Abstract: Speaking by the Pen: How Epistolary Etiquette Shaped Advertising Practices in the Gilded Age

Jennifer M. Black


To nineteenth-century middle-class Americans, letter writing was an important mode of communication, relationship-building, character demonstration, and personal expression. In following the appropriate rules and language required to compose a truly sincere letter, writers strove for honest expression and overtly transparent language. Drawing upon letter-writing manuals, advertising treatises, and advertisements published between 1865 and 1930, this paper examines the ways in which advertisers appropriated epistolary etiquette in composing their appeals to the public. The art of letter writing, in advertising terms, evolved in these years from a formalized approach rooted in proper business etiquette to one that consciously built upon the intimate appeal of a personal letter in order to win additional sales. In epistolary advertising, admen utilized a language of personal, intimate expression typically reserved for letters of devotion circulating between close friends. In so doing, I argue, advertisers created an intersection of personal and commercial communication that shifted advertising strategies away from the formalized solicitations popular at mid-century. What resulted was a new mode of appeal that was uniquely personal, intimate, and friendly despite its underlying commercial character. As modern culture became more and more impersonal, advertising fought back by personalizing its appeals to the public.