Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[40] ‘Dear Sir or Madam …’


When we are young, we see things in our parents and grandparents that we associate with age. Then as we grow old, we start to fall into the same habits, the same mannerisms, and we do the same things. Sometimes we notice that we are becoming like our parents used to be. Sometimes we do it deliberately. It’s part of history repeating itself. But things do change, gradually.

When I was young, my father wore stiff, starched collars for work. He polished his black, leather shoes every night, and always wore a jacket and tie. His writing was what we call Copperplate. If he didn’t catch what someone said, he would say: “I beg your pardon,” where now we would just say, “Sorry?” All of these are things we could see as old-fashioned.

You can also see these things as being quite formal and the trend seems always to be from the formal to the informal. (Maybe it’s connected with a gradual decline in class differences.) In looking at formality, I will include something about the clothes we wore, how we addressed people, greetings, letter writing, and language in general. By today’s standards, everything about our public and private lives was more formal then.

[I have put this post off for a long time because I wonder how much I am confusing formality with politeness and respect.]

Dress Codes for Work

You don’t have to go back that far before my time to see pictures of politicians with wing collars, bow ties and top hats, so there had already been changes before the fifties.

The standard (unwritten) dress code for office workers in the fifties was a plain, dark suit; a white shirt and a fairly plain tie; and polished black shoes. In the City of London, bowler hats were still common. The rolled up umbrella was almost part of the ‘uniform.’

(I have to say more about what my father wore in the early fifties, before we had automatic washing machines. He had two white shirts, with detachable collars. Each shirt lasted a week but he could change the collars every day. He would send them off, once a week to a firm call ‘Collars’ to be laundered, starched and returned for the next week. I can’t remember whether the service also included cuffs, but the cuffs were definitely detachable and reversible for re-use.)

Later, when I started work in the late sixties, it was acceptable to wear plain, dark trousers and a non-matching jacket for lowly office workers – jacket and tie were still ubiquitous, as was the white shirt. Higher management still stuck to ‘business suits’ for decades. Anyone professional – doctors, lawyers, politicians, … – would wear a formal suit, sometimes a three-piece suit. Business suits were always very dark and either plain or pin-striped.

[Not sure of US terminology. Trousers are ‘pants.’ A suit is a matching pair of trousers and jacket. A three-piece suit also has a waistcoat or ‘vest.’]


I am not going to attempt to say anything here about women’s clothes – just that women did not wear trousers anywhere that formal dress was expected. In jobs where men wore formal suits, there were probably no women anyway. See [20] Vive La Différence. The trend for women to wear trousers came much later.

(It’s interesting to look at school uniforms which lag behind general fashions by some yearst. At school, we always had to wear a jacket and tie. Girls wore short skirts. It was probably at least ten years after women started wearing trousers before girls in school uniforms were given that option.)


Clothes outside Work

When not at work men still routinely wore shirts, ties and jackets, perhaps in more colourful styles than would be seen at work, and leather shoes. Before jeans were common and before the diverse fashions of today, the differences between work and non-work clothes were not quite so obvious.

We dressed more formally outside work than today and this was not just a lack of informal, casual clothes. We would also dress more formally on ‘dates,’ going out to the cinema or a theatre. There was a certain standard expected in such places.

People dressed as formally as possible for church services – so much so that we called it our ‘Sunday best.’ I would wear my best suit for church. We would probably attempt to be even more formal for weddings, funerals and christenings, sometimes buying brand new clothes for the occasion. I suppose there is still some dressing up for these but we no longer wear suits for weddings or black for funerals. (Now we have ‘smart casual’ which means that I can wear jeans almost everywhere for all occasions.)


In general, people were known by their surnames, as Mr. Fletcher, Mrs. Taylor or Miss Isle. [The designation Ms did not come for a long time.] Where your name was not known, for example in a shop, you were addressed as ‘Sir,’ or ‘Madam.’

At Senior School, we were generally just a surname, Fletcher without Mister (or Master). Even the boys would talk about others with just surnames. We sometimes used Christian names or nicknames only when talking to others in the same class. (We always called the teacher, ‘Sir,’ or ‘Miss.’ I was fifteen before I ever discovered the first name of any of our teachers – we would never dare to use it.)

I remember something of the progressive changes later from my days of working. In the seventies, people we saw every day at the office were called by their Christian name. If you worked with Harry Potter you called him Harry. But the internal telephone directory listed names as ‘Potter’ or ‘H. Potter.’ Often you telephoned and spoke to ‘Mr Potter,’ perhaps meeting him later, without always knowing his first name. (To be honest, we often talked about people by their job titles, which were rigidly defined and hierarchical. A shorter title meant a higher grade, with its due formal respect.) There came a time when the internal directory gave him the choice of appearing as, ‘H. Potter (Harry)’ but most people did not do this. After a few years of increasing use of first names, it just changed to show everyone as ‘Harry Potter’ without offering a choice. This is relatively modern – not everyone liked this. [Television programmes like ‘Lovejoy’ or ‘Morse’ now seem strange, but it used to be quite easy to know someone for years just by surname in a work context.]


When you met someone you knew, you would say, ‘Good morning,’ ‘Good afternoon,’ or ‘Good Evening,’ and on leaving you would say, ‘Goodbye,’ or ‘Goodnight.’ With intimate friends, you might be more colloquial.

The situation in shops seems strange, but shop assistants just did not greet casual customers. I remember in French lessons learning that in shops you would be greeted with, ‘Bonjour,’ and when you left they would say, ‘Au revoir,’ both of which were a surprise to us. In English shops nothing like this was said.

In the years since then, at checkouts in supermarkets, the use of ‘Good morning’ came in fairly recently. I have been surprised how soon this turned into the less formal ‘Hello,’ and then the colloquial ‘Hi.’ I see it as a sign of my age that I am slightly offended by this over-familiarity. Now we get ‘Hi-ya’ which I still don’t like!

[The word ‘Hello’ was invented about a hundred years ago, specifically as something people could say when answering the phone. It’s what I say when I answer the phone. If someone I don’t know continues with, ‘How are you today?’ I hang up. That’s a very personal question.]


When introduced to someone new, you shook hands and the thing to say was “How do you do!” I sometimes tend towards autism and tend to take things literally, so it took me some time to learn that this never meant, “How do you do?” As we used the expression, it was no longer a question and the response (not answer) was “How do you do!” Similarly, when it came in from American usage, I understood that the expression, “Pleased to meet you,” did not mean anything about pleasure. It was just a formulaic introduction.

I don’t think anyone says “How do you do,” any more. We stick to “Pleased (or Nice) to meet you,” or just go straight into, “Hello”, or “Hi.” Perhaps the idea of formal introductions has faded away. We rarely shake hand now, except in some business situations.



(I know that letters are not significant today)

For business letters, in fact for almost everything, we always had to start letter with, ‘Dear Mr Potter’, or sometimes, ‘Dear Sir/ Madam,’ when the name was unknown. We ended letters with ‘Yours Sincerely,’ followed by a signature, for someone you knew. It was ‘Yours Faithfully,’ for business letters. [You had to know someone very well to use the more informal, ‘Dear Harry,’ and ‘Yours Affectionately.’ If you knew them that well, you probably put xxx afterwards.]

There were books that showed clearly the different terms of address for clergy and bishops, ambassadors, peers of the realm, army officers etc. (They appeared in the useful information provided in the back of diaries, and there was the much loved Pears Cyclopedia.) It seemed that the Pope or your local judge would be mortally offended if you picked the wrong way to introduce them, or to end your letters.


What seems to have happened now is that letters remain almost as formal, but the medium of e-mail has largely taken over, with less formality. Sometimes business e-mails keep to the old styles; sometimes they start, ‘Dear Harry.’ Often, ‘Yours Sincerely’ has become, ‘Sincerely,’ or ‘Regards,’ or has disappeared altogether. Emails often just start: ‘Hi.’


I will say much about changes in the English language in another blog post (maybe more than one!). Colloquial and slang forms become acceptable. (I have already mentioned ‘television’ and ‘TV’, ‘telephone’ and ‘phone’.) Perhaps I am just confusing formality with politeness again.

I won’t go on about the way that language has become more informal, but this is seen particularly in written language. We were always taught at school that contractions like “don’t, can’t, you’d and he’ll” should never be used in written language but this rule has effectively disappeared. It’s certainly a rule I totally ignore, as you will have noticed. Not using contractions now seems positively archaic. (We move faster than technology sometimes. My spelling and grammar checker keeps trying to remind me of this rule. I ignore it. It’s wrong about almost everything else as well!)

I see (and even sometimes use) the words ‘dunno’ for ‘don’t know’; ‘gonna’ for ‘going to’; and ‘wanna’ for ‘want to.’ I believe that both of these also mark similar changes in spoken language.

This has been another Grumpy Old Man blog. The next one could be something more factual, perhaps more about shops …

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

9 thoughts on “[40] ‘Dear Sir or Madam …’

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