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The webmaster, Pat Cryer, as a young child

Stationery for writing letters
in the mid 20th century

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Leather writing case, mid-20th century, for writing paper, stamps and pen, with a zip

Leather writing case for women to keep their stationery. (Men used bureaus.)

When I grew up in 1940s and 1950s Britain, many more letters were written than today. This was because there was no email, and telephoning was very expensive indeed by the norms of the time. In fact telephoning has become progressively cheaper in real terms over the years.


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Paper for writing letters: notepaper

Everyone seemed to own writing paper, known as notepaper. It was another standard birthday or Christmas present when one didn't know what else to buy.

Notepaper could be any size but it was usually something between A4 and A5, not that these sizes had been heard of at the time.

Probably white was the only colour available for notepaper during World War Two and the shortages afterwards but I can't be sure. I have better recollections from the 1950s and 1960s when the most popular and widely sold colour seemed to be pale blue.

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Headed notepaper

Some individuals and some households had their notepaper pre-printed with their address at the top right hand side of the page. This was known as headed notepaper. It could be bought to order at any stationers and was another standard present.

Decorated Victorian embosser for putting a sender's address onto writing paper

Decorated Victorian embosser, courtesy of Anne Vincent.

Sometimes instead of being pre-printed, writing paper was embossed at the time of use with an embosser. Embossers had to be specially made for each address or set of words, so were usually used by wealthier families, professionals and businesses. The paper was placed between the two plates - see the photo - and the lever was pressed down hard, so that the plates pressed (embossed) the address onto the paper.

Personalised notepaper started to go out of fashion in the 1960s as phone numbers began a series of changes, first from letter area codes to numerical ones, and then with added digits to accommodate new subscribers. Addresses also changed with the advent of widespread requirements for postcodes. This meant that existing pre-printed stationery and embossers had to be repeatedly discarded and re-bought as no longer current - which was expensive and irritating.

In the 1940s and 1950s, though, the likes of our family simply wrote our addresses in handwriting at the top right-hand corner of the page every time we wrote a letter. Anything else would have seemed pretentious. In fact, for fear of seeming pretentious, my mother often preferred to use what she called a 'scrap of paper' rather than notepaper.

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Man licking an envelope to stick it down in mid 1900s Britain

Man licking the flap of an envelope to dampen it for sticking down. Screenshot from an old film.

In the 1950s envelopes for social correspondence were usually bought at the same time as notepaper to make a matching set, and were of a size and colour to fit the notepaper when it was folded either into four quarters or into thirds lengthways.

Envelopes made of brown paper were cheaper to buy and were normally used by less prestigious businesses and for bills.

The flaps of envelopes were edged with a gum that had to be moistened to stick. Businesses that were sending out numerous letters had a sponge arrangement in a dish of water, so that staff merely had to press the edge of the flap onto the sponge to make it sticky.

Ordinary people, though, simply licked. The taste was not at all pleasant but we knew no different.

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In the 1940s and 50s the use of postcodes was haphazard and I suspect that they only existed for large cities - although I would appreciate further clarification on this. What I can say is that whenever anyone wrote to my family in Edgware on the outskirts of Greater London, the envelope was always addressed as just Edgware. Middlesex. Yet when we wrote to my parents' families in Edmonton, addresses were always Edmonton N18. Note that the complete absence of any additional letters or numbers. I understand that earlier still, the postcode was just the points of the compass. I managed to find an old street sign with a points of the compass code - see below.

Early street sign showing the points of the compass from the centre of London.

An early street sign showing just the points of the compass from the centre of London. This sign like all the outdoor signs before the 1950s or 60s before the advent of plastic was enamel on metal. See also adverts on station platforms.

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Writing cases

For women, it was normal practice for the notepaper and envelopes to be kept together with stamps in a writing case - see the illustration at the top of the page. (Men had their bureaus.)

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

Writing cases had specially designed slots on the right for the paper and on the left for the envelopes, with a loop at the fold for pens. They were usually leather, and women and young girls liked them to be in a style that was like a fashion accessory. After all, they were used a great deal and were carried around. Mine was bright red leather.

Writing cases were common fall-back presents when one couldn't think what else to buy a woman or a young girl.

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This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.