Some Thoughts on Historical Etiquette Books

by Walter Nelson

One of the most common “rookie mistakes” people make when trying to understand the way people behaved in the past is to crack open an etiquette book from the era, read the detailed prescriptions in there and say “Thus it was in the olden times.”

This isn’t to say that such books don’t have value as one of many data points in assembling a picture of the social norms of the past, but it is essential when reading them to understand that they are proscriptive rather than descriptive. They are how the author felt the world ought to have been, but not necessarily how it was. Context is everything, and it is essential to understand the role they played in that particular moment in history.

Victorian etiquette book cover
“Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress” by John A. Ruth, 1882. From the Homestead Museum collection.

The “Golden Age” of the etiquette book was the second half of the nineteenth century. The combination of industrial mass printing, that made books widely available and affordable, and the presence of a new middle class, the “winners” in the Industrial Revolution, who found themselves raised from the farm, tenement and immigrant ship to a higher social order, created an eager market.  As recent arrivals in this new society they needed a crash course in how to fit in.

The old saying that it takes two generations to make a gentleman is being refuted every day, for Americans are remarked not only for their facility in amassing fortunes but in furnishing themselves with presentable manners on short notice.
Correct Social Usage, 1903.

And this is where most nineteenth century etiquette books fit in. In reading them though, you should always keep in mind that the people they were aimed at were a small percentage of American society. While Americans of every class had norms of social behavior, those didn’t tend to be spelled out in books of instruction.

Further, American’s manners were notoriously rough. Tobacco spitting was endemic, performers on stage were routinely heckled, public intoxication was widespread and working folks had a “Don’t get all high hat with me, I’m as good as you” response to manners they perceived as affected and snobbish.

A wonderful description of what one might expect of Americans in the West came from an Austrian woman who spent time on a riverboat on the Sacramento in 1855.

This was the first time I had ever found myself in a large party of Americans, and, as in the gambling houses of San Francisco, the first thing that struck me was the strange contrasts in their dress. The ladies were all in a grand state, and might have gone into any full-dressed parties without changing their traveling costume; but the case was widely different with the gentlemen. Some few were well dressed, but the majority wore jackets, often torn ones, dirty boots pulled up over their trousers, and had hands so extraordinarily coarse and burned–even the best dressed gentlemen among them–that they looked as if they belonged to the commonest plowman.

The company passed the time in playing cards and chewing tobacco, without excepting even the boys of ten and twelve years old; but they did not spit about at the dreadful rate described by many travelers. They had another practice, however, if possible more abominable–namely, though they carried a pocket handkerchief, of making use of their fingers instead of it.

I actually saw this atrocity committed by quite elegantly dressed men.

If, however, these points fell grievously short, in another they maintained without any exception the character of gentlemen.

The men, one and all, showed the utmost attention and politeness to our sex. Old or young, rich or poor, well or ill-dressed, every woman was treated with respect and kindness; and in this the Americans are far in advance of my countrymen [the Austrians] and indeed, Europeans in general, who usually keep their civilities for youth, beauty, and fine clothes.
A Lady’s Journey Round the World, Ida Pfeiffer, 1855.

Victorian Etiquette
Studio portrait of two Victorian era couples by E.F. Kohler, Pasadena, ca. 1890. From the Homestead Museum collection.

So, when asking the question “How did Americans behave in the nineteenth century?” you must first ask “Which Americans? What social class? What ethnicity? Where? When?” If after answering those questions, you decide that they were the sort to whom the book-learned rules of etiquette might apply, then crack it open and have a read. However, don’t limit yourself to that. Read the literature, the social history, the diaries, the satire, the newspapers and anything else you can find to assemble a balanced and nuanced understanding of people, who like us, led complicated lives.


And I will leave you with this:



We labor under great disadvantages in the judgment of foreigners. Our peculiar political institutions and the prevalence of common schools give all our people an arrogant assurance that is mistaken for the American beau ideal of a gentleman.

They are unable to distinguish those nice shades of manner which as effectually separate the clown from the gentleman with us, as do…broader lines, which mark these two classes among all other nations. They think that it is the grand characteristic of Columbia’s children to be prejudiced, opinionated, selfish, avaricious and unjust. It is vain to tell them that such are not specimens of American gentlemen. They will answer ‘They call themselves gentlemen, and you receive them in your houses as such.’ It is utterly impossible for foreigners to thoroughly comprehend and make due allowance for that want of delicacy, and that vulgar ‘I’m as good as you are’ spirit, which is, it must be confessed, peculiar to the lower classes of our people, and which would lead the majority of them to–

Enter a palace with their old felt hat on
To address the King with the title of Mister
And ask him the price of the throne he sat on.
The Journal of “Dame Shirley,” 1851.


Walter Nelson has been involved in multiple aspects of public history for 40 years, with a focus on costumed, interactive programs with themes like historical etiquette, spiritualism, quack medicine and dance. His current project involves recreating the social dances of the Jazz Age using old movies as his principle source. He has appeared as a subject matter expert on the History Channel, A&E and HBO, on topics such as Victorian manners and primitive firearms. He has a BA in History from UC Berkeley and is a US Army veteran. His website, where he posts much of his research, and maintains calendar of Southern California history and dance events, is at Walter and his wife, Sheila Murphy-Nelson, presented the Academy of Genteel Behavior at the Homestead’s Victorian Fair in 2016. 

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