The Power of Etiquette in 19th Century America

21 July 2016

Gender and Sexuality | History

Everyday Life & Women in America is a recently revamped resource for the study of American social, cultural and popular history, providing access to rare primary source material from the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History, Duke University and The New York Public Library. The collection is especially rich in conduct of life and domestic management literature, offering vivid insights into the daily lives of women and men through the use of documents such as etiquette advice manuals.

TheLady's Friend [Vol. 6, Jan-Dec 1869], Jan-Dec 1869, Image © Sallie BinghamCenter for Women's History and Culture, Duke University Libraries. Furtherreproduction prohibited without permission.
To see this document in the collection click the image in the blog

 

Etiquette manuals are often seen as a window into the underlying ideologies of society at that time, most particularly the desire to act like the upper classes who were seen as the ultimate symbol of refinement and ‘good breeding’.

These manuals such as “Etiquette for ladies: a manual of the most approved rules of conduct in polished society, for married and unmarried ladies” covered all aspects of social life including; Cards of Invitations, True Politeness, Promenading, Etiquette of the Ball Room and Servants. This extract shows the complexities of correctly promenading with either a male or female companion:

 

A married lady may take the arm of her intimate friends of the other sex. Two ladies should not walk arm in arm unless one of them is much older than the other.

A lady should never take the arms of two gentlemen at the same time. In the evening two ladies may take the arms of one gentleman.

Gentleman walk on the outside of the street, ladies always on the inside

 

Etiquette forladies: a manual of the most approved rules of conduct in polished society, formarried and unmarried ladies. Compiled from the latest authorities by a lady ofNew-York, c.1843, Image © Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History andCulture, Duke University Libraries. Further reproduction prohibited withoutpermission.

To see thisdocument in the collection please click here

This may seem frivolous in the modern world but purposeful disregard of these established rules within society would sometimes lead to tangible changes, particularly in politics. During the early 1800’s, social gatherings were seen as a forum for forging political alliances and by disregarding certain social conventions within these events, it was sometimes possible to change political relationships. A well-executed social gathering of the “who’s who” in society revealed those in favour at the time whilst the absentees would be seen as undesirable, sometimes having a knock-on effect on their careers.

It was not just those in society who utilised the influence of social etiquette; etiquette guide writers were equally as powerful as they had the ability to create or destroy not just social norms but power structures within society. Although suggested justifications behind following such rules have varied from social responsibility to the desire to be a member of the upper class, those who created the rules had the ability to control those who abided by them. As such, an etiquette manual writer, despite often being anonymous, could be seen as one of the most powerful people within society due to the wide reaching effects of following etiquette. 

 

Although prescribed etiquette may now, on the whole, be seen as insignificant in modern day social conventions, in 19th Century America it may have been at least partly responsible for the appointing of some key political figures and their advisors.

Everyday Life & Women in America c.1800-1920 is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Melissa Barrow

Melissa Barrow

I am currently doing a summer internship at Adam Matthew having finished my second year of studying History and Philosophy at the University of Exeter.

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