"Etiquette" is the one word that aptly describes life during the reign of Queen Victoria.
For those in the upper echelons of society, rules such as the proper forms of address, and even what to wear (including which pieces of jewellery would be appropriate) were all considered very important.
For the lower class, the poor, there wasn't time for etiquette.
The Upper and Upper-Middle Class
From the slightest burp (social ruin if it was heard) to how a gentleman spoke to a young lady, Victorian society was greatly concerned with every aspect of daily life. From the moment the upper class left their beds, their days were governed by do's and don'ts.
The horror of social ostracism was paramount. To be caught in the wrong fashion at the wrong time of day was as greatly to be feared as addressing a member of society by the wrong title.
It was important to know whom you could speak with - especially if you hadn't been properly introduced. For a woman, being asked to dance by a complete stranger could pose an etiquette problem which might have repercussions for days.
Young ladies were constantly chaperoned. To be found alone with a gentleman who was other than family was tantamount to social death. Her reputation would be ruined and her gentleman companion would find himself the object of gossip, and most usually derision.
The established career for society women was marriage - full stop. They were expected to represent their husbands with grace and provide absolutely no scandal. Charity work would be accepted, but only if it was very gentile... sewing for the poor, or putting together food baskets.
Gentlemen had to keep track of when it was proper to either smoke or have a glass of sherry in front of ladies. When to bow and to whom to tip your hat could cause gossip if the wrong decision was made.
Members of Victorian society kept busy with parties, dances, visits, dressmakers, and tailors. Keeping track of what other people in your social class were doing was also a full-time occupation.
The People in the Middle
Being a servant in one of the grand Victorian houses was a position which would guarantee shelter and food. However, there was etiquette to be learned.
The upper class was never to be addressed unless it was absolutely necessary. If that was the case, as few words as possible were to be uttered.
Using the proper title was of the utmost importance. "Ma'am" or "Sir" was always appropriate. If "Ma'am" was seen, it was necessary that you 'disappear', turning to face the wall and avoiding eye contact.
Life was easier, though, amidst your fellow servants. Although private fraternization was frowned upon, it wasn't against the rules for those 'below stairs' to enjoy singing, dancing, and other social activities together.
Quite often the 'upper class' of the servant world, the butler and housekeeper, would put aside their lofty roles in the household and join their fellow servants in gaiety. But come the morning, they would reign supreme once again.
Having a profession was another way of being a member of the middle class of Victorian society. Shopkeepers, doctors, nurses, a schoolmaster, or parish priest were all notable professions.
Often times, the only difference between being a member of the upper-middle and the middle class was the amount of wealth you had gathered, and how it was flaunted.
Another indicator was the number of servants you employed. Having more than one servant was a sure sign that you had money.
Sometimes, the 'uppers' and the 'middlers' would mingle. If the proper introductions could be managed, it was possible for a tradesman to receive backing from a prominent 'upper' member. With a successful business deal, both parties could increase their wealth and for the 'middler', their station in life.
The Lower Class
Victorian society did not recognize that there was a lower class.
'The Poor' were invisible. Those members of England who worked as chimney sweeps, ratcatchers, or spent their days in factories had no place in the echelon of the upper class, although their services would be needed from time to time.
The prevailing attitude was that the poor deserved the way they lived. If good moral choices had been made, the poor wouldn't be living the way they did.
The best way for society to deal with the poor was to ignore them. They were 'burdens on the public'.
There were people who cared, however. Unfortunately, in trying to help the lower class, conditions usually did not improve. Workhouses were developed, but the living was horrendous and it was almost better to be back on the street.
Being just too busy trying to survive, etiquette played little part in the poor's daily existence. But that's not to say that pride wasn't available. There was a 'social stigma' to applying for aid, and some families preferred to keep to themselves and figure out their own methods of survival.
Although Poor Laws were put into place, it wasn't until after the Victorian age ended that 'the lower class' was able, through education, technology, and reform, to raise itself, in some cases literally, out of the gutter.
Victorian society could be quite pleasant, but only depending on your financial status.
Following are some rules of conduct a proper female must adhere to:
She never approached people of higher rank, unless being introduced by a mutual friend.
People of lesser rank were always introduced to people of higher rank, and then only if the higher-ranking person had given his/her permission.
Even after being introduced, the person of higher rank did not have to maintain the acquaintance. They could ignore, or 'cut' the person of lower rank.
A single woman never addressed a gentleman without an introduction.
A single woman never walked out alone. Her chaperone had to be older and preferably married.
If she had progressed to the stage of courtship in which she walked out with a gentleman, they always walked apart. A gentleman could offer his hand over rough spots, the only contact he was allowed with a woman who was not his fianc?e.
Proper women never rode alone in a closed carriage with a man who wasn't a relative.
She would never call upon an unmarried gentleman at his place of residence.
She couldn't receive a man at home if she was alone. Another family member had to be present in the room.
A gentlewoman never looked back after anyone in the street, or turned to stare at others at church, the opera, etc.
No impure conversations were held in front of single women.
No sexual contact was allowed before marriage. Innocence was demanded by men from girls in his class, and most especially from his future wife.
Intelligence was not encouraged, nor was any interest in politics.
-- Etiquette played its part in Victorian clothing. It was considered 'good etiquette' to dress appropriately to ones age, and position in society.
-- Etiquette manuals instructed gentlemen that they should attend to the ladies present, at all cost, putting aside their own needs, and acting as servants, guides, or even waiters, if necessary.
-- "It is the duty of the gentlemen to be ever attentive to the ladies. If it be a picnic, the gentlemen will carry the luncheon, erect the swings, construct the tables, bring the water, and provide the fuel for boiling tea."
-- A lady cannot refuse the invitation of a gentleman to dance, unless she has already accepted that of another, for she would be guilty of an incivility which might occasion trouble; she would, moreover, seem to show contempt for him whom she refused, and would expose herself to receive in secret an ill compliment from the mistress of the house.
-- Married or young ladies, cannot leave a ball-room or any other party, alone. The former should be accompanied by one or two other married ladies, and the latter by their mother, or by a lady to represent her.
-- Victorian girls were trained early on in life to prepare herself for a life dedicated to home and family if she married, and charity if she didn't. And young ladies, though advised on the importance of catching a man, were warned not to be too liberal in display of their charms. Meekness and modesty were considered beautiful virtues.
-- Invitations should be sent at least seven to ten days before the day fixed for an event, and should be replied to within a week of their receipt, accepting or declining with regrets.
-- Never lend a borrowed book. Be particular to return one that has been loaned to you, and accompany it with a note of thanks. -- Rise to one's feet as respect for an older person or dignitary.
-- A true gentleman tips their hat to greet a lady, opens doors, and always walks on the outside.
-- Break bread or roll into morsels rather than eating the bread whole.
-- Conversation is not to talk continually, but to listen and speak in our turn.
-- And as for the Gentlemen, they should be seen and not smelled. They should use but very little perfume, as too much of it is in bad taste.
-- A lady, when crossing the street, must raise her dress a bit above the ankle while holding the folds of her gown together in her right hand and drawing them toward the right. It was considered vulgar to raise the dress with both hands as it would show too much ankle, but was tolerated for a moment when the mud is very deep. As told by The Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility.
-- A young lady should be expected to shine in the art of conversation, but not too brightly. Etiquette books of the era concentrate on the voice, rather than the content of speech, encouraging her to cultivate that distinct but subdued tone.
-- When introduced to a man, a lady should never offer her hand, merely bow politely and say, "I am happy to make your acquaintance."
-- While courting, a gentleman caller might bring only certain gifts such as flowers, candy or a book. A woman could not offer a gentleman any present at all until he had extended one to her, and then something artistic, handmade and inexpensive was permissible.
-- Young people should not expect friends to bestow wedding gifts. It is a custom that sometimes bears heavily on those with little to spend. Gifts should only be given by those with ties of relationship, or those who wish to extend a warm sentiment of affection. In fact, by 1873 the words No presents received are engraved upon the cards of invitations.
-- A gentleman may delicately kiss a lady's hand, the forehead, or at most, the cheek.
A Complete Etiquette in a Few Practical Rules
1. If you desire to be respected, keep clean. The finest attire and decorations will add nothing to the appearance or beauty of an untidy person.
2. Clean clothing, clean skin, clean hands, including the nails, and clean, white teeth, are a requisite passport for good society.
3. A bad breath should be carefully remedied, whether it proceeds from the stomach or bad teeth.
4. To pick the nose, finger about the ears, or scratch the head or any other part of the person, in company, is decidedly vulgar.
5. When you call at any private residence, do not neglect to clean your shoes thoroughly.
6. On entering a hall or church, the gentleman should always precede the lady in walking up the aisle, or walk by herside if the aisle is broad enough.
7. A gentleman should always precede a lady upstairs, and follow her downstairs.
8. On leaving a hall or church at the close of entertainment or services, the gentleman should precede the lady.
9. A gentleman walking with a lady should carry her parcels, and never allow a lady to be burdened with anything whatever.
10. If a lady is travelling with a gentleman, simply as a friend, she should place the amount of her expenses in his hands, or insist on paying the bill herself.
11. Never carry on a private conversation in company. If secrecy is necessary, withdraw from the company.
12. Never sit with your back to another, without asking to be excused.
13. It is as unbecoming for a gentleman to sit with legs crossed as it is a lady.
14. Never thrum with your fingers, rub your hands, yawn or sigh in public.
15. Loud laughter, loud talking, or other boisterous manifestations should be checked in the society of others, especially on the street and in public places.
16. When you are asked to sing or play in company, do so without being urged, or refuse in any way that shall be final; and when music is being rendered in company, show politelness to the musician by giving attention. It is very impolite to keep up a conversation. If you do not enjoy the music, keep silent.
17. You should never decline to be intorduced to anyone or all the guests at a party to which you have been invited.
18. To take small children or dogs with you on a visit of ceremony is altogether vulgar, though in visiting familiar friends, children are not objectionable.
Etiquette General Suggestions To Those Who Attend Balls
What Is Expected Of The Guest When Visiting Etiquette of Calling
Etiquette Of Parties In General Etiquette of Conversation
Conduct At Places Of Public Amusement Politeness
Dinner Party Conduct Formal Dinner Parties
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