When I was a child, my mother was always telling me to sit up straight, cross my legs at my ankles, straighten my dress after I sat. Then there was the don’t talk with my mouth full, use your fork, not your fingers. We always gave our seats to our elders, whether at home, in a waiting room, or on a bus. Myriads of other mannerly things were drilled into us. We learned to curtsey and the boys to bow in etiquette classes at school and no slang was ever allowed to slip through our lips while in school.
Date decorum was observed, and any boy wanting to make an impression on a girl’s parents wouldn’t dream of honking their horn for the girl to come out. Rather, he would come to the door, endure scrutiny by the adults and siblings present and escort her to the car, where he opened the door for her.
Manners have changed since my childhood, but those were less strict than when my grandparents were young. Over the next several posts for 2023, I’ll be giving you a peek into Victorian etiquette that ruled the life of the well-bred and pious American for close to two-hundred years.
Let’s start with some fun etiquette tips from The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette by Professor Thomas E. Hill. It is a collection of some of his advice that spanned two books previously. I found this 1993 reprint while visiting the gift shop at the Mark Twain Museum in Connecticut. Professor Hill desired to educate those of lower social standing on how to conduct themselves in “polite society” and perhaps lead to opportunities to better themselves. His instruction may have influenced Emily Post’s books on etiquette a century later.
I want to mention some that have definitely gone by the wayside.
Introductions and the use of last names in public
A man was always introduced to a woman first. And it was poor manners for a woman to introduce herself to a man. Always, someone she knew did the introduction. The only exception would be if a man saw a woman in need of assistance, and after giving aid, she could then introduce herself.
Not only would people address one another by their last names in public, but Professor Hill also recommended that married couples do the same. I can’t imagine addressing my husband as Mr. Huff at church or other public events. Christian names (first names) were used only in family circles, with close friends of the same sex, and engaged couples.
If you needed to get the attention of someone whose name you didn’t know, you always referred to them as sir, miss or madam. Children, whose name you didn’t know or remember, were called My Boy, Good Lad, Young Lady, Little Miss and other cutsey titles.
A boy under 15 was addressed as master rather than mister. But if the boy was larger and filled out like a man, then he would be given the title mister. I felt sorry for the slower developing teen boy, who might have been more mature than the larger lad but was assumed to be a child based on his stature rather than his maturity.
If one meets in public, even if you know them well, you were to address them by their last name. So, best friends, Emily and Mary would greet each other as Mrs. Hart and Mrs. Clemens after church or in the mercantile. This was a form of respect.
Professor Hill frowned on greeting others as Ol’ Fellow or even Hello, George. I’d imagine he’d think my boys were quite rude greeting each other as Bra, Bro, or some other nickname they had for each other, no matter where they might meet.
The proper curtsey
As I mentioned earlier, I, along with my peers, learned a proper curtsey or bow in elementary school. Other than square dance segments in P.E. class, I don’t recall ever using those skills.
During the 19th and early 20th century past, every well-bred female and servant gave a proper curtsey. Because single women did not shake hands with men when introduced, they would nod or curtsey. Professor Hill gives specific instructions to women to curtsey with slow and measured grace when introduced.
Offering only two fingers means you’re a snob and consider those offering their hand beneath you.
It is also insulting to offer a limp hand to someone who has been cordial when offering their hand
Never hold the hand to tightly or shake it too vigorously.
A firm handshake lasting no more than two to three seconds is proper.
A firm handshake is still encouraged with clients or patients. Today, even in a public setting, it seems a hug is given to those business associates they’ve gotten to know well. After a brief handshake, one pulls the other in for a quick back pat. Professor Hill would roll over in his grave.
Next month I’ll share a few more outdated manners and some that have stood the test of time.
Cindy Ervin Huff is an Award-winning author of Historical and Contemporary Romance. She loves infusing hope into her stories of broken people. She is addicted to reading and chocolate. Her idea of a vacation is visiting historical sites and an ideal date with her hubby of almost fifty years would be the theater.
Visit her website and sign up for her newsletter and receive some free short stories as a thank you. www.cindyervinhuff.com
Angelina’s Resolve: Book 1 of Village of Women
Proving her skills are equal to a man’s may cost her more than she ever imagined.
Modern-thinking Angelina DuBois is determined to prove her cousin Hiram wrong. He fired her from the architect firm she helped grow when her father’s will left the business to Hiram. Using her large inheritance and architectural degree, she sets out to create a village run by women—Resolve, Kansas.
Carpenter and Civil War veteran Edward Pritchard’s dream of building homes for Chicago’s elite must be put on hold until he gains references. Serving as a contractor under Angelina’s well-known DuBois name provides that opportunity. But can Angelina trust her handsome new carpenter to respect her as his boss? Will the project take Edward one step closer to his goals, or will it make him a laughingstock? Can these two strong-willed people find love amid such an unconventional experiment?