Letters of Introduction in the 19th Century

Letters of introduction were the reference letters of the past, particularly among the upper classes. They were a way to say, “I know this person and can vouch for them.” If you wanted to become acquainted with someone of a higher social status, a letter of introduction written by a mutual friend was necessary to set up the meeting. Letters of introduction were also useful for travelers. If you were going to a place where you didn’t know anyone, a letter of introduction to someone who lived there would give you entry to the social or business community.

The Letter of Introduction, by David Wilkie, 1813

The Letter of Introduction, by David Wilkie, 1813

The importance of letters of introduction

Letters of introduction were an important part of 19th-century etiquette. They helped to establish the social status and connections of new acquaintances, so people did not have to make snap judgments about strangers. This facilitated the development of social and business networks. Although letters of introduction existed before the 1800s, the character references provided through such letters became even more important with the changing composition of society.

In the early nineteenth century the increasingly powerful middle classes challenged the notion of respectability deriving solely from social rank with their emphasis on morality, sobriety, duty and work. By mid-century, they had redefined a gentleman and polite society. Not so much property or birth but character came to define a gentleman. The emphasis on character was not particular to the early nineteenth century; what was new was that character increasingly denoted possession of certain highly valued moral qualities. (1)

At the same time, the expansion of roads and canals and the introduction of steamships and railroads led to a boom in travel, tourism and migration. This meant that a lot more people needed letters of introduction. Their use peaked in the middle of the 19th century.

Obtaining a letter of introduction

Letters of introduction could be solicited, or they could be volunteered by people who knew you were going somewhere where they knew someone. Typically the person needing the introduction was of a lower social status than the person writing the letter of introduction. The person receiving the letter was also usually of a higher social status than the person being introduced.

In The Yellowplush Correspondence, by William Makepeace Thackeray, the fictional Algernon wrote to his father, Lord Crabs:

Will you have the kindness to send me a letter of introduction to Lord Bobtail, our ambassador? My name, and your old friendship with him, I know would secure me a reception at his house; but a pressing letter from yourself would at once be more courteous, and more effectual. (2)

The reply hinted at the benefits to be gained from such an introduction.

My dear Algernon, – Your letter came safe to hand, and I enclose you the letter for Lord Bobtail as you desire. He is a kind man, and has one of the best cooks in Europe. (3)

Letters could be written by family members, by friends, by acquaintances, or even by people who didn’t know you, as long as you had a mutual acquaintance who could recommend you. When Benjamin Franklin was the American ambassador to France, he got so frustrated with people asking him for letters of introduction on behalf of others who intended to travel to the United States that he complained to one of his French friends.

[I]n my opinion, the natural complaisance of this country often carries people too far in the article of recommendations. You give them with too much facility to persons of whose real characters you known nothing, and sometimes at the request of others of whom you know as little. Frequently, if a man has no useful talents, is good for nothing and burdensome to his relations, or is indiscreet, profligate, and extravagant, they are glad to get rid of him by sending him to the other end of the world; and for that purpose scruple not to recommend him to those they wish should recommend him to others as ‘un bon suject, plein de mérite,’ &c. &c. In consequence of my crediting such recommendations, my own are out of credit, and I cannot advise anybody to have the least dependence on them. (4)

Franklin went so far as to draft a “Model of a Letter of Recommendation of a person you are unacquainted with.” He used it on more than one occasion, hoping to put a stop to the requests.

Sir, The bearer of this, who is going to America, presses me to give him a letter of recommendation, though I know nothing of him, not even his name. This may seem extraordinary, but I assure you it is not uncommon here. Sometimes, indeed, one unknown person brings another, equally unknown, to recommend him; and sometimes they recommend one another! As to this gentleman, I must refer you to himself for his character and merits, with which he is certainly better acquainted than I can possibly be. I recommend him, however, to those civilities which every stranger, of whom one knows no harm, has a right to; and I request you will do him all the good offices, and show him all the favor, that on further acquaintance, you shall find him to deserve. (5)

Scottish writer Walter Scott also alluded to the difficulty of being faced with requests for letters of introduction for people one did not wish to introduce. Here is a note he wrote to his brother Thomas in 1813.

Dear Tom, I observe what you say as to Mr. ***; and, as you may be often exposed to similar requests, which it would be difficult to parry, you can sign such letters of introduction as relate to persons you do not delight to honor, short, ‘T. Scott’; by which abridgment of your name, I shall understand to limit my civilities. (6)

Perhaps to avoid this problem, Thomas Jefferson decided not to provide letters of introduction while he was president of the United States, although he did provide them in later life. He still found a way to introduce people whom he wanted to recommend, as in this letter to James Monroe, who was then the American ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Isaac Coles, son of Colo. Coles our neighbor is gone to London, Paris, &c. he asked from me a letter to you. I told him I had been obliged to make it a rule to give no letters of introduction while in my present office; but that in my first letter to you I would mention to you the reason why I gave him none. He is a most worthy young man, & one whom I had intended to have asked to be my Secretary, had Mr. Harvie declined the offer. You know the worth of his family. (7)

A traveler going on a long trip with many destinations could obtain a large number of letters of introduction. Wealthy American shipowner George Crowninshield – who was rumored to be secretly planning to rescue Napoleon from St. Helena – amassed at least 300 letters of introduction for a voyage to Europe in 1817. Among these were letters from Commodore William Bainbridge “to all the consuls in Europe and to all the Commanders in the fleets as well.” (8)

Offers to write letters of introduction did not always have to be taken up. In 1827, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte declined letters of introduction for her son, Jerome, who would be passing through London. She wrote to her father:

He has one from the son of Lord Holland to his father, which he will not have time to deliver. If he could have remained a few months in England I should have availed myself of these opportunities of introducing him properly; but as his stay will only be of a few days, there would be little advantage in taking letters. (9)

Writing a letter of introduction

An American publication provided the following instructions.

Letters of introduction should not be given except to persons with whom you are well acquainted, and for whom you are entirely willing to vouch.

They should be given with great caution, and should be carefully and explicitly worded. Remember that in introducing a person to a friend, you pledge your own character for his, to a certain extent, and any misconduct on his part will damage you in the estimation of the friend to whom you introduce him. The necessity of exercising the greatest care thus becomes apparent.

While you are uncertain as to the propriety of giving a letter of introduction, refuse it with firmness and let nothing induce you to alter your decision.

In giving a letter of introduction, be careful to state your exact intention, in order that your friend may know what attention you wish him to show the person you introduce. If your letter is simply a business introduction, confine it to an explicit statement of the person’s business, and your knowledge of his capacity. If you wish the bearer of the letter to receive any social attention at the hands of your friend, say so. Leave nothing to uncertainty.

The letter of introduction should be left unsealed. The person delivering it should seal before presenting it.

A social introduction should be sent by messenger to the person addressed, and accompanied by the card of the person introduced. It is customary to present a business introduction in person. (10)

Another publication advised that the letter should be “(1) short, so as not to embarrass the bearer by waiting so long a time while it is being read, and (2) moderate in expression, containing language of merited praise, but not extravagant eulogy, which would be much out of place.” (11)

Making use of a letter of introduction

Letters of introduction were usually delivered by hand, rather than by post. If you were a traveller, you would want to deliver the letter as soon as possible after your arrival. This was a matter of both politeness and practicality. The sooner you presented the letter, the sooner you could take advantage of whatever your new acquaintance might offer in the way of advice, invitations, and introductions to others. Some American visitors to Rome in the early 1820s had a letter of introduction from New York lawyer Luther Bradish to Italian sculptor Raimondo Trentanove. In the letter, Bradish asked Trentanove to take the Americans “at once upon [their] arrival” to meet Napoleon’s nieces, Charlotte Bonaparte Gabrielli and her sister, Christine-Egypta Bonaparte. One of the visitors later wrote:

Partly through the friendship of the…lovely nieces, who were so kind as to take an especial interest that we should pass our time pleasantly in Rome, partly from our other letters of introduction, opportunities were constantly offered to us attend balls at the great palaces, never seen to such advantage as on these occasions. … We were indebted to [the Bonaparte sisters] for many pleasant acquaintances, and found they were equally disposed to devote their own moments to our entertainment. (12)

In 1825, Italian castrato Giovanni Battista Velluti gathered an audience for his singing in London thanks in part to letters of introduction. Scottish music critic George Hogarth wrote:

[S]uch was the popular prejudice and general cry raised against him that unusual precautions were deemed necessary to secure a somewhat partial audience, and prevent his being driven from the stage on his first entry upon it…. At length the first appearance of Signor Velluti was announced to take place…. As he had brought me a letter of introduction from a friend at Florence, and my curiosity was a good deal raised by the representation given me of his talents, I was induced once more to enter a theatre, and was present on that occasion. (13)

Examples of letters of introduction

In 1802, Scottish physician James Currie gave the poet Thomas Campbell a letter of introduction to James Scarlett, who later became Baron Abinger.

The bearer of this is a young poet of some celebrity, Mr. Campbell, the author of ‘the Pleasures of Hope.’ He was introduced to me by Mr. Stewart, of Edinburgh, and has been some days in my house. I have found him, as might be expected, a young man of uncommon acquirements and learning, of unusual quickness of apprehension, and great sensibility.

He is going to London, with the view of superintending an edition of his poem, for his own benefit, by permission of the booksellers to whom the copyright was sold before the work was printed; and who, having profited in an extraordinary degree by the transaction, have now given him the permission above-mentioned, on condition that the edition shall be of a kind that shall not interfere with their editions. He is to give a quarto edition, with some embellishments, price a guinea; the printing by Bensley. You must lay out a fee with him; and if you can do him any little service you will oblige me and serve a man of genius. (14)

In 1809, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter of introduction to French economist Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours for the son of American mathematician Robert Maskell Patterson.

My dear Sir & friend

The bearer hereof, Mr. Robert M. Patterson, is son of Mr. Robert Patterson, professor of Mathematics in the college of Philadelphia, Director of the mint of the US & a Vice-president of the Philosophical society. Having gone through his course of studies here, he goes to Paris to advance his stock of knowledge by the superior aids which that place affords. I have not the pleasure of being personally acquainted with him, but learn from sources worthy of all confidence that he is correct in his morals & conduct & earnest in the worthy pursuits which carry him to Europe. A friendship of long standing with his father, & the desire of being useful to himself induce me to take the liberty of making him known to you, of soliciting your friendly attentions & counsel to him in the objects of his journey & of expressing my entire belief that he will prove himself worthy of any good offices you may be so kind as to render him. I avail myself with pleasure of this & every occasion of renewing to you the assurances of my great esteem & respect. (15)

In 1842, naturalist John James Audubon secured many letters of introduction for his Missouri River expedition, including this one from Secretary of State Daniel Webster.

To all to whom these presents shall come – greeting.

Know Ye, that the bearer hereof, John James Audubon, a distinguished naturalist and native citizen of the United States, has made known to me his intention of travelling on the continent with the view principally of aiding the cause of science by extending his researches and explorations in natural history, and as he is known to me to be a man of character and honor and worthy of all friendly offices and of all personal regard, these are therefore to request all whom it may concern, to permit him to pass freely, without let or molestation, and to extend to him all such aid and protection as he may need, and which becomes the hospitality of civilized and friendly nations. (16)

The following was presented as generic example of a letter of introduction in a “how-to” book from 1840.

Dear Sir,

Permit me to introduce to you the bearer of this letter, my intimate acquaintance Mr. B– who proceeds to S– on his way to P–.

In strongly recommending Mr. B– to your notice, I particularly request that you will not only forward his views by your kind influence and advice, but that you will also be good enough to render his stay in your city as agreeable as possible, by showing him every civility and attention that may be in your power, assuring you that I shall consider myself greatly obliged and be most happy to have an opportunity of serving you in return. In the meantime believe me, Dear Sir, yours most faithfully,

N.N. (17)

Here is an example of a business letter of introduction, taken from a letter-writing manual published in 1855.

Dear Sir,

The bearer of these few lines is Mr. Edward Watson, of the firm of Watson Brothers.

In introducing to your acquaintance the nephew of our esteemed friend, Mr. Bryce Watson, of Manchester, so old a connection of your house as well as of our own, we feel it to be quite superfluous to claim for him that friendly reception, which we know awaits him at your hands.

We doubt not that you will feel the same interest as we do in the prosperity of the above-mentioned firm, and be equally anxious to promote, to the utmost of your ability, the particular objects of Mr. Edward Watson’s visit to Bristol. We are always, dear Sir, yours very truly,

Thomas Holmes & Son (18)

Theft of a letter of introduction

Letters of introduction are often mentioned in 19th-century novels. The plot of The Three Musketeers, written by Alexandre Dumas in 1844, includes the theft of a letter of introduction from the main character, a young man named D’Artagnan. The letter was written by D’Artagnan’s father and was addressed to M. de Tréville, commander of the King’s Musketeers in Paris, which D’Artagnan was seeking to join. D’Artagnan’s fury when he discovers the letter is missing gives a sense of how important these letters could be.

The young man began by looking very patiently for this letter, turning out and rummaging his pockets and fobs twenty times, poking into his bag, and opening and shutting his purse; but when he was quite convinced that the letter was not to be found, he gave full vent to another fit of rage….

‘My letter of introduction!’ cried D’Artagnan, ‘my letter of introduction! or by St. Denis, I will spit you all like so many ortolans.’ …

‘[W]here is this letter?’ roared D’Artagnan; ‘and let me tell you that this letter is for M. de Tréville, and that it must be found, otherwise M. de Tréville will take care to find it himself.’

The threat completely frightened mine host. Next to the king and the cardinal, M. de Tréville was the man whose name was most frequently in the mouths of the military, and indeed of the citizens…

‘Did this letter contain anything valuable?’ inquired the host after some moments of fruitless search.

‘I believe so, indeed,’ cried [D’Artagnan], who calculated on the letter to make his way at court; ‘it contained my fortune.’

‘Were they Spanish bonds?’ demanded the host, much disturbed.

‘Bonds on the private treasury of his majesty!’ replied D’Artagnan, who, calculating on entering the king’s service through this letter of introduction, thought he might, without lying, make this somewhat rash reply.

‘The devil!’ exclaimed the host, altogether astounded.

‘But it is of no consequence,’ continued D’Artagnan, with his national rectitude; ‘the money is nothing, the letter is all I want. I had rather have lost a thousand pistoles than that!’ (19)

D’Artagnan is still able to meet Tréville, who recognizes his name. However, given the absence of the letter, Tréville refuses D’Artagnan’s application to become a musketeer. Instead he gives D’Artagnan a letter of introduction to an academy for young gentlemen, so that he might be prepared for recruitment in the future.

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  1. Anne Secord, “Corresponding Interests: Artisans and Gentlemen in Nineteenth-Century Natural History,” The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 27, No. 4 (December, 1994), pp. 389-390.
  2. William Makepeace Thackeray, “The Yellowplush Correspondence, No. V., Foring Parts,” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. XVII (April, 1838), p. 407.
  3. Ibid., p. 407.
  4. John Bigelow, ed., The Life of Benjamin Franklin, Written by Himself, Vol. II (Philadelphia, 1875), p. 400.
  5. Ibid., p. 401.
  6. John G. Lockhart, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Vol. II (Paris, 1837), p. 48.
  7. “From Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe, 8 January 1804,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-42-02-0223. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 42, 16 November 1803–10 March 1804, ed. James P. McClure. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 245–251.]
  8. Benjamin Crowninshield, ed., The Story of George Crowninshield’s Yacht, Cleopatra’s Barge (Boston, 1913), p. 16.
  9. Eugène Lemoine Didier, The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte (New York, 1879), pp. 206-207.
  10. James D. McCabe, The National Encyclopedia of Business and Social Forms, Embracing the Laws of Etiquette and Good Society (Philadelphia, 1879) p. 184.
  11. Grace H. Smithdeal, Smithdeal’s Practical Grammar, Speller and Letter-Writer (Richmond, VA, 1894), p. 190.
  12. “Ups and Downs of the Bonapartes and Bourbons,” The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. XXVII (1871), pp. 289-290.
  13. George Hogarth, “Memoirs of the Musical Drama,” The Select Circulating Library, No. 18, Part I (Philadelphia, 1839), p. 273.
  14. “Campbelliana,” Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. XXX (September, 1844), p. 345.
  15. “Thomas Jefferson to Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, André Thoüin, and Bartelémy de Faujas-Saint Fond, 16 May 1809,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-01-02-0166. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, vol. 1, 4 March 1809 to 15 November 1809, ed. J. Jefferson Looney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004, pp. 201–202.]
  16. Ruthven Deane, “Unpublished Letters of Introduction Carried by John James Audubon on His Missouri River Expedition,” The Auk, Vol. 25, No. 2 (April, 1908), pp. 170-171.
  17. Frederick Campe, Letters on Various Subjects (Nuremberg, 1840), pp. 34-35.
  18. William Anderson, Practical Mercantile Correspondence (Leipzig, 1855), p. 24.
  19. Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers, Volume I (Boston, 1893), pp. 19-21.

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Remember that in introducing a person to a friend, you pledge your own character for his, to a certain extent, and any misconduct on his part will damage you in the estimation of the friend to whom you introduce him.

Frederick Campe