Q From Carolyn Clarke: I was recently writing a short thank-you note to my hostess for a lovely weekend at her house, and thought of it as my bread-and-butter letter, as that’s what my mother had called it when I grew up in Canada in the 1950s. I have the impression that it was the recognised phrase for such a letter that is one’s plain duty as a guest to write. But why bread and butter? Because it’s always done, as putting bread and butter on the dinner table would have or may have been? I detest folk etymology and don’t want to be guilty of it myself. Was this phrase used in England?
A It has indeed been used in the UK; it still is to some extent. It turns up from time to time in print, as here in a humorous quiz about etiquette:
After a weekend in the country, should you: a) Write your hostess a charming “bread and butter” letter. b) Send a large basket of Fortnum & Mason cheese and hams. c) Dash off a quick text before you’ve got to the end of their drive, saying: “Thx 4 a gr8 w/e xxx”.
Daily Telegraph, 16 Sep. 2008.
However, it’s most definitely North American in its genesis and continues to be used there more than anywhere else. My earliest example is this:
Outside of one’s own room there is seldom more for a visitor to do than to arrange the flowers for the hostess, to send her a “bread and butter” letter when one has left her house, and a present on Christmas proportionate to the length of the visit.
The Art of Visiting, an article by Kate Gannett Wells in The Chautauquan, Jan. 1892.
Bread and butter letter figuratively extends the literal meaning of bread and butter to refer to hospitality in general. I suspect that it was originally a flippant reference by some young person, bored with the chore of having to write such a letter to his or her hostess and equating it with work. It echoes the older figurative use of bread and butter to refer to what one does to earn the money to buy the necessities of life: “it’s my bread and butter”, one might say.
We do know from occasional references that the term was “society” slang in the US early on. It moved across the Atlantic with some speed and became established in the UK. In 1910 an enquiry in the British journal Notes and Queries states it is by then the common term for a thank-you letter.
The writer of that enquiry was puzzled about an unfamiliar term for the missive, one that has long since died out, but which I might mention as an intriguing linguistic aside: a Collins. It appeared in Chambers’s Journal in 1904 but vanished again some time after 1940. It’s a literary joke based on William Collins, an elaborately polite character in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, published in 1813: “The promised letter of thanks from Mr. Collins arrived on Tuesday, addressed to their father, and written with all the solemnity of gratitude which a twelvemonth’s abode in the family might have prompted.”
The item in Chambers’s Journal that introduces Collins mentions yet a fourth term for the missive, a board-and-lodging letter. This seems never to have become quite as popular, though references to it may be found in print, including one in Lady Troubridge’s Book of Etiquette, published in London in 1926.