The Power of Etiquette in 19th Century America
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 Womenâs 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.
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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 âgood breedingâ.
These manuals such as âEtiquette for ladies: a manual of the most approved rules of conduct in polished society, for married and unmarried ladiesâ 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 Â© Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History andCulture, Duke University Libraries. Further reproduction prohibited withoutpermission.
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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 1800âs, 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 âwhoâs whoâ 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.