Victorian Traveling Etiquette and Tips for Women

By the late 1800s, traveling was something that many women had done at least once, and to be at ease, it required they follow Victorian traveling etiquette and tips. Sometimes their travel involved nothing more than a day trip. Other times it required an overnight stay. But no matter if the trip was long or short, following proper etiquette was important.

Victorian traveling etiquette

The Bayswater omnibus with travelers in 1895 by George William Joy. Public domain.

The first rule of Victorian traveling etiquette was to be punctual, a similar rule that eighteenth century travelers such as the Princesse de Lamballe (Marie Antoinette’s friend), Madame Récamier (French socialite), or Eliza de Feuillide (Jane Austen‘s cousin) followed when they traveled. However, in the case of Victorian women they were advised:

“[R]ise early enough to have ample time for arranging everything needful for the day’s journey. If you sleep upon the boat, or at a hotel, always give directions to the servant to waken you at an hour sufficiently early to allow ample time for preparation.”[1]

Secondly, women travelers were advised to avoid conspicuous dress as that was noted to be “vulgar.” This meant women were to dress plainly and avoid unnecessary garniture, jewelry, or flowers, as “gay dress, or finery of any sort, when in a boat, stage, or [rail]car, lays a woman open to the most severe misconstruction.”[2] Additionally, one etiquette expert noted that “a quiet, unpretending dress, and dignified demeanor, will insure for a lady respect.”[3]

Victorian traveling etiquette - traveling coat of the 1800s

Front and back view of a traveling coat of the 1880s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Besides punctuality and plain dress, there were other Victorian traveling etiquette rules. One of the greatest plagues of travel was the preposterous quantity of luggage ladies often required. As a rule, a woman was advised to carry nothing more than a traveling satchel, or a fashionable carpet bag if staying overnight. This satchel or carpet bag was to contain grooming items, a mirror, reading material, “crackers, or sandwiches, if [the traveler would] be long enough upon the road to need a luncheon.”[4] The carpet bag was to contain a large shawl, night clothes, and clean linen, and if a woman was to sleep the night in a railcar, a warm woolen or silk nightcap was to replace her bonnet at bedtime.

Women traveling alone were often prime targets for robbery, so, to ensure a woman’s money was safe, it was suggested women give “a sufficient sum of money [to their escort and retain the rest].”[5] To ensure what that a women’s valuables remained safe, she was advised to “have a strong pocket made in your upper petticoat, and in that carry your money, only reserving in your dress pocket a small sum for incidental expenses.”[6]

As conversation was part of any traveler’s experience whether traveling by train or by coach, and one area often overlooked was proper introductions. Traveling naturally resulted in conversations between strangers, and although such conversations were not considered improper, “prudence forbade” a woman from being to friendly with an unknown person. This was because such relationships could be dangerous to both ladies and gentlemen as there were “very pleasing and fascinating sharpers of both sexes [who might wish to advantage of the situation].”[7] Additionally, although a “true gentleman” was supposed to offer little civilities, they were also supposed to “carry a bag for a lady … raise or lower a window … offer to check … baggage, procure … a hack, give … [an] arm from car to boat or boat to car, [and] assist [a woman’s] … children over … bad crossings.”[8] Women had to decide whether to accept or decline such attentions and if they did accept they were cautioned to “avoid any advance towards acquaintanceship [with the helpful gentleman].”[9]

Proper Introductions, Public Domain

Proper introductions. Public domain.

Sometimes a woman had to deal with difficult situations when traveling alone. For instance, a woman might have to face an impertinent or obtrusive stranger. When doing so, a woman was advised to “lower your veil and turn from him, either looking from the window or reading. A dignified, modest reserve is the surest way to repel impertinence.”[10]

Travelers on the HMS Calcutta in 1877, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Travelers on the HMS Calcutta in 1877. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

If a gentleman was purposely rude, proper etiquette required a woman to never “return rudeness with rudeness.”[11] As one etiquette book stated:

“Nothing will rebuke incivility in another so surely as perfect courtesy in your own manner [and] many will be shamed into apology, who would annoy you for hours, if you encouraged them by acts of rudeness on your part.”[12]

Know proper Victorian traveling etiquette also helped women of the 19th century if they encountered awkward or embarrassing situations. In such cases it was proper for a woman to seek assistance from a gentleman or even a stranger. It was noted, however, that once the gentleman resolved the situation, the woman was to courteously thank him and after he received the thanks, if he was a proper gentleman he would then “relieve … [her] of his presence.”[13]

If a woman traveled alone, it was suggested she find a seat next to another woman or near an elderly gentleman. If the person then decided to shorten the time by conversing, the woman was not to be too hasty in discouraging them. This was because such acquaintances always ended with the journey, “and a lady [could] always … deport herself … [and] beguile the time pleasantly, without, in the least, comprising her dignity.”[14]

Travel Poster of the 1890s, Author's Collection

Travel poster of the 1890s. Author’s collection.

If on the other hand, the woman traveled with a companion or escort, she was not to continual pester them (or the driver) with questions. Questions “such as ‘Where are we now?’ ‘When shall we arrive?'”[15] were claimed to make the journey more “tedious” and it was considered offensive and improper behavior to constantly question someone. In addition, neither were female travelers with companions supposed to expect their companion to entertain them. Ladies were supposed “to find ample employment for their time.”[16] If they had nothing to do, then they were to sit quietly and not be “fidgetty or fussy,” as such behavior was cited as a sure indication that the woman was either ill-bred or ill at ease in society.

Victorian Traveling Etiquette: Dining in a Railway Car in 1870, Author's Collection

Dining in a railway car in 1870. Author’s collection.

Victorian traveling etiquette also applied when visiting foreign lands. Travelers were told to never ridicule or make fun of any habits or foods that seemed strange. Travelers were also not to speak positively of their country while disparaging other countries. In fact, the advice offered was the following:

“If in Germany they serve your meat upon marmalade, or your beef raw, or in Italy give you peas in their pods, or in France offer you frog’s legs and horsesteaks, if you cannot eat the strange viands, make no remarks and repress every look or gesture of disgust. Try to adapt your taste to the dishes, and if you find that impossible, remove those articles you cannot eat from your plate, and make your meal upon the others, but do this silently and quietly, endeavoring not to attract attention. The best travelers are those who can eat cats in China, oil in Greenland, frogs in France, and macaroni in Italy; who can smoke a meerschaum in Germany, ride an elephant in India, shoot partridges in England, and wear a turban in Turkey; in short, in every nation adapt their habits, costume, and taste.”[17]


  • [1] Hartley, Florence, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, a Manual of Politeness, 1875, p. 35.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 36.
  • [4] Ibid., p. 34.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] The Hand-book of Etiquette, 1860, p. 27.
  • [8] Hartley, Cecil, The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness, p. 178.
  • [9] Hartley, Florence, p. 38.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] Ibid., p. 39.
  • [15] Ibid., p. 37.
  • [16] Beeton, Samuel Orchart, Family Etiquette, 1876,p. 116.
  • [17] Hartley, Cecil, p. 180.

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