Proper etiquette, or good manners, refers to the socially acceptable way in which a person conducts himself or herself when in the presence of others. These rules of public behavior have probably been a part of the social fabric since humans organized themselves into a hierarchal regimen of social standing (see George Washington’s Rules of Good Behavior, ca. 1746). During the reign of Louis XIV of France, the expectations of proper social behavior when in the presence of the King were codified and distributed on small cards to members of his court to assure uniformity of court behavior. In French, this placard or card upon which these rules of behavior were listed was referred to as an “etiquette.” This term soon became the synonym for acceptable public behavior.
A by-product of the transformation of the United States from an agrarian to an industrial-based economy during the early nineteenth century was the rapid expansion of its Middle Class. The new-found prosperity of the members of this class often propelled them into unfamiliar social situations. By mid-century, a number of books had been published that provided a guide to these newly affluent citizens on proper social behavior. The twentieth century witnessed a proliferation of this guidance as authors such as Amy Vanderbilt, Emily Post and Miss Manners offered succeeding generations guidance on the ever-changing rules of proper social behavior.
"After twilight, a young lady would not be conducting herself in a becoming manner, by walking alone. . ."
Emily Thornwell was a noted social advisor in America during the nineteenth century. Here are a few nuggets of behavioral wisdom she passed on to young women at the time:
Gait and Carriage
"A lady ought to adopt a modest and measured gait; too great hurry injures the grace which ought to characterize her. She should not turn her head on one side and on the other, especially in large towns or cities, where this bad habit seems to be an invitation to the impertinent. A lady should not present herself alone in a library, or a museum, unless she goes there to study, or work as an artist.
Gentlemen's attendance. - After twilight, a young lady would not be conducting herself in a becoming manner, by walking alone; and if she passes the evening with any one, she ought, beforehand, to provide some one to come for her at a stated hour; but if this is not practicable, she should politely ask of the person whom she is visiting, to permit a servant to accompany her."
Attentions to Others
When you are passing in the street, and see coming towards you a person of your acquaintance, whether a lady or an elderly person, you should offer them the wall, that is to say, the side next the houses. If a carriage should happen to stop, in such a manner as to leave only a narrow passage between it and the houses, beware of elbowing and rudely crowding the passengers, with a view to get by more expeditiously; wait your turn, and if any one of the persons before mentioned comes up, you should edge up to the wall, in order to give them the place. They also, as they pass, should bow politely to you.
Raising the Dress
When tripping over the pavement, a lady should gracefully raise her dress a little above her ankle. With the right hand, she should hold together the folds of her gown, and draw them towards the right side. To raise the dress on. both sides, and with both hands, is vulgar. This ungraceful practice can only be tolerated for a moment, when the mud is very deep.
Speaking to Your Husband
A lady should not say "my husband," except among intimates; in every other case she should address him by his name, calling him "Mr." It is equally proper, except on occasions of ceremony, and while she is quite young, to designate him by his christian name.
Never use the initial of a person's name to designate him; as "Mr. P.," "Mr. L.," etc. Nothing is so odious as to hear a lady speak of her husband, or, indeed, any one else, as "Mr. B."
How a lady should be spoken of by her husband. - It is equally improper for a gentleman to say "my wife," except among very intimate friends; he should mention her as "Mrs. So-and-so." When in private, the expression "my dear," or merely the christian name, is considered in accordance with the best usage among the more refined.
This eyewitness account appears in: Thornwell, Emily, The lady's guide to perfect gentility, in manners, dress, and conversation ... also a useful instructor in letter writing ... (1859).