Shaping Letters, Shaping Archival Texts

Front and back cover of <em>The Ladies' Letter Writer </em>(187-?)

The Ladies’ Model Letter-Writer: A Complete Guide to Correspondences on All Subjects, With Household Forms

This object is a 19th-century etiquette handbook, The Ladies’ Model Letter-Writer: A Complete Guide to Correspondences on All Subjects, With Household Forms. The book itself is a guide, but the item featured here is exclusively the front and back cover of said book. The cover appears rather ornate, with an image of four stacked books. Atop the books rests an oil lamp, perhaps to convey that writing in appropriate forms will make the intended audience more enchanting or enlightened, by way of improved letter-writing. The printing/embossing of the front cover has an austere, imposing weight and decorative restraint to it, suggesting that its contents are serious, imperative, and useful – that they are of exactly the ‘right’ fashion. The cover features the name of the branch it is published under, “Warne’s Useful Books”, in a saturated blue banner on top, while a similar blue banner on the bottom of the cover reads “Sixpence”. Whether the book would have cost sixpence, or whether that is a signifying mark of the publisher, is unclear. 

What is clear about this item is that it had a rather specific audience, and that it was created to act as an authoritative guide over the voices and words of that particular audience. The item’s target audience is so-called “ladies,” which given the time period (sometime after 1865, at the very least, when Warne’s Useful Books, the publisher, was founded) almost certainly means women from upper/middle class standing. It appears that this artifact circulated primarily, perhaps exclusively, within British society; a quick search on Digital Public Library of America suggests that many other similar guidebooks existed within the nearest decades (1860s-1870s-ish) of this one in America as well. So while methods and practices may have been different, a cultivated – and adhered-to – societal structure was evidently desired by some audience and implemented in both these parts of the world. A search of the publishing house of this book reveals little more than the fact that it is primarily and popularly known for producing children’s books, at least around or shortly after the time this guidebook was written (again, no clear/definitive date is given). This makes this particular publication seem like a curious deviation, though it is actually one installment of a small series of “Useful Books” under the Franklin Warne & Co. publisher, which also included installments on gardening, beauty, “the money market”, and some others. This particular entry in the Useful Books series, though, is interesting as it attempts to set a standard for a particular method of communication, thus shaping other texts produced during the time it was circulated.

This artifact speaks to the archival theorist Arlette Farge’s sentiments about who shapes, lives within, and/or maintains the archives. This artifact/text was not only created with a certain appeal and tone in mind, but also works (or worked, in its time) to set a standard among its target audience (i.e. society women), and so the letters that emerge from this period and immediate setting might only reflect the class (presumably, one needed a certain amount of money to obtain this book) and social values of the women (or people) writing such letters at the time – and not, necessarily, the innermost thoughts or values of the writers themselves. As Farge notes, with  interviews from Parisian police archives, the interviewees were limited to a certain form, the transcripts create a type of truth necessitated and mediated by the form in which they occurred, but not an all-out truth. Farge writes that the transcripts she examines do not hinge on the question “of whether a narration is factually accurate,” and rather that the focus of the responses she studies is on “how it came to be articulated in the way that it was. How was it shaped by the authority that compelled it to be given…?” (Farge 28). The letters from this period, then, might be the same way: having fit the forms guidebooks such as these dictate as standard (i.e., shaping the words to fit the authority that directs them), they may leave certain truths to the imagination.

By Megan Cannon

Works Cited

Arlette Farge, “The Allure of the Archives”. (entry about Frederick Warne & Co publisher)'s%20useful%20books&f=false(listing of titles published under Warne’s Useful Books) (Digital Public Library of America)