From the fancy postal products to strict etiquette guides, how did letter writing change during the Victorian period?

The Victorian period (1837-1901) was a time of technological and cultural change. The Industrial Revolution saw a move towards machine manufacturing instead of making things by hand. This resulted in lower labour costs and faster production. With more free time and a wider range of cheaper goods available, buying and collecting became a form of self-expression and identity, especially for the growing middle class.

The Penny Post and the Rise in Postal Products

Collecting and sending  items by post became popular shortly after Rowland Hill introduced the Penny Post in 1840. Before this, the recipient of a letter paid to receive it, rather than the sender paying for postage. Hill’s postal reform introduced a uniform postage rate for all, paid for by the sender. He was also instrumental in the introduction of the world’s first postage stamp, the Penny Black. A letter could now be sent for the cost of a penny, leading to an explosion in letter writing.

Cheaper production and postage led to a growing market of postal products. Letter writing materials such as stamp boxes, inkwells, pens and illustrated writing paper, as well as stamps, wafers, and seals, were created and sold for both convenience and decoration. These two examples of illustrated writing paper below reflect the growing interest in postal goods. They feature playful designs like a group of children crowding under a comically large hat to escape the rain (left) and a stormy seaside scene (right).

Illustration of children crowding under a woman's immense hat.
Illustration of people caught in a storm at the seaside.
Illustrated Writing Paper, ‘Wind and Rain at the Sea Side’, 1855. OB1995.422/8.

Letter Writing: A Growing Pressure

Victorian society was governed by strict rules which extended to letter writing. To make sure the new, growing community of letter writers were polite and proper, publishers printed etiquette manuals with the rules of correct correspondence.

The guides were advertised as helping letter writers to connect with friends and family, as we can see in Rev. T. Cooke’s popular guide, The Universal Letter Writer. Cooke tells the reader that

to speak to those we love or esteem, is the greatest satisfaction we are capable of knowing; and the next is, being about to converse with them by letter (Cooke, 1850, p. VI).


By playing up to a natural, human desire for connection, etiquette guides rose in popularity.

Despite their success, these guides created a great pressure around letter writing. Common rules included using black ink and ‘paper of a good quality’, as well as not writing ‘across your letters’ (Beeton, 1876, p. 81; Tyas, 1841, p. 10). Writing ‘across’ refers to cross-writing, a technique used to save money before the Penny Post, where people would save space by writing both horizontally and vertically across the page (pictured below).

Example of a cross-written letter, with writing both horizontally and vertically.

An example of a cross-written letter, 3rd December 1824. 2015-0001.

There were also strict rules around mourning and how to appropriately write about death. People in mourning were expected to use black seals and ink, writing on black bordered stationery for up to a year after the death of a loved one. These rules often made writing to a family member, friend or acquaintance a frustrating and complicated process, as many feared they would get it wrong.

Letter on bordered mourning stationary with black seal.

Bordered mourning stationary with black seal, 1804. OB1996.404/8.

The Wonderland Stamp Case

Authors such as Lewis Carroll, the writer of Alice and Wonderland (1865), chose to capitalize on the growing popularity around letter writing and etiquette manuals.

In 1890, 50 years after the introduction of the Penny Post, Carroll invented the ‘The Wonderland Postage Stamp Case’ to promote his Alice in Wonderland book series. Pictured below, the cover shows recognisable illustrations by John Tenniel, including Alice holding the Duchess’s baby (who takes the unusual form of a pig in a bonnet) as well as an illustration of the grinning Chesire Cat on the back. Carroll also included a short pamphlet titled Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter-Writing. The guide is more informal than other manuals available at the time, with Carroll offering advice such as: ‘when you have a letter that you feel may possibly irritate your friend […] put it aside till the next day. Then read it over again’. He also advised that ‘you carry letters in your hand when taking them to the Post, so as not to return with them still in your pocket! (Carroll, 1890, pp. 16 and 22).

Pamphlet titled 'Eight or Nine Wise Words about Letter Writing'.
‘The “Wonderland” Postage Stamp Case’ (left), along with the included pamphlet (middle) and envelope (right) OB1995.416/1-3. 1890.
Illustration of the Chesire Cat from Alice in Wonderland.
‘The “Wonderland” Postage Stamp Case’ (left), along with the included pamphlet (middle) and envelope (right) OB1995.416/1-3. 1890.

Carroll’s decorative stamp book, alongside the illustrated writing paper seen above, show the variety of postal products being bought and sold during the Victorian era. Due to postal reform, writing letters became both a popular form of communication and a hobby, resulting in a wider variety of mail being sent.


Allen, Robert, C. The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Samuel Orchard Beeton, Samuel Orchard Beeton’s Manners of Polite Society; or Etiquette for Ladies Gentlemen and Families (London: Ward, Lock & co, 1876).

Carroll, Lewis. Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter Writing (Oxford: Emberlin and Son, 1890).

Golden, Catherine, J. Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing (Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2009).

____. Letter-Writing Simplified for Those Who are Not Used to It: A Guide to Friendly, Affectionate, Commercial and Complimentary Correspondence (London: Groombridge and Sons, 1856)

Tyas, Robert. Hints of Letter-writing (London: Clarke Printers, 1841)

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