December 20, 2009

Cultivating Good Correspondence in the Modern Age

I heart correspondence etiquette. As such, several weeks ago I ordered a 1920s desk book on etiquette, measuring smaller than a 3" x 5" notecard. After losing it, and then finding it, I finally gave it a good read. I was struck by a section in the introduction, which stated that:
There is nothing more indicative of good breeding and refinement of taste than correspondence; and today, when the expert assistance of stationers, engravers and authorities on the etiquette of correspondence is readily placed at everyone's disposal, there is no excuse for the mistakes sometimes seen.
Aside from the implication that good manners are somehow tied to one's genetic disposition, I took interest in the insistence that given the innovations of the early 20th century, there were no longer any excuses for poor correspondence and bad manners. Drawing that insistence out to the 21st century, one would think that, with internet access to "authorities on the etiquette of correspondence" and the presence of a printer in most every home, that the correspondence of the modern day would be frequent and flawless. Yet, somewhere between the publication of this little desk book and the publication of this post, good correspondence has gone from a baseline expectation from any lady or gentleman to an indication of especial care on the part of a friend or business contact.

I suppose that with the innovation and access to "authorities" also came increased informal access and communications with social contacts. But to me, that only decreases the expectation of formality, not necessarily the quality of the correspondence. My little desk book also notes that:
To be a really good correspondent is truly an art, perhaps first of all a gift, to be cultivated and developed
While I don't think that the qualities of a good correspondent are a gift in the same sense that I think one's ability to create a Michaelangelo from a block of marble is a gift, I do agree that it is a talent that develops through practice with the intent to improve.

I, myself, make no claim to be a good correspondent, yet. But, I do hope that I am improving. And, wouldn't you know it? I'm using the internet to access the "authorities" and the good advice of stationers. Hmm... maybe my little desk book was on to something.

Quotations are from A Desk Book on The Etiquette of Letter Writing and Social Correspondence in General, published by the Eaton, Crane & Pike Company in 1927.


Eliza Ward said...

I wonder how much approaches to correspondence have changed, if at all. Doing research for my thesis, I had to go through some letters from the 1940s by the wealthiest people in Salem, MA, and I loved it, because even some basic "I can't make it to the party" type of note would be written on beautiful monogrammed stationary (even if the note was literally one sentence long). But, those were rich people. And rich people today probably still use nice, monogrammed stationary (or at least nice paper from Crane & Co, or whatnot). But would your average joe in the 1940s write a letter on fancy stationary? Or would he just scrawl the note on a scrap of paper, just as most people do today?

James said...

That's a fantastic point. As a person that falls into the not-wealthy category, my guess as to the current state of affairs is as good as yours.


ana said...

Wow! What are the odds we'd have the same little book?!? I guess it just means it was a far more commonplace book than I would have guessed.