I found it coincidental that just after posting about Miss Austen, I received a local  theater’s newsletter which lists some rules of etiquette of the era. The theater is showing The Heiress, a play adapted from the novel Washington Square by Henry James. The proper etiquette required (and sometimes violated) by proper lads and lasses during the 1800’s and early 1900’s apparently so overwhelm the female protagonist of the play that she fears going out in public for fear of ridiculing her father. A few of us have had various discussions about the etiquette of past eras, and I thought the following rules from Frost’s Laws and By-Laws of American Society as quoted in theater’s newsletter might interest a few parties. These may be considered American, but they helped explain at bit of the behavior of some of the characters in Miss Austen’s books. My own parenthetical remarks follow. Though that may be a breach of etiquette, too.

Some Laws and By-Laws of American Society by Frost (not sure which Frost):

Never introduce people to each other unless you are sure the acquaintance so commenced will be mutually agreeable.

To introduce to a friend a person who is in any way objectionable, is an insult which fully justifies a withdrawal of friendship.

A person who, from youth, social position, or any other cause, stands in the inferior position of the two persons to be introduced to each other, must be introduced to the superior. A gentleman is always to be introduced to a lady. Never a lady to a gentleman. (The party of the first part shall hereafter be known as the party of the first part . . .)

Gentlemen who meet at the house or rooms of a mutual friends are not obliged to recognize one another if they meet again elsewhere.

A lady is not obliged to afterwards recognize a partner with whom she may have danced at a ball. . . . if she has danced several times with the gentlemen, it will be a question between her and her conscience how far she may consider herself justified in passing by without notice one who has extended to her so much courtesy. (Personally, I just consider this rude. I guess it didn’t matter how this snubbing would affect the man’s feelings. Wouldn’t it be simply polite to just nod . . . well, not nod, that would be vulgar —see later rule. Smile maybe? None of these mention smiling as bad. Or would that be too familiar? Greet him by title? Would you have to go around the whole night avoiding eye contact? Ugh. High school dances all over again. Some things don’t change . . . )

A lady must first recognize a gentleman by bowing before he is at liberty to salute her. (This would be a slightly formal bow, as a nod is vulgar — see later rule.) Etiquette requires the strictest deference to her desire in this respect. Should she recognize him, he should raise his hat a little from his head, with the hand farthest from her, and return her salutation with a slight inclination of the body. (So, this could mean that we know whether or not she likes him—unless she likes to say hello to everyone—but since he’s bound to salute any lady, only his friends are certain about his feelings toward any lady in particular? I can see the men now. “Hey, there she is. Has she seen you?” “I don’t know, let’s see.” “Wait for it, but don’t look so expectant, man!” “Ha! There’s the bow!” “Yes!” I guess one way to let someone know, “Hey, I like you!” without causing a scandal is to write them a letter like Cpt. Wentworth did to Anne. And Lady Meredith can be proud of my ability to recall this reference.)

A lady should never stop in the street to salute a gentleman friend, nor may a gentleman join a lady in the street.

Married ladies are allowed more freedom in such matters. It is against all established laws of etiquette for young unmarried ladies to do more than bow to a gentleman in the street. Unless related, or upon terms of intimate friendship with a gentleman, a lady should never salute excepting by a slightly formal bow. A nod is vulgar, even when exchanged by intimate friends. (Cool. Married life rules. Though you might get a whole other set of etiquette rules to follow. At least you can finally talk to people.)

Never will a gentleman so far imitate a vulgar clown as to smack a friend on the back, poke him in the ribs, or clap his hand upon his shoulder. (Well, men. What do you have to say for yourselves?)

A gentleman must always hand a lady a chair, open the door for her to pass in or out, remove anything that may be in her way, and pick up anything she may drop, even if she is an entire stranger to him. (I picture these men scurrying around in a panic moving a chair here, table there, a handkerchief here, trying to clear the way for their ladies. Sorry, men. I guess we didn’t make it to easy for you!)

It is unladylike to stand with arms a-kimbo or folded. (Sorry, ladies! Maybe that’s why they often held something like a fan or sat with their hands folded in their lap. Of course, with arms casually clasped behind your back or hanging at your side, it’s easier for your kind gentleman friend to sneak a bit of a hand squeeze in as he passed you at those parties. Gasp! Can’t do that with arms folded.)

And the oddest, yet a most interesting one:
No gentleman or lady will ever be guilty of personality in conversation. No wit, however keen; no sarcasm, however humorous, can make personal remarks anything but rude and vulgar. (Well. I guess this is where you truly had to understand one another to get any subtle reference to anything in the conversation. Maybe, as Der Meister said, this is why the weather was such a common topic of conversation. Admittedly, this is where I would fail and I would probably be ostracized by proper society, watching the proper women whisper to each other behind their hands, then purse their lips and shake their heads at me in disgust as I pass by.)

Fellow followers of today’s etiquette, I cordially invite you to comment.


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