Etiquette for a Victorian Lady

By Jillian Heller

This week, a rather small book caught our attention in a big way. True Politeness: A Hand-book of Etiquette for Ladies By an American Lady provided for a very interesting read. It is bound with greenish embossed cloth over a paper cover, etched with gilt decoration, illustrating two ladies in greeting. Publishers Leavitt and Allen issued this text in 1847. The contents of this book taught young women proper public behavior in the world of Victorian America.

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The handbook gives advice on daily matters for specifically middle to upper class women. The goal is to teach its readers how to not only be a woman, but also a lady. The book does so by giving guidance on matters such as social conversation, proper dress, the dinner table and more. The book is filled with consecutively numbered advice points separated by chapter. Some examples include:

VIII “Bow with slow and measured dignity; never hastily”

XXVI “The plainest dress is always the most genteel, and a lady that dresses plainly will never be dress unfashionably. Next to plainness, in every well-dressed lady, is neatness of dress and taste in the selection of colors”

LII “ Double-entendre is detestable in a woman, especially when perpetrated in the presence of men; no man of taste can respect a woman who is guilty of it: though it may create a laugh, it will inevitable excite also disgust in the minds of all whose good opinions are worth acquiring. Therefore, not only avoid all indelicate expressions, but appear not to understand any that may be uttered in your presence.

LXII “Never laugh at your own remarks; it may be very agreeable excitation, but invariable spoils what you are saying”

LXXIX “Visits after a part or dinner should be paid within a week”

CXLV “The hostess should never send away her plate until all the guests have finished”

CLVIII “Newly married persons should abstain in public from every mark of affection too conspicuous, and every exclusive attention”

CLXXXV “You should never take the arms of two gentlemen, one being upon either side

These instructions focus on embodying good manners. At this time, Exemplifying the best of manners and keeping a ladylike appearance increases your marriageability. In the 1800s, being the perfect lady and wife was a woman’s main goal. In fact, this was very characteristic of Victorian America.

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American Victorianism is the time period in which Great Britain’s lifestyles were greatly mirrored in the United States. The name derives from Queen Victoria, who reigned in Great Britain from 1837 to 1901, which reflects the length of this era. New England and the Deep South particularly demonstrated Victorian values during this time. One ideal that Great Britain and the United States shared was the role of women in society and their place in the household. The “culture of domesticity” in Great Britain during the 19th century transcended to America. It was designed for the wives and daughters of white, protestant, and middle to upper class men. The cult of domesticity was a social system that structured a woman’s place in society. These principles limited women to strictly domestic duties. The Victorian way was for the man and woman to have very separate spheres of influence. The man’s included work and politics, while the woman was restricted to the sphere of home and family. The Victorian value focused on the woman being the center of the family and “light of the home.”

Interestingly, it was often encouraged on the man to marry someone more sensible than romantic. The practical choice for the man would be choosing someone who is the utmost lady, and therefore would make the best wife. A great wife would be one that could properly mange his family and household affairs and raise their daughters as ladies and sons as gentlemen. When following the manners that our handbook of etiquette outlined, a woman could achieve this respectable status of being lady that men and the overall society desired.

Victorians felt that a lady should be quiet in her ways, natural and humble in her language, and watchful not to hurt anyone’s feelings. From childhood, Victorian girls were taught how to achieve this archetype and behaved under the strictest etiquette as shown in our handbook of true politeness to do so. These typical characteristics can be clearly seen here:

XIX “On meeting a friend in any public place, do not boisterously salute, or proclaim her name aloud”

XLX “It is better to say too little than too much in company; let your conversation be consistent with your sex and age”

XLIV “Cultivate a soft tone of voice and a courteous mode of expression”

XCVIII “When a gentleman who has been properly introduced requests the honor of dancing with you, you will not refuse unless you have a previous engagement”

LI “ Do not appear abstracted while another person is speaking; and never interrupt another by intruding a remark of your own

LIV “Rather be silent than talk nonsense”

CLXXXVIII “The most obvious mark of good breeding and good taste is sensitive regard for the feelings of others”

Following these etiquette guidelines would result in achieving the Victorian Ideal, a woman of weak, submissive, angelic, and polite behavior. However, as the 20th century approached, these restricting standards gradually evaporated. The 1900s became a booming century for women, demanding change and fighting for more rights. Although we have departed from the strict ideals pushed on women in the Victorian era, it is still expected of women today to hold up some form of ladylike appearances and behavior, compared to men.

References:

True Politeness: A Hand-book of Etiquette for Ladies By an American Lady. New York: Geo. A. Leavitt, 1847. Print.

Fortin, Elaine. “Early Nineteenth Century Attitudes Toward Women and Their Roles as Represented By Literature Popular in Worcester, Massachusetts.” Teach Us History. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Aug. 2015.

Howe, Daniel Walker. “American Victorianism as a Culture.” American Quarterly 27.5 (1975): 507. JSTOR. Web.

Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18.2 (1966): n. pag. Web.

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One thought on “Etiquette for a Victorian Lady

  1. Pingback: On Display: “True Politeness:” The Daily Life of a Victorian Lady | Object of the Week

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