Edwardian house parties could be naughty, raucous, and elegant, but they were ruled by the strictest etiquette, ranging from how much to tip the servants, when to bathe, and when one was permitted to retire for bed! After a successful Saturday-to-Monday or week-long house party, courtesy demanded a note sent to the hostess expressing appreciation for the hospitality received, and this note–as I learned in Diana Cooper’s memoirs–was called a “bread-and-butter” letter or a “Collins” after the obsequious, long-winded, and pompous clergyman cousin of Mr. Bennet.
Why is this called a Bread-and-Butter letter? I turn to The Word Detective, who breaks down the possible origins of the phrase:
“Bread,” being the staff of life and all, is, of course, a very old word, though it’s interesting to note that in Old English the word simply meant “piece of food, morsel,” not necessarily the stuff cranked out by Pepperidge Farm. “Butter” is even older, and comes from the Greek “boutyron,” meaning literally “cow cheese.” By the way, that “staff of life” business comes from the Bible, where “to break the staff of bread” means to cut off the food supply that supports a people (as a walking staff supports an individual).
“Bread and butter” has been used, since at least the early 18th century, to mean “everyday kinds of food” (“It was strictly a bread and butter dinner, not a snail in sight”), but more often in a figurative sense to mean “means of living, basic financial support,” often of a distinctly unglamorous sort (“Sure, I dabble in tech stocks, but repossessing cars is my bread and butter”).
The logic of “bread and butter letter,” a term first appearing in print in the US in the early 20th century, seems to fall somewhere between those two uses. The writer is thanking his or her hosts for their hospitality (and food), but the letter is also a basic social formality, not likely to contain any exciting content. A “bread and butter” note may not be eagerly awaited, but it’s the sort of thing expected and probably noticed most in its absence.
This letter could never be too flattering or effusive, as the following examples attest:
Six o’clock last night found me home with the pleasantest memories of happy days passed with you in your lovely country place. It was so sweet of you to have that delicious basket luncheon prepared for me, which combined with magazines and papers so thoughtfully given me by Mr. Endicott helped to shorten an otherwise rather tiresome journey.
I am sending you a new book just out by the author we both enjoy so much and hope it pleases you as much as the others.
My love to you and yours.
Affectionately yours, Date Adelaide Colton
We arrived home still breathless from the exhilaration of those wonderful days spent with you. You were a dear to give us such a jolly time, and John and I are looking forward to the time when you can come and spend a while with us. Although we have no glorious lake for skating, we may, perhaps, be able to find a few other pastimes to interest you in our big city, although I know that anything short of Tinker’s Pond will prove a poor substitute.
Thank you, dear girl, for having us with you. John joins me in sending best regards to all the family.
Mary K. Grainer.
My dear Miss Blank,
Tinker’s Corners is a landmark in my small geography of “special selections.” I am sure that the others whom you entertained so royally last week must feel as I do. The warmth of your hospitality will leave a glow in our memory for some time to come. With kindest greeting to your dear mother and brother, I am,
Helen D. Westvale.
In American idiom this type of letter was sometimes known as “the roofer,” no doubt in reference to the ego-elevating phrases!
This is now known (more mundanely, in my opinion) as the “Thank You Note”–and even that has grown quite rare. So now that you know what a Bread-and-Butter letter or Collins is, try you hand at writing a few to others. I’m sure many would be surprised and pleased to receive such a flattering note.
The Social Letter by Elizabeth Myers
Social Letters Made Easy by Gabrielle Rosiere
The Rainbow Comes and Goes by Lady Diana Cooper