25 Pieces of Advice from a 19th Century Etiquette Book
For unsolicited, antiquated advice, you can’t do much better than 1883’s American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness by Walter R. Houghton. It covers everything from which colors are harmonious to proper wedding anniversary gifts to how to behave at the White House, and (as you’ll read below) what to do when in the presence of an inferior human being. Completely unrelated: it’s also terribly sexist. Read on for a glimpse of society life was like 130 years ago.
1. DON'T GOSSIP.
This bit of advice is actually pretty sensible. "Be free from tattling," Houghton urges. "Do not inflict upon society another member of that despicable and dangerous species called gossipers. That tongue that carries slander and defames the character of others is as black as sin itself. Always be careful in your conversation not to dwell on what you heard somebody say about somebody else."
2. KNOW WHEN TO SHOOT AN ICY GLARE.
Turns out, cutting a badly behaved individual is a time-honored tradition. "The 'cut' is given by a continued stare at a person," Houghton instructs. "This can only be justified at all by extraordinary and notoriously bad conduct on the part of the one 'cut,' and it is very seldom called for. Should any one desire to avoid a bowing acquaintance with another, it may be done by turning aside or dropping the eyes."
It's also important to know who you can cut: "Good society will not allow a gentleman to give a lady the 'cut' under any circumstances; yet there may be circumstances in which he would be excused for persisting in not meeting her eyes, for should their eyes meet he must bow, even though she fail to grant him a decided recognition," Houghton writes.
3. DON'T KISS A WOMAN (IF YOU'RE A WOMAN).
This piece of etiquette is not just outdated, it's become the offender: "The practice of women kissing each other in public is decidedly vulgar, and is avoided entirely by ladies of delicacy and true refinement."
4. WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE.
"Such exclamations as 'The Dickens,' or 'Mercy,' or 'Good Gracious,' should never be used," Houghton writes. "If you are surprised or astonished, suppress the fact. Such expressions border closely on profanity."
5. HEY, DON'T TALK DOWN TO WOMEN.
This piece of advice manages an impressive feat: being disrespectful when it thinks it's being respectful. "A gentleman should never lower the intellectual standard in conversing with ladies," Houghton says. "He should consider them as equal in understanding with himself. A lady of intelligence will not feel compliments by any means, if, when you talk to her, you 'come down' to common-place topics."
6. LOOK AROUND—BUT NOT TOO INTENTLY.
Houghton's instruction here seems practical at first, then veers into preemptive creeper-prevention: "Look in the way you are going, both to avoid collisions and because it is bad manners to stare in any other direction. If you chance to see an acquaintance at a window you show bow; but, by all means, do not stare into houses. Avoid looking full into the faces of strangers whom you meet, especially of ladies."
7. DON'T PLAY IN TRAFFIC.
It's not just risky, it's uncouth: "For a lady to run across the street before a carriage is inelegant and dangerous."
8. MEN, KNOW HOW TO PICK YOUR WOMAN'S HORSE.
Who knew that a horseback riding date contained so much responsibility? "When a gentleman has an engagement to go riding with a lady, he should be very careful in selecting her horse, and should procure one that she can easily manage," Houghton writes. "It is his duty to see that her saddle and bridle are perfectly secure; trust nothing to the stable men, without personal examination. He must not keep the lady waiting, clad in her riding costume."
9. BE PUNCTUAL, LADIES.
After all, men are just trying to please you. Let them do so in a timely manner. "Ladies who are invited to drive with gentlemen, at a certain hour, should be ready exactly at that moment. It is neither well-bred nor dignified to keep any one waiting who has made an appointment conducive to your pleasure," Houghton lectures. "Have everything ready, gloves on and buttoned up, and all arrangements of the toilet complete."
10. FAKE OBLIVIOUSNESS.
Another piece of etiquette that generally holds true to this day. "A visitor should not appear to notice any unpleasant family affairs that fall under his observation. He should never comment upon them to strangers, or to the host himself, unless his friend should first broach the subject," Houghton instructs. "Also, if you do not find your friend in as high a state of prosperity as you had anticipated do not take too evident notice of the fact. Your observations may be cruel as well as impolite."
11. DON'T GET ENGAGED TOO QUICKLY.
Another bit of common sense that's stood the test of time. "It is very unwise, not to say presumptuous, for a gentleman to make a proposal to a young lady on a too brief acquaintance," Houghton explains, elaborating:
Such hasty proposals generally come from mere adventurers, or else from mere novices in love, so that in either case they are to be rejected. A lady who would accept a gentleman at first sight can hardly possess the discretion needed to make a good wife.
But only do so in very particular, gender-specific ways:
To every well-bred man and woman physical education is indispensable. It is the duty of a gentleman to know how to ride, to shoot, to fence, to box, to swim, to row, and to dance. He should be graceful. If attacked by ruffians, a man should be able to defend himself, and also to defend women from their insults. Dancing, skating, swimming, archery, games of lawn tennis, riding and driving, and croquet, all aid in developing and strengthening the muscles, and should be practiced by ladies. The better the physical training, the more self-possessed and graceful she will be. Open-air exercise is essential to good health and a perfect physical development.
13. PERFORM WHEN ASKED, BUT DON'T OVERSTAY YOUR WELCOME.
"If a lady is requested to sing or play, she should do so at once, if she intends to comply, without waiting to be urged," Houghton mandates. "In refusing, she should do it in a manner that shall make her decision final. A lady should not monopolize the evening with her performances, but return to make room for others. It is a mark of vanity for a lady to exhibit any anxiety to sing or play."
14. SUPPRESS YOUR EMOTIONS.
One might say this is the primary tenet of good manners: "It is a mark of good breeding to suppress undue emotion, whether of disappointment, of mortification, or laughter, of anger, or of selfishness in any form."
15. DON'T ACT SUPERIOR (EVEN IF YOU OBVIOUSLY ARE).
"Never affect superiority," Houghton writes. "If you chance to be in the company of an inferior, do not let him feel his inferiority. When you invite an inferior as your guest, treat him with all the politeness and consideration you would show an equal."
16. KEEP VERBAL WITTICISMS TO A MINIMUM.
I think we can all agree that Houghton's moratorium on puns is indeed for the best. "Avoid bringing anecdotes into the conversation," he counsels. "Do not exhibit vulgarity by 'making puns.' Indulge with moderation in repartees, as they degenerate into the vulgarity of altercation."
17. REMOVE YOUR MOLES.
And do so in a terrifying manner:
Moles may be removed by moistening a stick of nitrate of silver, and touching them: they turn black, become sore, dry up, and fall off. If they do not go by first application, repeat. They are generally a great disfigurement to the face and should be removed, but it is better and safer to consult a surgeon before taking any steps to remove them.
18. DON'T MESS WITH YOUR EYES.
This intense bit of instruction on keeping the eyes unadorned is both nice in its sentiment, and probably wise health advice. "Beautiful eyes are always admired. Nothing lends so much to the beauty of the eyes as an honest, intelligent, benevolent expression of the face," Houghton writes. "They eyes are the index of the soul, and many traits of character may be read in them; therefore, it should be remembered, that to have pleasing eyes, pleasing traits of character should be cultivated, and a clear conscience preserved. Their beauty is independent of all arts of the toilet. Nothing is more foolish and vulgar than painting or coloring the lids or lashes. The eyes are very delicate and should never be tampered with. They are easily destroyed."
19. PUT THE BLING AWAY, BOYS.
"No well-bred gentleman will load himself with jewelry," Houghton asserts. "He may wear one ring, a watch chain, studs and cuff buttons."
20. LADIES, MAKE YOUR GIFTS LADYLIKE.
Any gift made by a lady "should be of a delicate nature, usually some dainty product of their own taste and skill," Houghton writes. "If a married lady makes a present to a gentleman she should give it in the name of both herself and her husband."
21. PRACTICE RESTRAINT IN YOUR LOVE LETTERS.
In the era of Snapchat, a caution to keep your wits about you when writing a love letter is downright sweet. Jane Austen readers will appreciate this one. "A love letter should be dignified in tone and expressive of esteem and affection," Houghton writes. "It should be free from silly and extravagant expressions, and contain nothing of which the writer would be ashamed were the letter to fall under the eyes of any person beside the one to whom it was written."
22. DON'T BE A BUZZKILL.
A rare instance in which Houghton makes allowances for fun. "At picnics, while ladies and gentlemen will not forget to be polite and courteous, forms and ceremonies are thrown aside," he writes. "Men and women engage in these days of pleasure that they may escape, for a time, the cares of business, and the restraints of formal society, so at such times it is the duty of all to make the occasion one of gayety and mirth."
23. ELIMINATE GRAY HAIRS WITH A HOMEMADE CONCOCTION.
Certainly this could not have smelled good.
One-half ounce sugar of lead, one half ounce lac sulphur, one ounce glycerine, one quart rain water. Saturate the hair and scalp with this two or three times per week and you will soon have a head free from gray hairs and dandruff, while the hair will be soft and glossy.
24. GET RID OF THOSE UNSIGHTLY BLACK TEETH.
Cream of tartar is still used as a common material to whiten teeth naturally. Though by the sound of things, it probably had to work a lot harder back then. "Pulverize equal parts of salt and cream of tartar, and mix them thoroughly," Houghton instructs. "After washing the teeth in the morning, rub them with this powder, and after a few such applications the blackness will disappear."
25. BANISH FLESH WORMS.
It's unclear what the cologne is doing here, but smelling nice is always in line with good etiquette: "Wash the face in tepid water, rub thoroughly with a towel, and apply a lotion made of half an ounce of liquor of potash, and three ounces of cologne. Make the application with a soft flannel rag."