At one time, etiquette and manners played a large role in southern society. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, etiquette may have changed but manners remained important. It was the goal of every little child to grow up and truly be seen as a charming American lady or gentleman. From hairstyles to how one dressed, etiquette defined who you were in society.
When a gentleman opens a door for a lady, retrieves something from the floor for her when it has been dropped, or removes his hat when entering a building, he is practicing the time honored tradition of etiquette. When a lady graciously accepts help from a gentleman, gently shakes a hand, or sends a handwritten thank you card, she is using manners that have been passed down through the generations.
Many of the rules are unfortunately outdated and have been out of practice for quite some time. Men and women are different in modern society. For men, it is difficult to know when a woman would like to be treated with old time manners, and for women it is difficult to know if a man is being truly polite or if she should be on her guard. In our post modern society, manners seem to be subjective. However, there was a time when society was governed by a specific set of rules that were taught to everyone from infancy.
Early American society was built on the bedrock of being polite, and those manners carried us through the middle of the last century. Women of society were treated with the utmost respect. When a lady walked into a room, all of the gentlemen in the room would stand. If she was already in the room but wandered into the presence of a gentleman, he would stand. When sitting together, if a lady stood, all of the gentlemen at the table or in the social setting would stand out of respect.
Neither men nor women could address a person by their first name in public. Men were to always greet a lady in public unless she acknowledged the gentleman first. If greeted first, a gentleman was to lift his hat towards the lady. Merely touching the brim of a hat or slightly tipping it was unacceptable and considered very rude. Men were never allowed to leave a lady they knew unattended unless they had been given permission.
Ladies were never loud. Their conversations were important but kept very private. Emotions were limited in public, and a lady never publicly revealed her true feelings on love or personal affections. She kept her opinions protected so as to not appear rude. If a lady was going to be treated with the utmost respect, she was to act in accordance with one who deserved to be respected. Being cared for by a gentleman was an honor that was to be graciously accepted but never (outwardly) expected.
People of society wore gloves while on the street, in church and when attending other formal occasions. They could be removed when eating or drinking, but not at any other time. Dark or gray colored gloves were to be worn during the day, and white or cream colored gloves were to be worn in the evenings.
During this time period, ladies wore large, full dresses that often held their shape with the assistance of a series of hoops. Sitting was already difficult, but the rules on how the sitting was to be done made practice for sitting a necessity. When sitting, ladies were never allowed to grab the hoops of her skirt, not even to sit comfortably. Lifting the skirt was allowed in order to walk up and down stairs, but only as high as necessary to not trip and fall. Being able to see a lady’s ankles was absolutely scandalous.
Social events of the 1800s and into the early part of the 20th century were filled with music, food and dancing. These events were a way to meet others out in society. Gentlemen would lead a woman on and off the dance floor, and a woman was to never refuse one gentleman and accept another for the same dance, unless the dance had been previously promised to another.
A gentleman would always thank a lady for the honor of dancing with her, and the lady was to smile and nod as her way of accepting the gratitude. Gentlemen were expected to dance frequently, never leaving a wallflower in the wings. If a willing but shy lady was on the side, a gentleman was to ask her to dance and never leave a young girl waiting, but gentlemen were never to dance with the same girl more than once or twice in the same evening, especially a spouse.
Ladies were never to cross their legs. When sitting, she could cross her legs at the ankles, but only for comfort and balance. This tradition carried on through the middle of the 20th century. As dresses and skirts became acceptably shorter and more manageable, crossing legs was still unacceptable.
Even crossing the ankles in the mid-century came with a specific set of rules. Ankles were to be crossed and to the side so as to easily keep the knees together. The knees were to face the person with whom you were speaking. If you were not in a conversation, your knees were to be turned to the left, keeping your ankles to the right and crossed in the most comfortable position.
The etiquette that was rooted in the 19th century may have varied a bit, but the importance of manners carried society well into the middle of last century. One rule that shifted greatly was the use of tobacco. While it was never acceptable to use tobacco in any form in front of a lady in the 19th century, by the 1950s, smoking was socially acceptable. In fact, any party was incomplete without cigarettes and almost everyone smoked. It was considered fashionable. A good hostess would be sure that cigarettes were readily available.
Dining has always been the place where etiquette was of the utmost importance. Up until the 1950s, being on time to a dinner party was always expected. There was no such thing as “being fashionably late,” when it came to arrival times. Dinner would be served when the last of the guests was seated. In the 19th century, the host would lead the guests into the dining area with the senior lady, whether of age or social standing, on his left arm while the hostess would take the left arm of the senior male guest and enter last.
The gentleman would then seat the lady he had escorted to the chair to their left. They would then remain standing until all ladies in the room had been seated. It was considered very rude for married couples to be seated together as they were considered to be together enough otherwise. Ladies would remove their gloves upon being seated and the gentlemen would remove theirs, placing them into their tailcoat pockets, just before taking their own seats.
Through the middle of the 20th century the rules of entering the dining area became less formal. However, decorum was still expected at dinner parties. If one was late to a dinner party in the 1950s, they would have to wait in another room until dinner was cleared. At that point they could join the other guests, therefore not interrupting the flow of the dinner already in progress.
Dish patterns as well as appropriate glassware were always expected at the host home. From a Tom Collins to a Manhattan, drinks were always served in an appropriate glass. Plastic, paper and disposable cutlery were never appropriate at either a cocktail or dinner party. The exception to this rule was the occasional napkin that was embossed or printed with a holiday theme. Drinks were served by the host who would take orders from guests. Alcohol bottles were never displayed and drinks were mixed and prepared in the pantry or other hidden areas of the home.
When anyone was coming to one of these amazing social events, fresh flowers or greenery was a must in any home. As the host, the chosen floral arrangement was just as important as the menu. Flowers added the color for the evening. A clean, fresh home spoke to the quality of the home.
When guests would arrive they would be served finger foods on beautifully decorated trays and platters. Parties were planned with a specific menu in mind and great detail was taken, down to the position of each piece of silverware. Each full place setting was positioned to allow 24 inches of personal space for each guest, and the dinner plate was positioned one inch from the edge of the table. The silverware would be placed so that each guest could use their service starting from the outside and working their way in as they dined on each course.
The rules of etiquette in days gone by may seem a bit overwhelming and dated. However, there is no doubt that when people spared no expense of time and effort it ensured that those around them felt important from the moment they walked into their presence until they said their final good-byes. No matter what you think about the rules that permeated the 1800s through the middle of the last century, there is no denying that they set a beautiful standard of elegance.
While manners and etiquette have changed over the centuries, there is a reason that we remember them with such high regard. In a day where anyone can say anything for any reason, remembering a time when controlling our temper, our words, and our actions in public allowed for a more disciplined and peaceful coexistence. Not all rules for etiquette made sense, but it does remind us of a simpler, more beautiful time. Taking the time to remember them may simply bring a smile to your face. Taking the time to show that style of etiquette to a stranger on the street may just bring a smile to theirs.