An 1890s guide to Etiquette for English Gentlemen
or, how to keep yourself from looking like an ass if you happen to go back in time
The rules are many. Very many. Extraordinarily many. So many, in fact, that little books were often published in order to help young men keep them straight. But you had to commit them to memory--it would be the ultimate in bad form to get caught with one on your person. What follows are just a few of the more important rules. Are they boring? Can be. Tedious? Most of the time. But they passed for the social norm in a world before World War I, World War II, and MTV.
As a caveat, I would simply remind readers that this is the 19th Century we're speaking of, and in many ways it was not a particularly enlightened time. So if you're going to adopt any of these habits, choose them carefully, and please bear in mind that some of them may get you smacked.
On that note, I would mention one rule in this general introduction:
The Basic Underlying Principle of All Etiquette
Chivalry isn't dead, never was, never will be. It is to be assumed, without question, that the lady is the superior by virtue of her sex (if not by her virtue). Always keep this in mind, and they might forgive you the stupid stuff you will end up doing later in spite of yourself.
Introductions-What to Say, and Who Says it First
This lesson begins with this warning: INTRODUCTIONS ARE A SERIOUS BUSINESS. Treat them as such. Introductions should happen neither by mistake, nor by accident, if either are avoidable. The introducer has the responsibility of deciding in advance whether or not the subjects in question will be mutually benefited by knowing each other, so it takes a degree of personal candor. You like your friends, but your other friends may not.
Keep Your Hands to Yourself
One does not offer one's hand to a lady. Upon being introduced, bow. She will curtsy, slightly, or gently bow in acknowledgment.
The gentleman is introduced to the lady, never the other way around, and he is always honored in the introduction. So genuflect, you little twerp. But do it sincerely. Not too much. Ok, there. Good.
And you must get the lady's permission before presenting a gentleman to her. That's right--in the old days, they'd tell you, up front and with no mistake, whether or not they were interested.
You Don't Really Know Me
One should not bow to someone one has met casually at the house of a mutual friend, if one has not been introduced. Bows are for people with whom one is acquainted; you are not acquainted if you have not been introduced.
The Awkward Third Party
One of my favorites-I revert to it frequently. If one is walking with a friend, and happens to run into another, one is not obligated--indeed, one is discouraged--to introduce them to each other. So one can completely ignore the first friend while carrying on a conversation with the second, leaving the first to smile absent-mindedly, look in window shops, and half-heartedly laugh at comments you make even though he really has no idea what you're talking about.
Out-of-Doors-The Show on the Road
Stepping out with your baby? Can't go wrong, 'cause you're in right? RUBBISH. Etiquette in an indoor/outdoor sport; there are rules for clay, pavement, and grass play.
That nod we modern folk do when passing-that sort of what's-up head jerk-that's right out. So is just touching the brim of your hat -- you are wearing a hat, aren't you? Kings Charles II and George IV always took off their hats, and neither one of them was entirely mad. Follow their example. And do so with your left hand, in case you need to shake hands with someone you know.
Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back
As always, anything for a lady. If you know her well enough to address her, take no half-measures! Turn right around and walk beside her, even is she's headed in the opposite direction. When you've spoken your piece, you may take your leave.
If you don't know her well enough, don't even bow before she gives you recognition.
Get Off Your High Horse (and Put out that Cigarette)
Fairly self-explanatory--if she's on foot, so must you be. Dismount. And lose whatever you're smoking, post-haste.
This one is well-known among people who know it. Always give the lady the wall. This is not an instruction to ram her off the road, but for the gentleman to walk closest to the street, so that the oncoming Broughham will splatter mud onto you, not her.
Dress-There's No Way Around It. You're Going to Have to Wear a Tie
The clothes make the man. This is probably the most important thing not to screw up. The principles of dress--oh, for God's sake, tuck your shirt in.
Labels on the Inside, People.
Being too much in fashion is as bad as being too much out of it. Your clothes shouldn't be calling attention to you. For that, you must rely on grace, charm, and wit. So that's me out. If someone comments on how lovely your cravat is, well, it's you're fault for wearing it. This is an excellent and humorous way to keep a 19th Century man changing his clothes all evening.
What to Wear, What to Wear?
- Morning: Frock-coats, double-breasted waistcoats, trousers of light or dark color, as the season dictates.
- Evening: Black. Only black. A dress-coat if you're expecting company.
- Balls, Parties, etc.: A black dress-coat, black trousers, black or white waistcoat, white cravat, white gloves, and patent-leather boots. Tailcoats on all but informal occasions. Guess what color. You are now penguinized.
Your evening handkerchief can be any color you like. Provided you like white.
Loads of jewellery? Tasteless throughout the ages. Do restrain yourself from gaudy displays of your family wealth. That's for the lady of the house to do. Keep it down to a watch, a signet ring, and a pair of decently small studs.
At The Table-Elbows, People, Elbows
Now that you've dressed, we have to keep you from getting food all over yourself and your guests. Believe in utensils. They are your friends. And women are delicate creatures, you barbarians. They can see you eating, they don't need to be troubled by hearing about it. Avoid any auditory indications.
Be good with a knife.
This is as polite as it is practical. If you're a man, you can carve, and carve well. There is nothing more disgraceful than mercilessly hacking away at a piece of meat or poultry. It's already dead. You're just there to divide it into convenient pieces.
Do not, though, be so good with a knife that you can convey your food to your mouth with it. This is in unutterably bad taste. In fact, I can't believe I just uttered it.
Don't wait until the others have been served. That is SO 18th Century. If your food is too hot, at least try to look like you're beginning by picking up your utensils.
Red with Meat, White with Fish. How Hard Could it Be?
A damn bit harder than that. Here's how it breaks down, roughly:
with milk, got everything else?
Conversation-Mind Your Tongue
Oscar Wilde was famous for his witticisms--but he thought them up well in advance, then directed the discourse so that he could use them. No one's asking you to be Wilde -- green carnations being hard to come by these days, but conversation is still more scripted performance than Night at the Improv.
Know Your Audience
Your conversation should be adapted to the company you're keeping--no easy thing in 1890, especially in mixed-sex gatherings. If the ladies of the group are of the formally educated sort, compliment them by channeling the conversation into areas of their developing expertise.
If they are not, avoid political, scientific, and commercial subjects. Stick only to subjects that might interest them. If you're not sure--hope there's some other gentleman in the crowd that'll take the leap for you. If it's a mixed bag of people, create a distraction, and run.
People's Favorite Topic
Themselves. So ask about their affairs. Take an interest. Ask her about her last ball, her kids if she's got them, her music if she plays, her paintings if she paints. Don't care? FAKE IT. But as always, don't go overboard. You don't want to risk looking nosy or ignorant of other topics.
Not everyone loves them. Hell, most people don't even know them. So don't use a classical quotation in front of ladies without providing an apology or a translation. The display of too much learning in front of anybody
is bad form, so keep that diatribe
about the history of South American Zinc
tucked away in the back of your mind.
Sorry, Dude, I was Totally Spaced
To listen well is as great an art to speak well-most often because it's enormously more difficult (see all above). But it isn't enough to listen--you actually have to look interested. This went very far with ladies in 1890, and it's no trifling matter now.
Visitation--Get Your Damn Feet Off the Coffee Table
I'm already not comfortable in someone else's house. Generally, try to fall in line as best you can with the habits of the household.
Wakka wakka wakka was Fozzy Bear's--but that's not what I mean. It's literally a card one leaves at another's home to let that person know one has stopped by. It should have the name, preceded by title if one has one, and a home and club address in the left-hand corner. Lettering should be in a small, Italian font.
This is simple. If you need to look at your watch during your visit, ask permission. And apologize. Make the excuse you have to be someplace else, even if you just want to get the hell out of there. Seriously. Lie.
Always Welcome. But Sometimes Unwanted.
Be prepared to amuse yourself as much as possible, as it's not your hosts' responsibility to keep you perpetually entertained. And by amuse yourself, it is not meant that you should lay about the house chatting up the ladies. That's being a nuisance. Better you should retire to the billiard room or feign an engagement and hit the streets.
A Brief list of Do's and Do Not's-Well, Just Do Not's
- Do not scrape your plate.
- Do not talk loudly in public.
- Do not wear anything but a silk hat with a frock or tail-coat.
- Do not wear a collar or use a handkerchief that is not perfectly clean.
- Do not cut your nails anywhere but your own room.
- Do not moisten your fingers to turn pages in a book.
- Do not turn your trousers up at the bottom unless it's muddy out.
- Do not use toothpicks in public.
- Do not smoke just before entering the presence of a lady.
- Do not permit the lady to pay for refreshments, vehicles, theatres, etc. If she insists on paying you back later--you must of course defer to her wishes.
- Do not boast of your birth, rank, wealth, friends, travel, or anything else that is yours.
That about does it.
All of these rules above, and many more like them, were all enacted very seriously until the first World War, which radically altered established social convention.
Remember, these are only the very basics, and true etiquette extends to virtually every aspect of existence.
As you can see, it appears to be largely based on deceit, artifice, dissembling, and lying in general. So you might want to practice those. If you do it well, your closest, dearest friends will never really know what you think, which is of course really the only way to keep them.
No one said it would be easy. Now go have fun!