How do you sign your letters?
Wait a second ... perhaps there’s a question I should ask before I ask that one: Do you still write letters? What about vacation postcards or thank-you notes? Letter writing is going the way of so many physical things these days, they are disappearing into the digital realm. Ah, but there was a time when pen and paper ruled the intercommunications of people, a time not so long ago. And when you did write a letter to someone, how you closed it was important.
Thanks to letter writers, and it used to be that almost everyone was, we have small, personal histories written. Some are by historically unknown people who happened to be at important events, like soldiers in wars, who would write home to their families. In those letters we get a feel for the soldiers’ homesickness and what the terror of battle was like.
Some letter writers were famous people who were writing to friends or people they worked with, like famous writers writing to their peers or editors. In those letters we might get a glimpse of how they achieved their art as they work through ideas before a book is written, or maybe we glimpse the state of their financial affairs as they ask for an advance on their upcoming book.
And some letters are between lovers where the force of emotion is captured on a page. In the event these letters are saved, future generations can have the chance to look at these pictures on exhibition of times gone and get clues as to what all was going on. The “greeting” is almost always “Dear” whomever, and unless you were a soldier overseas getting a letter from your sweetheart and she starts it out “Dear John” and your name isn’t John, you’re not going to be able to tell much from that generic salutation. But how a person signed off on these letters in the closing could be a very important clue as to the relationship.
A small bit of the personal
“Sincerely” is a classic and frequently used close for letters. The point is for the reader to know that the writer means what they say. This close has been used in almost every case of letter writing. It can be used in a business transaction, or a love letter, or a letter to a friend or even a letter to a complaint department. It’s so commonly used that people can skip right over it like a comma or some other type of punctuation when they get to it.
A slight alteration of the “Sincerely” is “Sincerely Yours.” This adds a small bit of the personal to it and puts the reader and writer on a bit more intimate terms. You might use “Sincerely” on your initial letter to someone when you are looking for a job but you might use “Sincerely Yours” on a followup thank-you letter to the person if you got the job.
Another variation of the “Sincerely” sign off is “Respectfully” or “Respectfully Yours.” This can be a bit more formal and may be needed if something in the letter is critical of the reader in some way. This lets them know that you are at least pretending to respect them so they will take the criticism seriously, and that you are trying to get results instead of just tossing out insults. “Respectfully” is another good way to close a letter to a complaint department. It can be used to keep the communication lines open as things get dished out.
We might learn something by looking back at some of history’s famous letter writers and see how they signed off. Things were, on the one hand, more formal but on the other hand ... man, those cats could write! They wrote letters like people write novels. And they hand wrote them in cursive with pens dipped in inkwells. They don’t even teach cursive these days, do they? Let’s start with the Father of our Country.
George Washington wrote plenty of letters, and lucky for us he was famous even back then so people kept his letters and anything else that had his signature on it, like discharge papers from the Continental Army. He may have also influenced future letter signers with his closing. Unless it was a formal contract he was signing he would write his name “G. Washington.” For the letters I looked up he would close with “Your Most Obedient Servant” or an abbreviation of that phrase. That’s a pretty humble way to sign your letters when you’re the top general in the Army. I think it was a way to let them know that he was there for them even if he was the boss.
When it came to love letters it turns out there are only three love letters left that Washington wrote to his wife. She had saved them all but she burned them to keep them private when he died. He was so famous that she knew people would try and get their hands on them and she wanted that part of their lives for the two of them only. Three survived, with two found under a drawer in her desk. In signing off to her he wrote, “Your Entire.” Pretty romantic, eh?
A great communicator
In what may have been a knowing reference to Washington, or perhaps that’s just how they closed letters back then, Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln both signed letters with “Your Obedient Servant,” with Lee adding “Your Faithful and Obedient Servant.” In a letter to his daughter, Lee signed it “Most Truly Yours.”
On many of Lincoln’s notes and letters that I looked up he didn’t use a closing at all. Perhaps he was so busy with the Civil War and had to write so many letters that he didn’t have time. He would just finish the last sentence and underneath sign his name.
On the other hand, apart from the “Your Obedient Servant” that he sometimes signed, he would use different closings depending on who he was writing to. Some letters say “Yours Truly” at the end, others “Very Respectfully” and even “Yours as Ever.” I think Lincoln was a great communicator and knew what he was doing in each case.
I came across a love letter of types from Jackie Kennedy to her husband, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (sometime from the late ’50s). It’s not so much a mash note as a letter that talks about their marriage and how they often need to be separated but that it’s not so bad for them as it might be for some people. She signs it “All my love, Jackie."
The closing of a letter in the old “Yours Truly” manner isn’t the only way people get that last message in when writing a letter. You have to remember, unlike an email, there’s another surface with a letter to write on: the envelope. People are pretty creative, and even in the days before social media there were things that caught on. One of them was SWAK. That was usually written on the outside back of the envelope where the flap comes down and seals the letter inside.
SWAK stands for “Sealed With a Kiss” and symbolically and sometimes literally meant the person kissed the gluey part that sealed the envelope so the kiss would be carried by post (at no extra charge) to the recipient loved one.
Of course, there are issues with SWAK. First, you’re putting your emotions out there for all the world to see so you better be OK with everyone knowing that you and the recipient are a thing. And the perhaps more important part is that you’re sure that the person getting the SWAK-sealed letter wants it to be SWAK-sealed. Heaven help the guy or girl that goes SWAK with a letter before it’s a done deal in the romance department.
In that case, I’m reminded of a funny scene in a Buster Keaton movie where, losing at love, he decides to leave and sends a final letter to his would-be sweetie. In his version of SWAK he seals the envelope with a tear from his eye. SWAT, if you will.
Kisses and hugs
And, of course, there's anyone that’s ever been in love and written or gotten a love letter’s favorite: XOXO. This may be written at the bottom of the letter after the signature or on the outside of the envelope somewhere, but wherever it’s written the message is the same: kisses and hugs.
The “O” represents the arms around hugs, and the “X” represents X marks the spot where the kiss is planted. It’s a way to show affection while you’re miles away and lets the person know you’re more serious than just a “Regards” or “Warmly Yours” would convey.
XOXO is partly for now to give a sense of the emotion that went into the writing of the letter and partly a promise of things to come when the lovers get a chance to reunite. Why it’s practically a contract of romance. And you can add as many X’s and O’s as you want to make your point.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little treatise on letter sign-offs.
Yours Truly, The Town Crier
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.