When I was a young lady, my boyfriend invited me to spend Christmas Day at his grandmother’s house up on the plateau towards east Tennessee. We enjoyed the trip and conversations with his family and a delicious feast prepared by his grandmother. Of course I was taught to always say ‘thank you’ but upon returning home my mother instructed me to send a “Bread & Butter” note with a small gift of boxed linen handkerchiefs.
When relaying this story to a group of ladies, many had never heard of a “Bread & Butter” note. It is a rather odd name for a note of thanks for someone’s generous hospitality.
One of the ladies found this thorough article by Elizabeth Cottrell from the blog Heartspoken regarding “Bread & Butter” notes, and I’d like to share a portion of it with you here.
Term first used in the United States
Michael Quinion, Cambridge graduate and author of the World Wide Words blog, has this to say about the derivation of the phrase “bread and butter letter:”
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.
Quinion believes it was an expression used first in the United States and later spread to England:
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.
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.
Evan Morris of The Word Detective blog has a slightly different commentary on the derivation of the phrase:
“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.
Differences of opinion: is it really necessary?
Catherine Coughlin, The Blushing Hostess, is quite clear in her opinion that a bread and butter note after receiving hospitality is not only essential, but must be sent promptly. “And you need to write the note, regardless of your penmanship, in your own hand, and put it in the mail. That is just as important because it indicates you went to some trouble. An email is not sufficient.”
Molly Guinness, writing for The Spectator, however, pleads for the survival of the thank you note, but suggests we be flexible about those times and situations when an email or phone call might be much easier: “No one is immune to the charms of a heartfelt letter — there’s nothing nicer than receiving one, but we should think of them as a bonus, not a given.”
Make the mindset shift from “I have to” to “I want to”
I think they’ve both made some good points, but I propose something different to elevate the lowly bread and butter note to a higher-minded plane that honors both giver and receiver: a mindset shift from obligation to gratitude.
“Do I have to write a thank you letter for [insert any instance of hospitality]?”
I hear this question all the time, but if this is the question you’re asking, please consider a change of attitude: You don’t have to write a thank you letter for anything, but why wouldn’t it be a natural (not to mention inexpensive and easy) expression of your appreciation for the hospitality shown you:
- a meal you’ve been served or provided
- a party at which you’ve been entertained
- an overnight stay when you were a guest
- a welcome you’ve received
You know how much trouble you go to when you’re the one providing hospitality—even when you’re only having lunch guests. Preparing for a dinner party or overnight guests involves hours of planning, cleaning, preparing, cooking, and entertaining. Think how much your host or hostess will love receiving a warm message that mentions specifically the things you enjoyed about your time with them. They will know for sure you noticed and appreciated the effort they made on your behalf.
This expression of appreciation to a host or hostess is, to me, a privilege, not an obligation. As I gather my thoughts to write them a note, I enjoy once again the pleasure of the time I spent in their company.
Write a note to a friend today.