The Weird World of Victorian Etiquette

The Victorian grand ball was a social gathering tightly controlled by society rules.
The Victorian grand ball was a social gathering tightly controlled by society rules. | Source

Etiquette?

"The world was my oyster but I used the wrong fork."

Oscar Wilde


The Oxford Dictionary defines etiquette as:

  • The customary code of polite behaviour in society or among members of a particular profession or group.


The codes of etiquette and good manners have been evolving for thousands of years. It's regarded as one the traits of a civilised society. This maybe so, but when you look at the rule books of Victorian etiquette its like good manners gone mad! Some of the rules are silly and others are weird!

Having said this, the Victorians did have a few pearls of wisdom that could be used to very good effect today.

The strict rules of Victorian etiquette were demonstrated clearly when females visited the beach. There were no such things as bathing suits, women had to wear long sleeves and a high neck blouse.
The strict rules of Victorian etiquette were demonstrated clearly when females visited the beach. There were no such things as bathing suits, women had to wear long sleeves and a high neck blouse. | Source

Victorian hand coolers - prevented the social nightmare of a hot, sweaty handshake!

Victorian Handcoolers were a necessity for proper etiquette.
Victorian Handcoolers were a necessity for proper etiquette. | Source

Etiquette rules for women


"There was a general whisper, toss, and wiggle,but etiquette forbade them all to giggle"

Lord Byron.


For modern women, some of the following 'rules of etiquette' might seem quaint but others are chauvinistic. So be warned, you may end up either squirming in your seat or raging with indignation!

Appearance:

  • It was the role of women to, ‘always be graceful,composed and refined’. In addition, the main goal of female etiquette was to please the man.
  • The dressing room of a woman was a sanctuary from any male presence or influence. However, the use of the dressing room was to ensure she had everything she needed to look good for her husband. This is where dress, hairstyles and make-up would be tried and tested so that, "..the husband should always find the wife fresh, beautiful and sweet as a flower..".
  • Women had a duty to look beautiful at all times but they must also ensure that "...they make it look like there was no effort at all..." It was also proper etiquette for the woman to always wear her hair up unless in the privacy of the bed chamber.


Duties:

  • The ideal Victorian woman was always busy and very able. According to many etiquette books, she could always draw strength from her "moral superiority".
  • In Victorian society the main role of a lady was to serve others. This could take many forms from ensuring she was always beautiful and clean to holding dinner parties. In everything she did it had to be aimed at pleasing her husband and society.


Behaviour:

  • When a lady wanted to cross the street there were strict rules on which way to carry her dress. She must hold the dress slightly above the ankle, holding the folds with her right hand and drawing them towards the right. It was apparently 'vulgar' to lift the dress with both hands as far too much ankle would be shown. However, a woman could show her ankles for a brief moment if there was a lot of mud on the ground and needed to ensure her dress was clear of the ground.
  • During courting it was permitted for a man to bring gifts to the lady but they had to be of a particular kind - flowers, a book, perhaps sweets were also given. However, the lady could never give a present to a man until he had first given her a present. The presents given to the man had a strict code - they had to be artistic, handmade and not expensive.
  • Single women in particular were never to indulge in behaviour with a man where it might in anyway lead to being 'kissed or handled in anyway'. If a man wanted to admire a necklace for example, the woman had to remove it and hand it over for inspection. Under no circumstances was the item to be inspected while she wore it.
  • In marriage a woman had no rights over own body. Her husband - with the full backing of church and law - could force sex and childbirth onto her and could use 'moderate' discipline for correcting a wife. He also inherited all her money and goods on marriage and was free to spend her wealth on mistresses, prostitutes, gambling, drink or whatever else took his fancy.
  • In law 'adultery' was not seen as an excuse for a wife to seek divorce from her husband. However, a man would succeed in getting a divorce if the wife had been the adulterer.


Women could only show their ankles if necessary to keep their dresses from getting muddy.
Women could only show their ankles if necessary to keep their dresses from getting muddy. | Source
Despite the severe etiquette Victorian children were expected to follow, they nevertheless were as rowdy and cheeky as modern children.
Despite the severe etiquette Victorian children were expected to follow, they nevertheless were as rowdy and cheeky as modern children. | Source

Child Etiquette


"Nothing more rapidly inclines a person to go into a monastery than reading a book on etiquette. There are so many trivial ways in which it is possible to commit some social sin."

Quentin Crisp


I wonder how modern day children would react if they suddenly had to behave according to the following rules taken from a few Victorian etiquette books:

  • Never talk back to older people especially your father and mother.
  • Never whine or frown when spoken to by your elders.
  • Never argue with your elders - they know best.
  • Never do anything that is forbidden by your elders.
  • Do as you are told in a pleasant and willing way.
  • Never contradict anyone in any way - it is very impolite.
  • Always rise into a standing position when visitors arrive.
  • Never start a conversation with a visitor until they have started to speak.
  • Never interrupt a conversation.
  • Never allow your parents to bring you a chair and never allow them to get one for themselves. Wait on them, instead of being waited on.
  • Never run up and down the stairs or across the room.
  • Keep yourself clean and neat looking at all times.

Despite all these rules for children the social history evidence shows clearly that children were probably just as unruly and cheeky as they are today.

Although Victorian men did have rules of etiquette they had to follow, they nevertheless were not restricted in their lives as women were.
Although Victorian men did have rules of etiquette they had to follow, they nevertheless were not restricted in their lives as women were. | Source
Even a Royal Princess like Queen Victoria's daughter Louise, was 'governed' by society by more especially her husband.
Even a Royal Princess like Queen Victoria's daughter Louise, was 'governed' by society by more especially her husband. | Source

Victorian etiquette for men


"Politeness, The most acceptable hypocrisy."

~Ambrose Bierce


It wasn't just women and kids who had to follow the rules of society. Men had their own standards of etiquette.

Men who disregarded social standards were viewed not only as ‘vulgar’ but were often shunned by society.

Below are just some of the etiquette rules men were expected to follow:

It was bad manners to allow a lady to get herself a chair, pick up something she had dropped or ring the bell for servants while a gentleman was in the room. Etiquette rules stated that these duties should be carried out by the man on her behalf.

  • A man should always remove his hat when entering a room even if the room was empty. The only exception was if there was genuinely no place to put his hat.
  • A very bad breach of etiquette was for a man to sit while a lady was left standing. He must immediately offer her the use of his own chair even if 'the gentleman has the best seat in the room, he must offer it to a lady’. However, if his seat was warm from where he had been sitting, he must go and get another seat for the lady and not offer her the one that was still warm.
  • If a man escorted a lady to the opera, ballet or similar, he must remain seated with her during the performance and avoid talking while the performance was on.
  • In one etiquette rule book it was firmly stated that ‘Showing affection in public was brazen vulgarity.’
  • A famous Victorian point of etiquette was that ‘a gentleman should be seen and not smelled. They should use but little perfume as too much is in very bad taste’.
  • The Victorians were always hot on how, as they saw it, ‘inferior people’ should be treated: ‘In the company of an inferior, never let him feel inferior either by your speech or manner.’
  • In conversation a gentleman should never speak about himself or his self importance and only to speak with others on subjects they are interested in.
  • Safe subjects to talk about included - books, balls, bonnets, metaphysics, traveling or the weather.
  • As well as the above, a gentleman was also expected to: ‘Avoid showing his learning and accomplishments in the presence of ignorant, inferior or vulgar people - who can by no possibility understand or appreciate what is being said.’
  • It was considered bad manners and vulgar to ask a direct question. A Victorian gentleman could never ask for example "How is your Mother?" They had to put the question in another form such as "I hope your Mother is doing well?"
  • But the gentleman also had to remember not to ask a lady about anything that might offend her or upset her.
  • The gentleman must never use slang terms and phrases in polite company. These vulgar terms should only be used in ‘bar rooms and other low places.
  • It was apparently bad manners and vulgar to joke at the expense of a lady.

Even royal women had to ensure their manners were impeccable. Often Victorian Royal women were expected to set the standards for the whole country.
Even royal women had to ensure their manners were impeccable. Often Victorian Royal women were expected to set the standards for the whole country. | Source

Etiquette and the Victorians

Do you think the Victorians could teach us anything about manners?

See results without voting

Can We Learn Anything From The Victorians?

It's easy to scoff at society from the past but is there anything the Victorians can teach us?

Today, there seems to be a shift away from politeness towards rudeness and aggression. We don't have to take 'etiquette' to the extreme. However, having manners is a sign of self respect for as well as for others.

Perhaps then before we ridicule everything about the etiquette and traditions of the Victorians, we should pause for a moment and think about what they may have got right?




© 2012 Helen Murphy Howell

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43 comments

THEHuG5 profile image

THEHuG5 4 years ago

This is such an enjoyable and interesting read! Most of their "rules" seem a bit ridiculous but some of them make sense. Voted up!


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

I always wondered how women could sit without the bussles causing them to tumble over onto the floor. Quite a lot of rules in back in those days to remember on a daily basis. Very interesting hub article and voted up.


femmeflashpoint 4 years ago

Seeker7,

Had I been born in Victorian times, I'd not have lived long after puberty.

At best, polite society would have strung me up by the corset strings, taken from the corset I refused to wear, lol.

But, I totally agree with you on the effort lacking these days in simply being polite.

That was something we surely should have kept alive and well.

Excellent hub! Looks like you put a great deal of work into it!

femme


rebeccamealey profile image

rebeccamealey 4 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

This is very interesting! I love the pics. So cool!I have always been a stickler for manners, and I enjoyed the manners list!


old albion profile image

old albion 4 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Hello Seeker7. What a wonderful hub! So full of information, the photographs are brilliant. Your enthusiasm and effort shine through.

voted up/awesome/SHARED.

Graham.


hoteltravel profile image

hoteltravel 4 years ago from Thailand

Definitely amusing. As you said in your conclusion, I wish some of these are followed now. Such as avoiding speaking about self and conversing on topics of interest to the other person. Voted up and interesting.


msviolets profile image

msviolets 4 years ago

Although most of the rules for women are demeaning, it seems we could learn a lot from the rules for men! Especially the one about not talking during an opera.


Peter Leeper profile image

Peter Leeper 4 years ago from Londonderry, New Hampshire

Nice Article. I learned somewhere that the common saying "rule of thumb" is derived from a time in the U.S. where men could beat their wives as long as the stick they used was no thicker than their thumb... Scary to think about...


dialogue profile image

dialogue 4 years ago

Its informative, good hub well done.


Ciel Clark profile image

Ciel Clark 4 years ago from USA

Yes, I think we can take some (not all!) advice from this.. Good read, thanks.. Voted.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi THEHugG5,

Many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. I agree some of these 'rules' are absolutely weird and it was definitely a man's world back then!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hello teaches12345,

Thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the article.

LOL! I wondered about the bussles as well. I did see a potograph of them and they seem to have been attached separate from the dress, even so I don't think they would taken them off in someone's house just to sit down! Must have been very uncomfortable!!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi femme! As always a thrill to hear from you - I'll need to catch up on your own articles, I've missed reading them. I'm getting things in order at home now after decorating etc. so hopefully I'll have more time to read more articles!!!

I'm like you! I would never have survived in that kind of environment. I read some accounts from women, especially the ones who became the leaders of votes for women and so on. They described their lives as one of depression and slavery. I could only imagine how constraining that must have been for energetic and intelligent young women.

Yes, I think we do need to have manners back today again. The lack of manners and the increase of being rude and disresptful doesn't show our present society in a good light at all.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hello rebeccamealey, many thanks for stopping bad and glad that you enjoyed the hub! I went to Wikimedi Commons for the photographs/art and was delighted by the great choice they had for the Victorian period.

I agree with you, I'm a stickler for manners as well - they cost nothing but speak volumes and make people feel good!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hello Graham, - as always, it's a pleasure to have you stop by!

I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub and many thanks for the vote up/sharing - it is greatly appreciated. Thank you!!

Seeker7/Helen


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi hoteltravel, many thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the hub.

I agree with you - there is nothing more tedious or boring than someone blowing off about themselves and talking only about their own interests! I can usually take it for about 5 minutes then I have to make some kind of excuse to get away from them!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hello msviolets, lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub!

Some of the rules were appalling. Femmeflashpoint was saying how difficult she would have found living in those days and I agree with her. I don't think either it's a case of women just accepted it then either. There are many accounts from medieval onwards of women feeling the constraints of the society they lived in.

I agree about the talking! OMG, some guys talk about women yacking away? Some guys are definitely worse! Especially if they've seen a performance or movie before, you just can't get some of them to shut up! LOL!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hello Peter Leeper,

Many thanks for your visit. That's a really interesting comment about the 'rule of thumb'. I think what you have said about the stick width is correct. It's a while since I read anything about this but it does stick in my mind that it was first of all used in the USA and it came from the use of stick to beat wives. Yes, and as you say, it was very scary! The women could get it bad, but I think some kids were even worse off!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi dialogue,

Many thanks for your visit and glad that you enjoyed the hub!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Ciel Clark,

I agree with you. The Victorians could be hypocritical and OTT with a lot of things including etiquette. But I think there are important lessons we can learn from them, especially about being polite.

Glad that you enjoyed the hub and many thanks for the vote up - greatly appreciated!


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

This an awesome article Seeker, really enjoyed it. Corsets were cruel and deforming. There were some good things about the etiquette and manners of the day as you point out and some not so good. One fashion I've always disliked from Victorian times were some of the severe hairstyles of the females but maybe that was because they didn't wash hair as often as we do now. It indeed was a mans world but at least a gentleman was to show ladies respect. And some of the childrens' respect for elders should be brought back today!


Suzie ONeill profile image

Suzie ONeill 4 years ago from Lost in La La Land

Fascinating! What a great hub!


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 4 years ago

Great hub! It was fun to read about these etiquette rules. I'm glad I wasn't born in the Victorian era, though. Some of these rules could be hard for me to follow. hehehe


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Alastar! Glad you enjoyed the hub - it makes a refreshing change from spooks!!

I agree with your comments. The victorians are a society that I dislike on the one hand but they fascinate me on the other - and yes there are things we can learn from them. I think some of their manners and politeness would be a very positive thing today, especially towards our elderly people! I love kids, but some of them today would be shocked at how Victorian children had to behave - I'm not sure our kids would cope with it. But it would a very good thing to have this taught to our youngsters today. But then manners and respect should be taught by the parents and if the parents don't have any, well it's not really the child's fault.

I don't know how often they did wash their hair, but since they had to use jugs and bowls and their hair was long, I wouldn't have thought too often, especially in the winter! I liked the hairstyles better in the earlier 19th century and before - the kind of Jane Austen curls and then the regency curls could be very pretty. But yes, the severe 'governess' look was really horrible on many of the women, it made some of them look very mannish, cruel and cold.

It certainly was a man's world but your right, the guys back then did know how to show respect to a lady - and they were very strict about it as well. I have read that if a man did not act like a gentleman towards a lady he did risk being shunned and would not be invited to attend the big celebrations and parties. Now for someone trying to get on in society/business/politics and make contacts that would have been a disaster.

As usual Alastar it's always a pleasure to hear from you and to read your interesting and entertaining comments. Thank you.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Suzie - glad that you liked the hub and many thanks for stopping by!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Om Paramapoonya, lovely to hear from you again and many thanks for stopping by.

I agree with you - I honestly don't think I would be able to handle the restrictive lifestyle of women at all! I don't think we're perfect in the 21st century, but for women it's a much better time than the Victorian era.


kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 4 years ago from the Ether

I think they got a lot of things right, Seeker...however, they definitely had many things wrong...for instance the way women HAD to act a certain way just to please a man. PUH I say to that! ;) At the same time, the elegance and manners and poise that these ladies had was quite special. I love the dresses & corsets and the beauty in the pictures from the Victorian times. I might have lived during those times...and you did too!


Crazy Mags profile image

Crazy Mags 4 years ago

Very interesting hub. I remember reading about the tradition/custom/law of a woman's body not being her own when studying history as a teen and college student. It was so disturbing to me. I guess with the loss of the masoginist type laws and customs in our society, we also lost a little bit of chivalry as well. But, I am glad I live now and not 100 or more years ago. I will give up some chivalry to "own" my own body! ha ha


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hey Kitty! Great to hear from you - I've noticed there's a few hubs of yours I haven't got round to reading yet, I'll need to stop by and have a good nose at your latest hubs!

Anyway - the Victorians! These folks fascinate me but they also anger me as well. Sure they got a few things right, but in the case of women???? How can any, so called cultured society, get it so badly wrong? The answer has to be power! Many men of that time I think just had to be in control and keeping women down fed their egos! I don't think every man of this time did agree, but when its entrenched in society it's a brave person who sets out to change things. Luckily the women started to do that for themselves - I admire so much the sufferagette movements of both Britain and the USA & Canada - very brave ladies and they paved the way for all us modern women.

I also agree with you Kitty about having to do everything to please a man! I wouldn't have lasted 5 minutes in that kind of society. I remember reading one story, a few years ago about a lady who was left very rich after her parents died in an accident. Because there was no male heirs near enough to claim anything she got the lot. This lady remained single for the rest of her life and had a great time being free. She did admit in her journals that at times she was sad about never being a wife or mother, but that the thought of giving up her freedom was just too much to even consider marriage. When she died she made sure that in her Will, her money went to improve the fortunes of some young women that she knew.


Rosemay50 profile image

Rosemay50 4 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

A great thought provoking hub, makes you stop and think about what happened to politeness.

I am so pleased I wasn't born to those times I would never have survived, especially those corsets. The stifling rules to live by and the scandal should you break them. If you allowed a man to kiss you, or were 'compromised' you were tainted and unfit to be married into high society. What about the 'Coming out' balls 'which have a totally different meaning nowadays' Like being paraded in a market. But I guess most women then thought differently, they didn't want to be known as 'old maids'

It was definitely a man's world. I always thought it unfair that everything the wife owned became the husband upon marriage, at one time even the step children became his property should she leave him.

But I do agree we could learn something from Victorian Etiquette, sometimes it seems as if we are moving in the opposite direction as far as politeness goes.

Great hub and voting up all the way


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Rosemay - as always it's a great pleasure to hear from you and read your interesting comments.

The 'Coming out balls' - absolutely! What a degrading spectacle to have to go through! I would never have survived either living in that kind of society. As to those corsets!! OMG! no wonder women fainted and had so many abdominal and lung problems! Must have been bad enough in the winter, but I dread to think what it must have been like on a hot summer's day?

It was a man's world, definitely. And to be honest Rosemay, I find that men who treat women as equals are much more 'manly' than the Victorian sterotype who had to control everything. When a guy has to control everything, including his wife and family, there's a weakness there that's very unappealing!

All said and done, yes, we could learn much from their politeness. I think in the far future - if we all survive - the 21st century might well be known as 'The Time of Great Rudeness and Aggression!' - what a wonderful epitaph to leave behind us!!!


ubanichijioke profile image

ubanichijioke 4 years ago from Lagos

????L??O????????(=)))????O????L??

Icant stop laughing. Seriously some of. these re lame while others still hold water.

'Never argue with your

elders - they know best

Never do anything that is

forbidden by your elders

Do as you are told in a

pleasant and willing way

Never contradict anyone

in any way it is very

impolite

Always rise into a standing position

when visitors arrive

Never start a conversation with a visitor

until they have started to speak

Never interupt a conversation

Never allow your parents to bring you a

chair and never allow them to get one for

themselves. Wait on them, instead of

being waited on.

Never run up and down the stairs or

across the room.

Keep yourself clean and neat looking at

all times.'

This was soo oooo funny to me

Fantastic job! Didn't ???? some ????????

ƒ these! I've learnt today. Bless you


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi ubanichijioke, - glad that you enjoyed the hub!! I agree with you that a lot of these are funny and very, very bizarre! I began to wonder if kids in those days were actually alowed to do anything - except just being present and acting like robots! A very unatural way for kids to have to be I think!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Crazy Mags - firstly my apologies for not replying sooner!! I genuinely passed your name without seeing it!

But thank you for the very interesting comment. I agree that when reading the about history and of women in particular it is very disturbing! It's not really the idea of a man being so-called 'in charge' of the household. But as you say, it the right over a woman's body in particular! It's a wonder they didn't include owner ship of her spirit and soul!! For me, I would rather loose a bit of chivalry than have to live in those conditions! What I also find very disturbing were the cases where wives, daughters, sisters could be sent to asylums by the husband on a mere whim - how terrifying is that!!!


ashleybunn profile image

ashleybunn 4 years ago from South Carolina

Very informative and interesting read! The Victorian period and its quirks has always fascinated me. I was particularly amused by the hand coolers that prevent sweaty handshakes!

Seems like being a woman in the Victorian era was one headache after another. If you consider the state of mental asylums as well, and the number of women who were sent to them for "hysteria", the social pressures described in this hub seem to take on new meaning.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hello ashleybunn - many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. It was the first time I'd ever heard of hand coolers - I thought they sounded typically Victorian!

I agree with your about a woman's lot in Victorian times - I much prefer living in the 21st century, although I would like to see a return of some of the manners the Victorians seemed to have.


abbyw1989 profile image

abbyw1989 4 years ago from Ireland

Incredibly enjoyable to read, absolutely fascinating! The Victorians certainly had their own way of doing things ;-)


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi abby - lovely to hear from you and glad that you enjoyed the hub. I agree as well - the Victorians were odd but unique in their habits and ideas!!


Jefferson Faudan profile image

Jefferson Faudan 3 years ago

great article... with exception to the chauvinistic part... but have high regards in proper etiquette


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub!


LA Elsen profile image

LA Elsen 3 years ago from Chicago, IL

This was a very interesting hub. I wonder how Victorian society would adjust to the world today. Very thorough and informative.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi LA Elsen, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. That's a good question about Victorian society, I think one of the biggest changes would be the role of women - how would they cope knowing for example that the UK did have a female Prime Minister and so on!


FatBoyThin profile image

FatBoyThin 18 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

Those Victorians certainly had some strange ideas – don’t think I’d like to live in a society where women are subjected to such ridiculous rules. (Although, in some parts of the world , things haven’t changed all that much). Great Hub. Voted up.

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