One of my passions is etiquette. I love reading vintage etiquette books, especially some of the really old etiquette from the 1800s. One of my many collections consists of old etiquette books. I was so pleased to find one entitles “A Manual of Etiquette with Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding” by Sophia Orne (Edwards) Johnson, published under her pseudo name “Daisy Eyebright”, in 1873. She includes a quote from Lord Byron, “There’s nothing in the world like etiquette, In kingly chambers or imperial halls, as also at the race and county balls.” It’s true. There is nothing quite like etiquette. It doesn’t just belong in the grand palaces and mansions of high society, but also in the humble farm house and everyday life that surrounds most of us. It’s not just for the high class, but reaches across all socioeconomic barriers and begs us to conduct ourselves with dignity for ourselves and consideration for others.
“There’s nothing in the world like etiquette, In kingly chambers or imperial halls, as also at the race and county balls.”
Etiquette is the third area that needs to be reclaimed in our lives. Manners and etiquette will never go out of style, but somehow they’ve slipped away from daily habit. It’s funny to watch people when I start talking about etiquette, I’m greeted with a quirked eyebrow and a “that’s a little old fashioned isn’t it?” question. My dear husband gets nervous that I’m going to dress him up in a full tuxedo and make him speak using the King’s English. Neither are necessary. There are many types of etiquette we can study and practice. Anything from the proper way to court a young lady (which may be just a tad old fashion, but still very romantic) to how to set a table for a formal dinner party, to letter writing and communication etiquette. I will admit, that quite a bit of the 1800’s etiquette is definitely out of date. For example, there is an entire section in a book titled “The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness: A Complete Handbook for the Use of the Lady in Polite Society” published by Florence Hartley in 1860, that discusses proper etiquette for calling, or receiving callers. The “calls” are referencing actual visits, not telephone calls, as telephones didn’t exist until 1876 and weren’t widely used until 1900 . This section talked about the proper times to call on a friend, what to wear, how long to stay, and that you never ever call without a calling card. Calling cards were a way to let your friend know that you had stopped by to see her, if she wasn’t available for your visit. They were also a way for the receiver to keep track of who had visited her so that she may return the visit at a later date.
Another section discusses proper dress etiquette for those traveling, especially women traveling alone. There were correct colors, fabrics, and even styles for dress that were appropriate and those that were completely forbidden. There were proper ways to conduct oneself in a hotel, activities one did and did not do, tipping etiquette, and so much more. My favorite topic though would have to be table and hostess etiquette. Everything from the meticulous way a table was set to the conversation around the table. For example, once seated the hostess began conversation by speaking to the person on their right. This continued around the table ensuring everyone had a conversation companion. About halfway through the meal, the host/hostess would “turn the table” which was a signal to then turn to the person of their left and begin conversation. Topics such as religion and politics were considered vulgar around women and were avoided at the dinner table.
I’ve had a great time reading through these books and learning about the etiquette that shaped the 19th century. While some etiquette may be old fashioned and obsolete, there is plenty that still applies today. I enjoy reading through these etiquette books and pulling out truths that still apply to us now, 200 years removed from early 19th century. In the book “Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms“, written by Thomas Hill in the 1880’s, Mr. Hill includes many areas of daily life and the etiquette that goes hand in hand. The third area we should reclaim in our everyday lives in the beauty of this etiquette.
Etiquette of Conversation
The first area we should reclaim is the etiquette of conversation. In our current culture there are so many ways to communicate without talking that the art of vocal conversation is on the decline. People simply forgot how to speak to one another. As Thomas Hill stated in his manual, “our success in life largely rests upon our ability to converse well”. That was true in 1880 and it’s still true in 2020, despite how many options we have to keep us from talking. Here are a few pointers if you’re wanting to improve your conversational game:
1.) Speak clearly. Don’t say things that can be easily misunderstood or misinterpreted. This leads to confusion and misjudgment.
2.) Do not engage with something who clearly wants to argue. Debating a topic in a cordial setting is acceptable, but do not engage in needless arguments just for the sake of being right. Your time is more valuable than that. If someone just wants to argue, disengage.
3.) Be careful how much you talk about yourself. It’s ok to discuss your dreams and achievements, but do not dominate the conversation with yourself as the sole topic.
4.) Show courtesy to a newcomer to the conversation. Find a way to include them in the conversation, or tactfully change the subject so that they can join.
5.) Remain calm and friendly during conversation. You may be correct, but you will win more friends by remaining calm, cool, and collected while speaking. Smile.
6.) Do not use profanity. I can’t stress this one enough. Profanity is the uneducated’s replacement for words they don’t know. If you feel you can’t get through a sentence without it, don’t speak. You will immediately lose respect.
7.) If your mother, grandmother, pastor, and Jesus himself were all standing in front of you, would you say it? If not, don’t say it when they’re not there.
Etiquette of the Table
The second area to reclaim is the art of table etiquette. No it is not old fashion to appear well mannered at the dinner table. There are few things worse than being at the table with someone who is slouching, slurping, chewing with their mouth wide open, and talking over everyone else present. There are table etiquette rules form 1880 that do not apply to us today. For example “never hold bones in your fingers while you eat from them.” Let me tell you friend, Buffalo Wild Wings did not exist in 1880 and there is no way under Heaven that I’m eating a hot wing with a fork and knife. Another outdated etiquette rule is to never come to the table in your shirtsleeves. Women were expected to be dressed in semi-formal evening gowns and men in full suits. No, just no. I would encourage you to dress in nice clean clothes for dining out, but we just don’t dress like that anymore. especially for meals. Black tie formal is not necessary for lasagna night at home y’all. The following etiquette rules are ones that do still apply to us now in 2020.
1.) Sit up straight and keep your elbows off the table. Do not lay your head down on the table during meal time, and this includes children. Do not tip your chair back and never place your feet on the table.
2.) Wait until your host or hostess has been seated to begin eating. If dining out, wait until everyone has received their food to begin.
3.) Pace yourself and finish one bite before taking the next. Do not overfill your mouth. Try not to talk with food in your mouth.
4.) The napkin should be placed on your lap and only brought up to dab, or quickly swipe your mouth when needed. Do not place your soiled napkin on the table during the meal. If you need to excuse yourself to the restroom, fold the napkin and place it in your chair. When the meal is over, you can placed the soiled napkin to the left of your plate.
5.) Do not be rude or disrespectful to the waiter or waitress. You do not have to apologize for making a request, but don’t overdo the requests. You are not their only task. Be kind, patient, polite, and tip generously.
6.) Do not complain about a dish served to you. If invited to dinner, notify the host or hostess of your food allergies ahead of time, but never your dislikes.
7.) When setting the table, be sure that it is clean. Be sure all dishware and cutlery is clean. The dinner plate should be placed in the center of the setting, about an inch away from the table’s edge. A salad plate can be placed on top, followed by a soup bowl if necessary. The napkin can be placed on top of the plate, or to the left, folded neatly. The fork(s) are placed to the left and the knife is placed to the right blade side facing the plate. A spoon can be placed to the right of the knife if the meal requires a spoon to eat. The bread plate and butter knife are to be placed at the top left corner. The water and wine glasses go to the top right corner. A dessert spoon/fork can be placed longways above the dinner plate. If needed, a name card can be placed immediately above the dessert cutlery. When using cutlery during dinner, one starts with the outside pieces and works their way inwards. See example below.
Etiquette of the Street
The following is a collection of “street” etiquette that has been mostly forgotten, especially by the younger generation.
1.) Both men and women, when meeting someone on the sidewalk, pass to the right.
2.) Do not run across the street, especially in front of cars. Wait for a crosswalk or walk light from the traffic controller.
3.) When a funeral procession is seen, safely pull to the side of the road and wait for them to pass. Same goes for emergency response vehicles.
4.) Do not stare at stranger, make rude remarks, call out loudly, or make unpleasant noises. For Heaven’s sake men, do not “cat call” a lady.
5.) Do not smoke around others. Those with allergies or asthma do not need to be subjected to your ill habit. Smoke at home, or in a designated area, but never in the general public.
Unclassified Laws of Etiquette
This collection is general etiquette to be observed while out and about in public, or in private. Equally as important as the first three topics above, but never discussed as much.
1.) Do not betray a confidence given by family or friend. Secrets that are not yours to tell should remain behind your closed lips.
2.) Do not read mail not intended for you, unless given explicit permission by the intended reader.
3.) Do not judge another for a fault you yourself possess.
4.) If all seats are taken, offer yours to the elderly, pregnant, or ill. If they decline, keep your seat.
5.) Do not point out physical flaws in others for which they have no control.
6.) Always be humble and kind.
In summary, not all etiquette is outdated. By refining our use of conversation and table etiquette, we can improve our status, influence, and even our confidence as we interact in the world around us. Paying close attention to “street” etiquette and even the unclassified laws of etiquette can make a difference in the way you are viewed and respected. If you would like to know more, check out my workshops and seminar options listed under Services. Hopefully you enjoyed reading a few of the etiquette subjects from the 1800’s and I do hope you found the etiquette topics of today helpful.
Until next time,