of innocent lives are being sacrificed... The invader has reached Antwerp, which is close to the front door of Britain, it behoves every Britisher to be up and doing... Belgium is in a state of abject poverty and her people starving, refugees are making for Britain and neutral Holland. Much money is wanted for relief, and money sent promptly will do twice the good of money delayed. The Belgian Relief Fund is worthy of our utmost sacrifice." [13th Oct 1914]

A fortnight later a further Editorial exhortation again brought the plight of the Belgian People to the attention of the general public :

The Caption for the Editorial below

"...The German Army in Belgium with all its necessary transport, attendance in men, nurses, and horses, will be almost equal to doubling the ordinary population. Under normal conditions such an influx of the population would make it a difficult problem to provide food. When however a state of war exists, every industry in the country stopped, all railways closed, no exports taking place to bring in cash for wages and material, no imports of food supplies arriving, thousands of houses destroyed, all horses commandeered for military purposes, cattle sheep and pigs taken to feed the invading soldiers and the populace turned out of house and home without money, without food, and with only such clothes as they stand up in, the devastation resulting can scarcely be pictured in our land of peace and plenty...

Belgians Fleeing from the German Advance
[From my own collection]

...New Zealand has nobly responded to the Country's call to provide men and money to assist the Motherland in fighting the Great War; let New Zealand doubly exhibit her generosity with cash help to the noble Belgians, who have sacrificed everything ... There is probably no parallel case in history where so much sacrifice has been made by any nation as that by Belgium at the present time..." ["The Otautau Standard", Editorial, 27th Oct 1914]

"Southland's Tribute to Belgium" -
a Fundraising booklet from 1915
[From my own collection]

Fundraising for The Belgian Fund within the Western part of the Province of Southland included not only private contributions but also targeted collections, specific Church collections and donations by Church groups, the proceeds of Patriotic concerts, socials and dances, the proceeds of bazaars, street collections by "The Magpies [musical entertainers]... on a gaily-bedecked motor lorry", the sale of knitting, the donation of catering proceeds by ladies providing luncheons and teas at public events, donations from County Councils on behalf of their ratepayers, a collection at a billiard tournament, donations by "The Southland League", part proceeds of Jockey Club meetings, part proceeds of race winnings, Māori Boys from the Kaik "parading the streets" in a lorry and "performing the haka", the donation by Nightcaps coal miners of one shilling a month from their wages, the proceeds of sports meetings, the proceeds of "best ball golf matches", the proceeds of musical events, the proceeds of Temperance rally's, the sale of locally produced publications, the sale of privately donated agricultural produce and stock, men working on a threshing mill giving up a day's pay, forgoing entertainment fees which would then be paid to the fund, the sale of the above-mentioned booklet in June 1915, the sale of buttonholes and badges, the sale of flowers, the donation of clean used clothes to be sent to Belgium, the sale of home made sweets, and an auction of fish caught by the Southland Anglers' Association.

As noted in my ANZAC Day Blog, my own Father living at Heddon Bush in Central Southland, and then aged 12 years, gave a "recitation" on "Belgian Day" 1915 in support of the Belgian Relief Fund with an additional "voluntary" offering of his pocket money amounting to one shilling.

The 13th century Cloth Hall [Lakenhalle]
at Ypres in Flames, after heavy German
bombardment of the historic
town, 22 Nov 1914
[Source : "Bibby's Annual" 1915]

In April 1915 I note that the New Zealand Minister of Defence circularised local Councils throughout New Zealand whereby the Government guaranteed £5,000 monthly "for Belgian and kindred relief funds", the amount to be collected from all provinces and with donations carrying a £1 for £1 subsidy.  

By mid war many other nationally co-ordinated funds were also receiving financial support from Southland including, The Patriotic Fund, The Lady Liverpool Fund, The Serbian Fund, Dr Barnado's Homes, The Dominion Parcel Fund, The Red Cross, The New Zealand YMCA, The Trench Comforts Fund, The Gift Parcels Fund, The Wounded Soldiers' Fund, The British Relief Fund, The French Relief Fund, The British and Belgian Poor Fund, and The Expeditionary Force Fund.

The Famous Belgian Guides [Mounted Light Cavalry]
[From my own collection]

This created a bewildering and insatiable demand for available funds and it is to the credit of the populace of Southland that by and large funds were able to be allocated to all groups although Belgian and British Relief appears to have still received their fair share of fundraising as in most cases donations could be raised for and sent for credit of specific funds.

By 1917 donations, by way of money and clothing, would appear to be being wholely co-ordinated by the national "Lady Liverpool Fund", being for the benefit of "Belgian and British Relief" based in London. By 1918 this had been extended to an all encompassing "Belgian, British & French Relief" Fund.

Belgian Soldiers waiting at Aldwych Station London
for railway passes to visit their families who have
taken refuge in England. By 1915 all single Belgian
men up to 25 years had been called up
with those aged up to 35 following.
[Source : "The Graphic"]

I simply cannot determine what amount of funds were specifically raised in Southland for the Belgian Relief Fund. Although amounts are individually noted in the newspapers of the day this does not cover the whole of Southland nor are monthly figures ever quoted. But in no way do I wish to lessen the commitment of the New Zealand wide public to raise funds for Belgian Relief, fundraising in many towns and Cities being prodigious. We do know that by early 1915 the Dominion of New Zealand as a whole had sent over £37,000 [almost NZD$5.5 million in today's values] to London to be used for Belgian relief - a contribution which the Belgian Minister Count de Laising acknowledged "is so deeply appreciated by my suffering countrymen, and will ever be remembered by them."

The New Zealand YMCA serving refreshments at a mobile
 "Buckshee" stall for troops at Wizernes Siding in Belgium,
taken after the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917
[From : "A Pictorial Record of the Work of the N.Z. Y.M.C.A."]

It is remarkable that their most remote ally could show such support for "Gallant Little Belgium". Belgium had made the ultimate sacrifice by not allowing the free passage of German troops through their country and comparisons were often made to the "heathen barbarism" of their German occupiers. Feelings of patriotism ran high and there was no doubt in anyone's mind that the cause was just. Being so far removed from the war itself and generally without need we were indeed very fortunate but that did not lessen our solemn responsibility to show our tangible support of the Belgian people and those who had been directly affected by this dreadful conflagration.

A small card showing the Flags of the Allied Forces.
The National flag of Belgium is at lower left.
This card was sent after the death of a servicemen.
[From my own collection]

We were praised for our own continuing self-sacrifice in solidarity with the Belgian people but must also do without as the Belgian people were themselves forced to suffer and do without. It was also no accident that the delicious "German Biscuit" [Linzer Biscuit] became henceforth  known in New Zealand as the "Belgian Biscuit" while "German Sausage" became known simply as "Belgium" in Southern regions of New Zealand [now, as with the rest of New Zealand, generally known as "Luncheon"].

Active fundraising within Southland Province appears to have come to an end by the cessation of hostilities in 1918 with the National Fund being wound up in 1920. Southlanders could proudly hold their heads high, as could New Zealanders as a whole, that they had answered Belgium's call in their hour of need. 

Bibliography / Rārangi Pukapuka :
  • Postcards collected by my Uncle while serving in the forces during World War One
  • "Papers Past" [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
  • "New Zealand History Online" / Nga Korero a Ipurangi o Aotearoa
  • "Southland's Tribute to Belgium", 1915 [From my own collection]  
  • "Buckshee - A Pictorial Record of the World of the N.Z. Y.M.C.A." [From my own collection]
  • "Bibby's Annual", 1915 [From my own collection] 
  • "The Graphic", 1915 [From my own collection]

Tuesday 5 August 2014

The Conventions and Etiquette of Social Calling

My "Canton Export" Carved Ivory
Visiting Card Case (front side)
[From my own collection]

This Blog explores the strict conventions which once existed around social calling, especially the use of "calling" or "visiting" cards.

Pictured above is a finely carved 19th century case designed to hold such cards. This family owned Chinese "Canton Export" ivory card case measures 112 by 75mm and came to New Zealand after the death of my Scottish Great Aunt in 1920 but I believe it may in fact have belonged to my Great Grandmother who died in 1865. The style certainly appears consistent with what was available at that time. The cartouche shaped carving on both sides features finely detailed flowers including the border and carved edges. While the ivory has slightly yellowed over the ensuing century or more this all forms part of the patina of age of the last 150 odd years.

A Close-Up of the above
Intricate Hand Carving

All manner of decorative card cases became available throughout the 19th century, being designed to hold personal calling cards bearing one's name. The usage of such cards appears to have commenced in early 18th century France but then being limited to the aristocracy and upper social classes. But by the beginning of the 19th century the exchange of calling cards had also become firmly established throughout the middle classes, not only in Europe but also in America.

For the aristocracy and upper middle classes, the giving and receiving of calling cards remained an indispensable tool in undertaking a complicated and almost bewildering aspect of social etiquette, that of home calling. This is generally referred to as the "card and call system" and now appears quite comical - if not absurd - in this more egalitarian day and age. Very strict rules governed the usage of such cards and should one not follow these well established rules one's own social standing and prospects would necessarily suffer as a consequence.

My "Canton Export" Carved Ivory
Visiting Card Case (rear side)

As a bare minimum, a personal visit to another individual in their own home (without a prior invitation or established friendship) would not be made without first leaving a card at the home of that person. The caller would however not normally expect to be admitted during this initial call. As almost all the upper classes employed servants convention decreed that the recipient need not personally acknowledge the caller at this point although they might do so for a brief greeting as a matter of courtesy if they so desired. The card could however also be delivered by a servant and an edge of the card would be folded down to denote this fact.

A Close-Up of the above
Intricate Hand Carving

But the mere delivery of a card would indicate that a personal visit to the caller was desired. If this "social advance" was acceptable to the recipient they would then, either immediately (if the caller had been personally greeted by the lady of the house), or within a set period of time, leave their own calling card at the home of the initial caller. This then indicated to the original caller that a personal call was indeed welcome. But then, if no card was received in return or sent in an envelope the "advance" had been rebuffed.

My "Canton Export" Carved Ivory
Visiting Card Case With the Cover Removed
showing the thin ivory sleeve 

Such a personal call would however, only be expected on "at home" days and at a particular time during the mid afternoon (confusingly known as a "Morning Call") and for a maximum length of time until one had become better acquainted. Should another caller visit at the same time it was seemly for all to be introduced then to tactfully make one's excuses and "withdraw" as soon as possible. After the initial personal visit an invitation, subject to their suitability, social standing and reputation, might be extended for a longer visit, normally later in the day and where one might then, or upon a further invitation being extended, also be introduced to close friends of the host. Naturally their general demeanor, standard of conversation, and ability to converse knowledgeably, would all be closely scrutinized by all present.    

The conventions around the use of calling cards in the middle social classes were rather less rigid but inappropriate or unwanted friendships would still be actively discouraged. Should a friend or new neighbour call and present their card it was considered good manners to at least return the visit so such cards still retained a very useful purpose in initiating and confirming friendships. Callers might also be given a private invitation to call or simply be invited to at "at home" day.

The Calling Card of Mrs Robert [Helen] Lawson
of 17 Summerside Street, Leith, Scotland

The calling card shown here belonged to Mrs Robert [Helen] Lawson, the 'matriarch' of a grain milling and merchant family with premises at 64 Grassmarket in Edinburgh then later in Manderston Street Leith. She was therefore part of an established and well-off "middle class" merchant family but where social conventions would still be rather less rigid and defined. This card was actually given, together with the thoughtful gift of a cookery book, to my family in New Zealand by a friend of Mrs Lawson while visiting the Antipodes. Mrs Lawson has written on the back of the card, "See you make a good use of this book & cook up [for] the friend who brings it with my compliments". Interestingly, the black border indicates that Mrs Lawson's husband was by then deceased so we can date this card reasonably accurately to the late 1880's to early 1890's.  

An "At Home" in Royal Terrace
Dunedin, November 1909
[Source "The Otago Witness", Papers Past] 

"At Home" social gatherings are also worthy of mention, having become popular among the middle classes from the 1870's onwards, even persisting in rural New Zealand into the 1930's. Such "At Home" gatherings were held in the manner of the French system whereby visitors would be received on a particular day of the week without a formal invitation being given. Details of the "At Home" would be informally circulated beforehand with an open invitation for friends and relatives to call, even sometimes being advertised in the local newspapers. In the days before the introduction of the telephone this overcame many of the difficulties inherent in planning and organising private social gatherings. Close friends were not expected to attend every "At Home" but would be expected to make an effort to attend occasionally in order "to maintain a friendly footing". Friendships between others might also be initiated at these gatherings and some kind of entertainment provided which was appropriate for the occasion. The British "Cassells Household Guide", being published in the 1880's, helpfully covered the expected format of such gatherings in some considerable depth, including exactly what was expected of the host and of the prospective visitors.

An outdoors "At Home", November 1925
[Source "New Zealand Herald", Papers Past]

One would expect to be served afternoon tea but guests would, at least in New Zealand, have considered it unseemly to arrive totally empty-handed, so a small offering towards the afternoon tea, a small gift for the host, or a contribution to any good cause they were promoting would have been offered and this gesture would normally be returned "in kind" at a later date. An "At Home" could also be used as a society fundraiser or as an opportunity to call and present a gift to someone upon a special occasion such as a birthday, wedding anniversary or impending marriage.

Copyright : Unless otherwise stated all items are from my own collection. Images may be freely copied for personal use provided this site is acknowledged.

Bibliography / Rārangi Pukapuka :
  • "Papers Past" [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
  • "Cassells Household Guide", 1880's [per "Victorian London"]