During the 1800s, there were many etiquette rules that sometimes contradicted each other and numerous etiquette books that gave recommendations for gentleman, a title that by that time was no longer just “a distinct social order.” Gentlemen were to abide by rules of etiquette so as not to be considered “vulgar.” One nineteenth century book claimed, “There is no place where a man … will so truly display [his] breeding as in the streets.” Another etiquette book held a similar belief stating, “Good behavior upon the street, or public promenade, marks the gentleman most effectually; rudeness, incivility, disregard of ‘what the word says,’ marks the person of low breeding. We always know, in walking a square with a man, if he is a gentleman or not.” But perhaps, one author stated it best: “A man who will annoy or insult a woman in the street, lowers himself to a brute, no matter whether he offends by look, word, or gesture.” But for any gentleman maneuvering the street, the etiquette rules entailed more than just a look, a word, or a gesture.
Gentlemen needed to abide by rules when walking alone, with another person, or in a crowd. For example, when walking alone and being approached by another individual on the same side of the street, a gentleman was admonished to “give them the upper side of the pavement, that is, the side nearest the house … [to] a man … carry[ing] a heavy bundle, … a priest or clergyman … a woman … or … any elderly person.” The same suggestion was given when walking with a woman or gentleman who was older, that the upper side or inside of the street should be given to that woman or older gentleman. In a crowd it was considered impolite for a gentleman to push anyone aside that might impede his progress. Rather a gentleman patiently waited until the path was clear. However, if a gentleman was in a hurry, one etiquette book suggested “you will find that a few courteous words will open the way before you more quickly than the most violent pushing and loud talking.”
Etiquette for men also included umbrellas. When carrying an umbrella, gentleman were warned to keep it close and avoid striking it against any passersby. In case of a sudden downpour, a gentleman could with “perfect propriety,” offer his umbrella to any woman without one. The rule then followed that
[I]f she accepts it, and asks your address to return it, leave it with her; if she hesitates and does not wish to deprive you of the use of it, you may offer to accompany her to her destination, and then, do not open a conversation; let your manner be respectful, and when you leave her, let her thank you, assure her of the pleasure it has given you to be of service, bow, and leave her.
When a gentleman was accompanying a lady and rainfall occurred, the gentleman was told to cover her ‘”perfectly,’ but hold it so that you will not touch her bonnet.” If a gentleman was accompany two ladies, the ladies were to carry and share the umbrella between themselves as “nothing can more absurd than for a gentleman to walk between two ladies, holding the umbrella himself; while, in this way, he is perfectly protected, the ladies receive upon their dresses and cloaks the little streams of water which run from the points of the umbrella.”
Etiquette for men included greeting someone on the street. First, it was impolite to hold a conversation and obstruct a common pathway, therefore, gentlemen were told to “remove to one side of the walk.” If a gentleman met a female on the street, before recognizing her, he was to ascertain “that his recognition [would be] meet with favor.” A well-bred man was also required to bow and raise his hat to every lady (not merely touch or tip it) when on the street. “If she is well-bred, she will certainly respond to [your] salutation. As politeness requires that each salute the other, their salutations will thus be simultaneous.” When meeting another gentleman on the street, it was never an obligatory gesture to shake hands, but was “in most cases … to be avoided in public.” A gentleman simply bowed and raised his hat, a sign of deference, and when a gentleman was accompanied by a woman, the first gentleman raised his hat as he bowed. If a gentleman stopped to talk to lady, he held his hat in his hand, unless the woman requested it be replaced, and when talking to another gentleman, after bowing and raising the hat, the gentleman replaced his hat immediately.
Besides greetings and introductions, a nineteenth century gentlemen assisted women in other ways when it came to carriages or coaches. For example, when using a carriage, a gentleman needed to assist a women by offering his hand to help her safely enter or exit the carriage, and when assisting her into a carriage, he was to avoid her dress hanging outside. Upon entering the carriage himself, a gentleman was to enter with his back toward the seat to be occupied, but, in so doing, he also had to “be careful not to trample upon or crush [any] ladies’ dresses.” When the carriage arrived at its destination, a gentleman was instructed to “first alight from a carriage, even if he has to pass before a lady in so doing.” Then to save the woman from any possibility of injury, he was to assist her to alight, even despite the presence of a servant. Books warned his responsibility for the woman were not at an end after she exited the carriage. He was to offer his arm and “deliver her into the charge of friends before … relax[ing] his care.” There were also rules for gentlemen when they traveled by coach. If a gentleman occupied the best seat, he was obliged to give it up when a woman arrived at the door for “the sooner you move the better it will be for yourself, since the rest will in the end have to conceded, and you will give yourself a reputation among the party, and secure a better seat, by rising at once.”
Various etiquette rules existed for other occasions. For example, gentlemen were told to “never scan a lady’s dress impertinently” or to be careful when near a woman, to avoid putting “a foot upon her dress.” When a gentleman was with a lady or an older person and it was necessary to cross a plank or a narrow passageway, the lady or older person, preceded and the gentleman assisted them as necessary. Gentlemen were also admonished to “not stop to join a crowd who are collected round a street show, or street merchant, unless you wish to pass for a countryman taking a holiday.” Additionally, when a gentleman and a woman were walking together, a gentleman needed to watch his pace for he could not simply drag a woman along by walking too fast, particularly if they were walking arm in arm. One book suggested a compromise “between the long, measured strides of the gentleman and the short quick steps of the lady.” Finally, there was an unwritten rule that “a gentleman will never permit a lady with whom he is walking to carry a package of any kind, but will insist upon relieving her of it. He may even accost a lady whom he sees overburdened and offer his assistance.”
Nineteenth century society saw politeness and etiquette as a more than a protective social barrier. It was also “a shield against the intrusion of the impertinent, the improper, and the vulgar.” The nineteenth century gentleman was viewed as more than a “man of good, courteous conduct.” He believed he could best negotiate society by following its rules of etiquette because as one book put it, “In the economy of modern society, life is composed of little things; and he that is best prepared to exhibit propriety in minute affairs, will be generally best fitted for the duties of his station.” In other words, a true gentlemen had to be on guard at all times and could not falter. He had to conduct himself properly and he had to watch out for the feminine lady that “needed protection from injury.” Sometimes it might mean providing an umbrella and other times a helping hand or a solid arm. In the long run, however, a gentleman knew that “gentility was neither in birth, manner, nor fashion — but in the mind. A high sense of honor — a determination never to take … advantage of another — an adherence to truth, delicacy, and politeness — … the essential and distinguishing characteristics of a gentleman.”
- Beadle, Irwin P., Beadles, Dime Book of Practical Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, 1859
- Day, Charles William, Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, 1884
- Duffey, Eliza Bisbee, The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, 1877
- Etiquette for Gentlemen, Or Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society, 1847
- Hartley, Cecil B., The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1860
- Hill, Thomas Edie, Manual of Social and Business Forms, 1879