Ladies, have you ordered a new batch of calling cards to show the names of your daughters, as well as which day of the week gentlemen are permitted to call on them?
Gentlemen, do you bite your nails, lounge in a chair, sit with knees far apart, or point a finger at something?
If the ladies answered no and the gents answered yes to the aforementioned questions, you would have offended the etiquette police of the late 19th Century America.
There’s probably no reason today you need to know that. But I need to.
In my alternate universe of acting, I’ve been cast in the lead role of an art gallery owner in an original stage drama set in the late 1800s. To achieve utmost authenticity, I’ve started researching the general social behavior of that era. Much of it remains, to this day, either relevant or advisable.
I found a treasure trove of information on a website called Mass Historia, by Walter Nelson.
What gentleman would not want to walk in the way prescribed by “Martine’s Handbook” in 1866: “...get rid of that awkward, lounging, swinging gate [sic] of a clown.” (The writer meant “gait,” as in stride.) Martine goes on to instruct in considerable detail how a proper gentleman should carry himself: “...one must advance or thrust forward the chest…holding the arms a little forward…the head is to be held back…the chin kept down.”
It’s hard enough for actors to memorize lines, which we call being “off book.” In this throwback role, it’s daunting to think I also have to worry about walking off-kilter.
“Ninety percent of everything you find in a Victorian etiquette manual is nothing more than common courtesy and would not seem out of place today,” counsels Mr. Nelson. If only that were better observed by more members of modern society.
Who cannot relate to parental admonitions such as “don’t chew with your mouth open” or “don’t interrupt someone when they’re talking.”
That said, it would be quite the challenge today to adhere to other table manners held in high regard a couple of centuries ago.
For one, men were expected to wear a jacket at the dinner table. Needless to say, a well-bred man must “never allow butter, soup or other food to remain on your whiskers.” How about on your tie? I’m pretty good at that.
Here’s something I can guarantee you I never have done: “Ask a servant in a low tone for what you want.”
Under “Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture,” we learn that, “At a sign from the hostess, the ladies all rise from the table, and repairing to the drawing-room, leave the gentlemen to their own devices.” I’m not sure what devices they mean, but I’m guessing it’s not smartphones.
A few other points to keep in mind next time you’re supping: “Eat soup with the side of the spoon, without noise.” I fail that test. “It is bad taste to mix food on the plate.” They would have loved those Swanson frozen TV dinners that came in three-compartment trays.
For my character, I also have to decide which Victorian Age-appropriate attire to don. I won’t be putting on the dog, thanks to this advice from the 1889 guide “Modern Manners and Social Forms”: “Don’t dress like a ‘dude’ or a ‘swell’; nor carry a little poodle dog (a man’s glory is his strength and manliness—not in aping silly girls).” Clearly, that author is not a fan of hit movie “Legally Blonde.”
Hats are another matter. I’ve always warmed to wearing them, especially in cold weather, and look forward to trying on the stylish headwear that once was au courant in America. The prevailing etiquette held that “a man outdoors without a hat would be a subject of comment.” Today, it’s our unfortunate fate that logo caps have largely supplanted the dash of fedoras, homburgs and other chapeaux.
I don’t want to say that my favorite section in Mass Historia is the one titled Vice, so I’ll just keep my mouth shut like a good gentleman, and share two of the choicer passages.
“A man doesn’t think he had a good time unless he has a headache the next morning.”
“Few women understand, that in marrying, they have simply captured a wild animal, and staked their chances for future happiness on their ability to tame him. He is…possessed of noble qualities…but cherishes still his original savagery.” Sounds like that was plagiarized from a brochure for the Bronx Zoo.
Well, you’ll excuse me, because it’s feeding time, which means I better get back to my cage before the gates open and I have to perform for the crowds.
Media and marketing specialist Bruce Apar is Chief Content Officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner Agency. As “Bruce the Blog,” Apar is a weekly columnist for Halston Media newspapers and PennySaver, and a contributing writer for Westchester Magazine. Follow him as Bruce the Blog and Hudson Valley WXYZ on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.
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