Friday, January 1, 2016

Etiquette and Gilded Age Polish

Aiming for polished perfection, daughters of wealthy parents are often sent to what are called "finishing schools."

Where Girls Are "Polished"

When the daughters of wealthy parents have completed their ordinary routine of studies at school, they are often sent to what are called finishing schools, where they are polished. There are a number of these schools in the larger cities. 

Do not suppose that at these institutions of learning: the girls are taught such common-place things as arithmetic, geography or practical studies of the ordinary sort. "Book learning" is practically omitted from the curriculum, being retained only so far as is necessary for the acquirement of knowledge indispensable to one who aspires to be a good conversationalist on the ordinary topics talked of in society.

The chief studies are languages, much proficiency in French being required, and a general smattering of French, English and German literature is also taught with the aid of books. In spite of the fact that only wealthy girls attend the schools, an atmosphere of comparative simplicity pervades most of them.

At one of the most exclusive in New York, French candies are almost unknown, and there is strict discipline, with very limited spending money, so that the attention of those to be polished may not be diverted from the serious matters In hand. Really, the discipline at this school is so strict that many of the girls, who have been petted and pampered all their lives, soon grow tired of it and abandon the school.

When once a girl becomes accustomed to the discipline of the school, however, she is usually loth to leave. Their food is of the best and is cooked by a French chef. They visit every theatrical attraction worth seeing and occupy a box at the opera almost nightly during the season; this round of gayety being varied during Lent by the organization of sewing classes, where they work for charity. 

Extravagance in dress is also tabooed. Each girl is allowed to have with her just five dresses when she enters in October. These dresses are two high neck evening dresses, two for everyday wear, and one for the street. The street dress must be suitable to wear to matinees and church, while the everyday gowns are worn indoors, except in the evening, when the evening dresses must be donned for dinner. The first step, therefore, is to teach the young women to ignore dress and make it subordinate to manners and accomplishments, which is one of the most difficult things for those not born to the purple to learn. 

As for spending money, no girl is allowed to have a greater allowance than $5 a month, out of which they must pay their car fares and buy pins, ribbons and other trifles. This prevents the eating of too much candy, which would be bad for the complexion. 

At one of the most exclusive in New York, French candies are almost unknown, and there is strict discipline, with very limited spending money, so that the attention of those to be polished may not be diverted from the serious matters In hand. 
The girls occupy separate, well furnished rooms, opening on a general parlor, which is shared by three or four pupils. The course of instruction occupies a year. First, the girl is taught how to walk down stairs, enter a room and say "How do you do?" How to greet an old friend and how to greet strangers; when to rise and when to remain seated; how to enter a carriage and how to alight; the etiquette of a carriage, how to drive, and the like. This work will be sufficient to occupy the first quarter, for it is by no means so simple a thing as it seems. 

During the second quarter is taught the etiquette of dining, how to preside as hostess, how to act as guest; how to enter a dining room with an escort, and the entire art of dining well, either as hostess or guest. A smattering of ceramics, so that the student may be able to critically examine china, is incidental to this course. 

Next comes Instruction in the etiquette of dances and other social functions. She is taught what to wear and how to act under every conceivable circumstance. The last quarter is devoted to the study of fashions in millinery and dresses of the day, together with instructions upon the leading, recent events in society and a thorough knowledge of the names of people who constitute society all the world over. 

When a young woman has completed such a course of training she is able to take her place in any circle. Unless she is naturally very stupid, she knows all there is of polite usage, and if she is very bright, and is backed by family and wealth, she may be a leader of society some day.—San Francisco Call, 1912

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Moderator and Editor for Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia

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