Navigating the treacherous waters of social aspiration

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Courtship has always been fraught with peril!

Too SHY to Pop the Question ??

(A Valentine's Day Special Feature)

Until the later 1800s, most people received only the most basic education – the Three R’s, which were enough to manage your home and trade, and function in daily life. However, as the 19th century progressed, so did industry, so did commerce, and so did the physical and intellectual frontiers of the nation. For a young man with ambition, Reading Writing and ‘Rithmetic were not enough to help him raise his social and economic standing. In addition to hard work and pluck, he needed to acquaint himself with more genteel manners, learn to write a business and social letter, learn to dance, and be able to converse politely with men and women about the affairs of the day.

As a result, the mid-1800s saw the rise of what we now call the self-help industry – books and magazines dedicated to filling the gaps in the social education of the rising middle class. The Needham History Center has several such books in our collections, providing an interesting window onto the social anxieties of the time. My own favorite is The Laws of Good Breeding, or, The Science of Etiquette (1847), which attempts to make clear the basic rules of polite interactions in matters of both business and of the heart – complete with advice, rules, and a whole archive of letter templates into which you can simply insert your name and be ready to go. So, if you were uncertain about how to address anyone from a potential employer to a potential mate, The Laws of Good Breeding had you covered!

So, let’s follow the adventures of [Your-Name-Here], Harriet/Zelda, and Respected Father as they navigate the treacherous waters of social aspiration —


You’ve met Miss Right, and you want to let her know she’s the One – but you just can’t find the words! Yes – you’ve come to the right place! Here at the Needham History Center & Lonely Hearts Society, we have just the solution. Thanks to The Laws of Good Breeding, or, The Science of Etiquette (1847) we have the very words (and then some…)

My Dearest Harriet, Since the well-remembered evening that I first beheld you, the lovely image of her who must become the arbitress of my future happiness has ever been in my mind. I feel confident that you will not deny me the favor which I now venture to ask, for I cannot believe that a heart filled with virtues most sensitive and tender, could ever inflict upon one touched with those very virtues an unnecessary wound. No, my dear Harriet, you will never overwhelm me with such a fatal reply; and I am therefore emboldened to ask that you will permit me to address your respected parents for a formal recognition of my visits and attentions to you. Such a concession from you will relieve me of inexpressible anxiety, and in part secure me a tranquility, which is only in your power to bestow. Anxiously expecting a reply, I am, dearest Harriet, [Your-Name-Here].”

CAUTION ! If her name is not Harriet, or if you did not meet her in the evening, make the necessary changes before sending. Zelda will not look upon your suit with favor if you address her as Harriet…

So, Harriet (or whatever) – he has finally gotten the guts to speak up! Remember, play it cool…

“Sir, In answer to your flattering letter, I must beg leave to remind you that in giving you permission to address my beloved parents on the subject of your attachment to me, such permission must not be understood as implying a reciprocity of feeling. That I may not incur the charge of cruelty from one whom, I must acknowledge, I at present have no ordinary esteem, I shall, with the permission of my parents, feel much pleasure in a continuation of your society; but with regard to the success of your present enterprise, time and circumstances alone must determine.”

CAUTION ! Remember, Harriet etc, that while He is an adult and a legal free agent, You are chattel and a legal minor until marriage. While He may address you by your first name (as he would a child), You may not address him that way until the engagement is official, if even then. And although this proposal may make your heart sing, ‘no ordinary esteem’ is as far as you dare go. Sounding too pleased or eager will make you seem, well, immodest (if you get my drift).

Or…. WORST CASE SCENARIO, Harriet etc! Maybe the letter was not so welcome after all. The Man of Your Dreams still has cold feet, but that blackguard who has been stalking you all Season has proposed! He may be a cad and a bounder, but You are the one with a Reputation to lose. Nip this in the bud before it can go too far. Go right ahead – overwhelm him with that fatal reply!

“Sir, In reply to the letter you have done me the honor of writing, I must beg permission to decline your addresses in the most decided manner; at the same time I return you my thanks for your good opinion of me, and assure you that I shall ever bear a proper remembrance of it. Trusting you will suffer your natural good sense to conquer a passion which can never meet a due return from me, Harriet (or, perhaps, Zelda).”

And it doesn’t stop there. Assuming that Harriet/Zelda and [Your-Name-Here] do get together, there are also sample letters for the Ardent Suitor to address the Respected Father on the subject of marriage to his Esteemed Daughter, the Respected Father to accept A.S. – or reject him, both options included. If Ardent Suitor changes his mind, there is a letter to break off the engagement (“I feel assured that our marriage would be productive of mutual misery…”)

There are sample letters for a Husband to write to his Wife (should this highly-literate courtship reach a successful conclusion); letters from Son to Father (and vice-versa), on that ever-popular subject of needing more money at school; letters to friends, letters to business associates, letters of introduction – all here!

If you play your cards right, you need never write an original, heart-felt word again!

Gloria Polizzotti Greis is the Executive Director of the Needham History Center & Museum. For more information, please see our website at

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