Old people are fond of saying, “Things were very different I when I was young,” usually referring to manners. So they were. But old people mean manners were more what manners should be, in their day. Possibly. But if among archaic books in some library, one ever finds a manual of past manners, one is impelled to doubt their superiority. Without criticising the vapors or other vain artificialities, they did very queer things in polite society 60 years ago. The books prove it.
Eliza Leslie of Philadelphia was an authority when our grandmothers were girls. She wrote about etiquette in “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” and in 1853 published “The Behavior Book,” which announced “instruction to ladies as regards their conversation, conduct in the street, shopping, introductions, entree to society, complexion, hands, the hair” and further, “a few habitual misbehavements noted during a long course of observation on a very diversified field.” And the things she observed!
“We have seen," she writes, “a young gentleman lift his plate of soup in both hands, hold it to his mouth and drink, or rather lap it up. This was at no other place than Niagara.” Somewhere on a diversified field, she also saw pie eaten with a fork, for she says, “It is an affectation of ultra fashion to eat pie with a fork, and has a very awkward and inconvenient look. Cut it up with your knife and fork, and then proceed to eat it, holding the fork in the right hand.”
Sweet potatoes were harpooned! “It is customary in eating sweet potatoes of size to break them in two and, taking a piece in your hand, to pierce down to the bottom with your fork and then mix in some butter, continuing to hold it thus while eating it.” And of wine? “On no consideration let any lady take two glasses of champagne. It is more than the head of the American female can bear.” The head of the American female of Eliza Leslie's day, must have been a very light affair, if it really led her into all the misbehavements Miss Leslie deplored.
From “Deportment at Hotels” one infers she wore party gowns at breakfast, because Miss Leslie says: “It is ungenteel to go to the breakfast table in a costume approaching to full dress,” and definitely states that, “the fashion of wearing black silk mitts at breakfast is now obsolete.” And the way she arrayed herself for journeys! “Dress plainly when traveling, stage roads being very dusty. Showy silks and dress bonnets are preposterous. So are jewelry ornaments, which if real, you run a risk of losing, and, if false, are very ungenteel. Above all, do not travel in white kid gloves. Respectable women never do.” – The Smart Set, San Francisco Call, 1911
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia