Various 19th Century French Etiquette Rules

Etiquette was an important part of American society with one nineteenth century article on politeness in American schools noting that it was considered “a matter of education as well as nature”[1]. Various 19th century French etiquette rules were just as important to Frenchmen as Americans, but in the Frenchman’s case some people considered them to be the most polite people in the world. That was because elite people like Madame Récamier, the Marquis de Lafayette, or the Empress Eugénie de Montijo, along with regular French citizens, had a willingness to embrace etiquette, follow its rules, and say “S’il vous plaît” or “Merci.”

19th Century French Etiquette - Juliette Récamier

Madame Juliette Récamier. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

 

Among the many 19th century French etiquette rules were those applied when making condolence visits. These visits were made by French citizens who received a lettre de faire part sent from the family of the deceased person. Female visitors were to dress in black (or at least a very dark-colored dress) and gentleman callers were required to wear dark gloves. While visiting, it was improper to speak on any cheerful subject, mention the deceased, or ask the person upon whom the visitor called, how he or she was doing. Moreover, mourning visits were to be short and respectful.

Another 19th century French etiquette rule involved marriage. For example, any prospective bridegroom could not make his proposal to the young lady as “that would be a sad breach of les convenances, and would probably horrify the jeune personne out of her senses.”[2] A friend of the prospective bridegroom accomplished the delicate task of asking the parents if they would accept the gentleman as their future son-in-law. If they agreed, then the gentleman requested an interview with the parents, and, during the interview, questions were raised that involved “the dowry, and the almost equally important question of the young man’s fortune, expectations, etc.”[3]

19th Century French Etiquette - Eugénie

Napoleon III marriage to Eugénie de Montijo on 29 January 1853. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

French domesticity was also not without etiquette. For instance, a gentleman caller took “his hat, gloves, and stick into the room with him except [if] he [was] on terms of great intimacy at the house.”[4] People also did not “drop in” for a meal as meals were well-planned, everyone one had an assigned seat, and to be tardy for a meal was considered a most dire offense. Moreover, when wine was provided, the wait staff did not serve it, rather “each male guest [saw] the lady neighbours on either side of him [were well] supplied.”[5]

There was also another 19th century French etiquette rule that was applied when hosting a meal. In this case the host and hostess never sat at the end of the table but rather always sat, one on either side in the center of the table. The least important guests were those who sat at the ends. When asked why this custom was used, this was the reply:

“In France the host and hostess are near one another, and can communicate easily about any matter affecting the dinner, they have their guests better under their eyes, and aren’t very far from any of them, they can talk to anyone with comfort, and be addressed without an effort.”[6]

Additionally, in France, table conversation was led by the host and hostess. Everyone joined in the conversation as it was considered rude to “keep your partner to yourself … [as] people would wonder what secrets lay between you that you needed to whisper.”[7]

Because etiquette and politeness were so important, 19th century French etiquette also meant French citizens were willing to correct others and call attention to their impoliteness. One example of this occurred in 1875 and involved a Frenchman and an American.

A French named Mr. R– boarded a train for Versailles accompanied by a woman. An American named Mr. O– also boarded that train. Mr. O– had recently crossed the Atlantic and settled in Paris. After boarding, he pulled off his boots and put his feet on some cushions planning to go to sleep.

Mr. R– was highly offended, tapped the boorish Mr. O– on the shoulder, and informed him “it was not etiquette to take one’s boots off in a lady’s presence.”[8] Mr. O– responded that he did not understand, and Mr. –R repeated that it was impolite to take off his boots in the presence of a lady.

“[Mr. O–] replied that he had taken off his boots because it had pleased him to do so, and invited his companion to follow his example if he felt so inclined. Mr. R–, somewhat nettled by the laugh of the lady who sat by his side insisted on Mr. O–’s putting on his boot again; but the latter explained … that he would not put on his boots.”[9]

With that Mr. R– seized Mr. O–’s boots, opened the window, and threw them out. Mr. O– jumped to save his boots but in the process knocked Mr. R–’s hat out the window. A violent argument ensued, and cards were exchanged with no one knowing for sure how the argument was settled. However, it is likely that both Mr. O– and Mr. R– thereafter gave second thoughts to following proper etiquette.

19th Century French Etiquette - railway network

Development of the railway network in France up to 1860. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Pennsylvania. Dept. of Public Instruction, Pennsylvania. Dept. of Common Schools and Pennsylvania State Education Association, Pennsylvania School Journal v. 30 (Lancaster: Pennsylvania State Education Association, 1881), p. 404.
  • [2] Dundee Evening Telegraph, “Cream of Current Literature,” May 10, 1877, p. 4.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Northern Whig, “Housekeeping in France,” April 11, 1913, p. 12.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] A. K. Bruce, “Some Paris Notes,” Greenlock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, December 27, 1909, p. 4.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Yankee Comfort and French Etiquette, June 8, 1875, Dundee Courier, p. 5.
  • [9] Ibid.

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