Friday, July 22, 2011

Social Etiquette in the 1800s

As a writer, I’m usually leery of challenging myself, but there are times when it turns out to be fun. And I don’t merely mean making the leap from historical writing to contemporary and back again.  I’m talking about moving outside of my comfort zone.  To put it quite simply: my heroes have always been cowboys. *G*  Well, cowboys, gunfighters, lawmen, bounty hunters—in other words, men who don’t have “purty” manners and are basically take-me-as-I-am kind of guys.  And pairing them with a heroine who will at least pretend to be offended when he cusses, spits or smokes is a lot of fun.  But lately my heroes have been moving in another direction, and I find myself writing about men who either need to fit in with polite society, or who already belong to it. 

And that’s what has led me (kicking and screaming!) out of my comfort zone into the cold, frightening land of the unknown, LOL.  Sure I knew the basic customs of the era, but I’ve never written a character that had to—or wanted to-- adhere to them.  Some I already knew and have had fun deliberately ignoring in past stories. Others were no-brainers (ex: it’s bad manners to pick one’s teeth at the table. LOL. I’ll bet even my most trail-weary cowboy knows that one!) But they were all fun and chock full of "what if's" for having one character or another break the rules.  

Here are some of the more interesting tid bits my research has turned up:

It was not considered appropriate for a young man to approach a young lady. Even if they had already met, he must still be introduced by a mutual friend a second time before he can speak to her freely.

In any stage of courtship, the couple always walked apart - the only contact allowed was for him to offer her his hand over rough spots while walking.

Women never rode alone in a closed carriage with a man who was not a relative. (oooh isn't that what made Rhett Butler so scandalous?)

Women did not call on an unmarried gentleman at his home.

Men could not be received into the home if a woman was there alone, a family member must be present at all times.

A true gentleman always tips his hat when greeting a lady, opens doors and always walks on the outside.  (Sigh.)

When introduced to a man, a lady should never offer her hand, merely bow politely and say “I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”

A gentleman may delicately kiss a lady’s hand, forehead or at most, her cheek. (I suspect even my most noble heroes’ have broken this rule a time or two. *G*)

A lady should never be neglected.  A gentlemen should help her with her cloak, shawl or any other outer garment she may wish to remove. (A safe bet to say my heroes are quite capable in this area.)

When ascending a staircase with a lady, a gentleman is to go at her side or before her. 

Happy Writing! 


  1. The "rule" about the gentleman walking on the outside of the lady on the street brings back a funny, family memory. My brother, who is much older than I, and I were walking down the street in our small home town, and I was on the outside. He made me move on the inside so that he could protect me. At the time, I thought he was being overprotective, but now I realize he was being a perfect gentleman. Thanks for the wonderful information.

    ~Allison B.

  2. Makes you wonder how they remembered all those rules! But I suppose if you were born into it, it would seem natural. I could wish our society hadn't shed quite so many of those rules along the way :)

  3. Wow! How things have changed in 100 years or so! Besides avoiding scandal, following the rules was supposed to show consideration of others...something sadly lacking these days, seems like. So it's fun to read about times when such things were important to, well, almost everyone. Thanks for a reminder, Nicole!

  4. Okay then, so what happened between then and now??? The true gentleman are rare and far between these days LOL.

    But I do love your research...and its always fun to find those few little tidbits that can spark anything from a small scene to a whole book.

    Oh, and I must say, I do so love the cowboys too LOL.

  5. Fascinating stuff. We could use some of that social etiquette today! Where did you dig this stuff up?

  6. Great information! I knew a few but you made me rethink a few things my heroes may do in future books.

  7. Nic, I loved these. The last one is opposite what I had learned, though. When I was a young woman, an elderly man told me a gentleman precedes a lady if they are descending the stairs and there's not room for him beside her so that he may steady her if she stumbles. If they are ascending stairs, he goes behind he to catch her if she stmbles. Made sense to me.

  8. Wow, I knew some of this, but wow! Thanks so much for posting these rules, Nicola!

    I loved the blog!

    Faith V. Smith

  9. Great post. Such interesting details. Too bad we don't have at least some of those rules still in effect. Loved it!

  10. Ladies, thanks so much for stopping by. I agree wtih all of you, it's a shame some of these manners have fallen out of use.

    Claudia- I find this stuff in many different books and websites.

    Carolyn-- isn't it funny how you can find conflicting information on the same subject. LOL guess that gives authors the freedom to write it in a way that suits their characters.

    Thanks everyone for your comments!

  11. WHAT A GREAT POST, Nicole! Loved these rules. Sorry I am late getting by here, but I wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed this. Oh, yes, Rhett Butler. I always think of that scene in GWTW where Scarlett and her friend are talking and she whispers into the other girl's ear, and the girl replies, "No, but she was ruined, all the same!" LOL Thanks for these rules--shows how much society has changed, doesn't it?


  12. Thanks for coming by Cheryl. Glad you enjoyed them. It really does show you how much society has changed, doesn't it? And not necessarily in a good way.

    LOL I love that scene in GWTW too. Who doesn't find Rhett even more attractive when we learn he "is not received?" Love those bad boys. ;o)


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