Skip navigation links (access key: Z)Library and Archives Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives CanadaSymbol of the Government of Canada
Français - Version française de cette pageHome - The main page of the Institution's websiteContact Us - Institutional contact informationHelp - Information about using the institutional websiteSearch - Search the institutional websitecanada.gc.ca - Government of Canada website

Archived Content

This archived Web page remains online for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. This page will not be altered or updated. Web pages that are archived on the Internet are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats of this page on the Contact Us page.

IntroductionBanner: Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill
BiographiesBanner: Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr TraillManuscripts and JournalsLettersBanner: Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill
Life in EnglandAbout the Collections
Emigration and Bush Life
Town Life
Writing and Publications
Natural Environment
Religion and Spiritualism
Matriarchs
Glossary

Lesson Plans
Resources
About This Site
Comments

About 19th-Century Letter Writing

Penmanship
Writing Materials
Sending a Letter
Social Significance
Salutations and Closings
Spelling and Syntax

Penmanship

The first thing one notices is that the handwriting is actually not too difficult to read. If we remember that there were no typewriters or other means to produce legible text at home until late in the 19th century, it is not surprising that most educated persons were encouraged to write as clearly as they could. Even so, the handwriting of children, the aged and those who wrote a great deal was often nearly impossible to read. The Moodies and Traills, however, prepared their own final manuscripts for publishers, which required very careful copying. John Moodie also served as an army paymaster and a county sheriff, both jobs requiring legible record keeping.

Top of Page

Writing Materials

The Moodies and Catharine Parr Traill would have written these letters with a straight pen and split nib which had to be frequently dipped into India ink. The ink (made from lamp black and gum and sold in dry cubes which were scraped and mixed with water) spread unevenly, and soft paper or scratchy pen nibs often resulted in faint or blotchy letters — for which we sometimes read the letter writer's apologies or complaints.

The paper used by the Moodies and Traills was generally small and lightweight by today's standards. In their day, paper was expensive both to purchase and to mail (all letters were paid for by weight). For this reason, they wrote on both sides of the paper and sometimes around all the margins, or even vertically or diagonally across the horizontal lines they had already written. This is called cross-writing and is often seen in 19th-century informal correspondence.

Top of Page

Sending a Letter

It wasn't until the middle of the 19th century that people began using envelopes to mail their letters. Instead they folded them into nine sections and glued the final fold with sealing wax. When you unfold such letters, you end up with a section in the centre that was used for the address and postmark. Sometimes opening these letters resulted in a tear around the wax seal. Such seal tears could obliterate words or phrases.

Top of Page

Social Significance

In the 19th century, people wrote long letters to each other on a frequent basis. One has only to imagine what it might be like to live in a world without email, telephones, radios, televisions, the Internet or rapid and comfortable methods of transportation to appreciate the importance of such lengthy and informative correspondence for both reader and writer. Often the letter writer would report the same events in letters to different readers, resulting in some interesting variations. Writers were also aware that they were gossiping on paper, and one often finds notes about destroying a letter, or keeping it secret.

Top of Page

Salutations and Closings

Another aspect of 19th-century correspondence, which we might find curious today, was a tendency to write elaborate salutations and closings. Writers also had a practice of placing the date and place of the letter's composition at the end, rather than beginning, of the letter.

In particular, we should remember the importance of a signature or "autograph" to the readers of these letters. Even when writing to close family members, Susanna and Catharine both used their full signature, including their surname. Whether the writer was a celebrity or simply a beloved relative, it was not uncommon for the recipient to cut out the signature on a letter received, either to save for themselves or to respond to another's request for an autograph. In the case of the Moodie and Traill families there are many such cut out holes in their correspondence, presumably in response to requests for the well-known Canadian writers' autographs.

Top of Page

Spelling and Syntax

The conventions of 19th-century vocabulary, grammar and spelling differed from those we use today. For example, 19th-century writers often used a comma to separate a subject from its verb. While most spelling had become standardized by the early 19th century, the treatment of proper names remained very fluid. Susanna herself, for example, signed her name both with and without an "h" on the end, while she and her sister spelled the names of Native people, rivers, lakes and towns in their new country according to how they heard them, and seldom the same way twice.



Proactive Disclosure