Paper Hearts: Victorian Courtship Correspondence

Victorians engaged in long distance relationships—especially when both parties were present in the same room. The hustle and bustle of courtship etiquette was truly more hampering than a crinoline!

With such limitations, it comes as no surprise that couples resorted to delivering flirtations by postage stamps, fans, and flowers.

Thankfully, love letters preserved a myriad romances like Mark Twain’s. . .

Love Letters


Twain’s story ironically began with a photograph. When his friend Charles Langdon shared a portrait of his sister, Twain was smitten.

Their first date saw Olivia by his side in the audience of Charles Dickens’ reading.

After the outing, Twain’s own pen carried the courtship. In fact, the year 1868 brought Olivia many endearing missives. Including, “Livy Darling, I am grateful — grate-fuller than ever before — that you were born, & that your love is mine & our two lives woven & melded together! – SLC”

Not all courtship correspondence fared quite so well.

Letters of Refusal

Though arranged marriages were no longer common practice, a lady had plenty to arrange on behalf of securing her future. To discourage an unsought suitor, she can write a letter refusing him on grounds of dislike, unsteadiness, or youth. Sections of The Worcester Letter Writer (1879 edition) were dedication to guiding expositions of such a manner.

Letter perfect! Read new post on Victorian Courtship Correspondence. – Click to Tweet

Calling Cards

Victorian-era etiquette required that anyone paying a social call provide a calling card.

Upon arriving at the house of an acquaintance, the caller would hand their card, containing their name, to the servant answering the door. The card would then be placed on a silver tray and brought to the master or mistress of the house, so the visitor could be received. If the man or lady were not home, the card would be left for their reference.



Folding down one of the corners held special meaning:

  • Top left corner – visitor had paid a call in person.
  • Bottom left corner – goodbye or will be traveling.
  • Top right corner – congratulations.
  • Bottom right corner – condolences.

Popular designs included hearts, birds, scrolls, hands, and bouquets of flowers.

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A bolder approach became popular option in the medium of personal advertising. Eventually, developing into a whole business of mail-order brides in the West.

This notice appeared in a newspaper on June 5, 1863.

“A young lady of 18, wealthy, pretty and agreeable, wants a husband. Not finding any one of her acquaintance who suits her, she has concluded to take this method of discovering one. The happy gentleman must be wealthy, stylish, handsome and fascinating. None other need apply. Address within three days, giving name and full particulars, and enclosing carte de visite, Carrie Howard, Station D, New York.”




What happened to Samuel Morse could not befall another. Delivery was much too slow for reliance. If only he’d received the letter sooner. . . He could have arrived home in time to comfort his dying wife.

As it were, the correspondence urging him to her bedside was not obtained until after her funeral. According to, it was then Morse rejected his art career and “instead dedicated himself to improving the state of long-distance communication.”

Morse’s tragedy served as an impetus to his invention of the telegraph. Because of those events, Carrie Balestier was able to message to her traveling beau with Come back to me. 

To which Rudyard Kipling telegrammed back an ask for her hand in marriage. However, he was not the only Victorian to propose in morse code. Thomas Edison did likewise with Mina Miller, his second wife.

Do you have a love letter you cherish?

10 thoughts on “Paper Hearts: Victorian Courtship Correspondence

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    1. Our pleasure. The Victorians seemed to have been quite savvy in evading the restrictive etiquette of the times–especially in regards to courtship. We suppose desires of the heart cannot be silenced!

  1. Among my grandfather’s keepsakes, I found an envelope addressed to him when he was at university in the early 1920’s. Inside was a small romantic card, but not signed. Knew it was from Grandma, because the addressed envelope was in her hand.

  2. For all the wonderful opportunities that today’s technology offers (and I DO appreciate it!), there will never be any substitute for a hand-written letter — especially of the love variety. It has such a sense of permanence — the kind that can’t be reproduced to the same degree in digital. There’s something special about holding a tangible object that your loved one has held, running your fingers over the ink and feeling the words he wrote to you… there really is no other feeling quite like it. To touch what they have touched makes them feel closer, especially if they can’t be right there with you. Whether it’s the first love letter or the 20th, it can still give you butterflies.

    Thank you so much for your lovely posts like this one. So many people poo-poo at the very idea of “love”, and others cheapen the word by using it when they don’t really mean it. It truly gladdens my heart to see your posts and tweets, because it reassures me that I’m not the only one who, well, loves the idea of real love! Bless you for your efforts in helping keep romance alive!

    1. Wendy, your imagery makes us long for a hatboxes full of treasured missives. Lead smudging our fingertips. The smell of paper and nostalgia tickling the senses. . .

      We’re so endeared to be among friends who share in our passion. Tis even better to converse here and other avenues of social media.

      For just as by letters and journals the Victorians are remembered, so shall we be too.

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