15 Bits of Advice for 19th Century Houseguests That Still Hold Up

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There’s no shortage of tricky issues to address when you’re staying with a friend or family member. While rules of society are always changing, certain aspects of good manners are timeless. Here are a few rules from the 1800s that will get you invited back next time you crash with a pal.

1. Don’t take casual invitations seriously. 

In American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness from 1883, Walter R. Houghton points out that general invitations often get tossed out when people don’t mean them and simply want to appear friendly. While it’s the host’s mistake, he writes, “...it is a still worse blunder to take such people at their word.” Wait until you’ve been formally invited and there’s no doubt that the offer is sincere. 

2. Never make a surprise visit. 

This truism goes hand in hand with the first piece of etiquette. Don’t drop in on friends or family, no matter how comfortable you feel with them. Houghton does make one exception: “The unlooked-for return of a widow’s long-lost son may be to her the more intensely joyous because unexpected…” If you’re in that situation, by all means, feel free to break this rule of etiquette. 

3. Don’t overstay your welcome.

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A couple of hundred years ago, the etiquette authorities suggested erring on the side of caution, aiming to make your visit shorter rather than longer. This rule remains a good way to make sure you’re not over-imposing with the potential side benefit of having your hosts feel really, truly sorrowful when you leave. The manner masters of the days of yore also advised guests to never stay a full week, with three days as the suggested maximum visit. Again, that figure still looks right as rain in the 21st century.  

4. Let your host know how long you’ll be staying. 

In 19th century etiquette books, it’s suggested that one should announce the length of his or her visit upon arrival, if the hosts have not already stipulated how long they’d like the visit to be. While this step actually seems a bit eccentric, it might be a fun way to add some suspense and drama to your next visit to a friend’s quiet country home. People love mystery and intrigue, so you’ll already be wildly entertaining from the moment you arrive. 

5. Conform.

To the habits of the home, that is. In Martine's Handbook of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness from 1866, Arthur Martine writes “If invited to spend a few days at a friend’s house, conform as much as possible to the habits of the family. When parting for the night, inquire respecting the breakfast hour, and ascertain at what time the family meet for prayers.” Houghton takes it a step further, writing that one must “submit cheerfully” even if the hours are not suitable. That advice might be a bit extreme, but it’s always good manners to do what you can to not disrupt the flow of your hosts or their household.

6. Avert your attention.

While some 19th century advice can seem a little overbearing, at the end of the day, it will always be true that being invited into someone’s home means you may witness some awkwardness. Just like existence of the problem itself, the advice on dealing with it remains solid: Ignore it and keep your mouth shut. In 1887’s A Manual of Etiquette with Hint on Politeness and Good Breeding, Daisy Eyebright writes, “...well-bred persons will never repeat what a Mrs. A. said, nor tell what Mr. A. did, when they were visiting at their house. Such discrepancies of good manners are perfectly unendurable, and no respectable person will excuse them.” Real talk doesn’t show its age.   

7. Bring gifts.

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Eyebright suggests giving little presents to the servants who’ve waited upon you. If you’re staying with someone who actually has servants, this pointer probably holds up as good manners. For the rest of us, reroute that intention toward your host, who would certainly appreciate a gesture of wine, baked goods, or some other goodwill in material form. 

8. Say yes. 

When a host proposes activities for amusement or entertainment, go with the flow and enjoy what they have planned for you. (Yes, you get sympathy points if it involves a terrible board or card game or vacation photos.) It’s not enough just to participate—you must also be timely. In The Ladies’ and Gentlemen's Etiquette Book of the Best Society from 1879, author Jane Aster writes, “Another point of good-breeding is to be punctual at meals ... if, however, a guest should fail in this particular, a well-bred entertainer will not only take no notice of it, but attempt to set the late comer as much at his ease as possible.” 

9. Be inclusive. 

Should you receive an invitation from a third party during your stay, it’s only polite to invite your host along unless it’s a date or some other outing where it would be inappropriate. Your host ought to do the same for you, writes Houghton, though, “either should generally refuse to accept an invitation to him alone." 

10. Don’t cause any trouble...

...but don’t apologize for your presence either! Martine writes, “Give as little trouble as possible; and never think of apologizing for the extra trouble which your visit occasions. Such an apology implies that your friend cannot conveniently entertain you.”  In other words, be polite, but not too polite.

11. Be tidy and lend a hand.

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This bit of manners minding definitely holds up two centuries later. Keep your space neat and clean, and do the same with communal spaces in the home. As Houghton writes, “Do not let garments lie scattered about promiscuously.” If there aren’t any servants, guests ought to make the bed and help the hosts in any way he or she can.

12. Don’t be too needy. 

Houghton advises, “Guests must be careful not to demand too constant attention from their entertainers, especially in the morning when the hostess has duties of her own.” That said, it’s not right to seek entertainment elsewhere and avoid your hosts, either. The theme here is essentially to make yourself available, but not too available, while also submitting to the desires of those you’re indebted to, which basically sums up most rules of etiquette.

13. Give thanks. 

Being a gracious guest is pretty obvious, and 19th century conduct guides basically laugh at the possibility that you’d ever consider not saying thank you. Martine writes, “We presume that few people will leave a friend's house without some expression of regret, and some acknowledgement proffered for the pleasure that has been afforded them. Instances to the contrary have come within our knowledge, and therefore we remind our youthful readers especially, that this small act of politeness is indispensable, not in the form of a set speech, but by a natural flowing forth of right feeling.”

14. Let them know you made it home safely.

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In the 19th century, a letter was the suggested medium for informing your hosts that you made it home okay and to reiterate your appreciation. Today, a text, email, call, or social media post will probably also suffice. Letter writing is also still an option if you want to introduce an element of suspense.

15. Reciprocate with an invitation.

Many of the propriety books from the 19th century have a variation of this phrase, taken in this particular form from A Manual of Etiquette: “The chain which binds society together is composed of innumerable links, and it should be the part of hosts and guests to keep them uniformly bright; and to let neither moth nor rust corrupt them.” That said, your final duty as a good guest is to offer your former host an invitation to stay with you (if such a thing would be desirable), and once they accept, you can read up on all the ways to be a good host in the 19th century and today.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Facts About the White Night Riots

The Elephant Walk, one of Harvey Milk's favorite bars in San Francisco's Castro District, was one of the many landmarks damaged during the White Night Riots. In 1995, it was fittingly renamed Harvey's in Milk's honor.
The Elephant Walk, one of Harvey Milk's favorite bars in San Francisco's Castro District, was one of the many landmarks damaged during the White Night Riots. In 1995, it was fittingly renamed Harvey's in Milk's honor.
jondoeforty1, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

On November 27, 1978, Dan White, a former police officer and city supervisor, broke into San Francisco City Hall with a loaded revolver. Evading metal detectors, he snuck through a basement window and shot and killed both Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, San Francisco's first openly gay elected official, in their offices. Weeks earlier, the mayor had refused to reinstate White as city supervisor after he previously resigned from the position; Milk was among those who backed the mayor's choice. Hours after the shootings, White turned himself in to the police and confessed to his crimes. What seemed like an open-and-shut murder case, however, turned out to be anything but.

The city's gay and lesbian population stood aghast on May 21, 1979, as White was convicted of the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter, which only carried with it a maximum prison sentence of seven years and eight months (White would only serve five years). That night, thousands of enraged protestors showed up at City Hall and engaged in violent clashes with the police over the outcome of the trial. What would later become known as the White Night Riots redefined the relationship San Francisco's gay and lesbian community had with the political structure and law enforcement in the city at the time. Here are some facts that you should know about the White Night Riots, one of the most violent protests in San Francisco history.

1. Dan White's trial will forever be known for the "Twinkie Defense."

During Dan White's trial, his legal team had to convince the jury that their client wasn't a cold-blooded killer but was instead a man suffering from diminished capacity due to ongoing bouts of depression. Among the evidence they used to illustrate that White wasn't in his right mind during the killings was the fact that he had recently given up his normally healthy lifestyle in favor of sugary junk food and soda. To give these claims credibility, the defense even called Dr. Martin Blinder, a psychiatrist, to the stand to talk about how, among other things, White's sudden intake of sweets was clearly a sign of a man depressed. (He also brought up White's strained marriage and unkempt beard.)

Reporters covering the trial would coin the term Twinkie defense to describe the unique strategy, but despite its outlandish nickname, it was enough to sway the jury after six days of deliberation. Today, "Twinkie defense" has been inscribed into law dictionary history as a derogatory label for an improbable legal defense. (Though, in reality, Twinkies weren't even brought up during the trial, and the killings were never blamed directly on junk food itself.)

2. The police openly supported Dan White's cause.

Dan White, the former police officer, turned himself in to an old friend down at the department just a couple of hours after the killings. Soon, members of the city's police and fire departments had helped raise over $100,000 for White's defense and many officers were seen openly wearing “Free Dan White” T-shirts in the weeks and months before the trial.

3. The White Night Riots started off as a peaceful march on Castro Street.

Many within the city's gay community were furious when the verdict was announced, and that night, a crowd of people spontaneously gathered in San Francisco’s Castro District to begin a nonviolent protest march. Gay and lesbian activists raised their fists and led the way, chanting “No justice, no peace!” throughout the district. Originally, 500 people began the march, but that number would soon balloon to 1500 as the crowd moved through the city.

4. Famous activists spoke at the protest, including Cleve Jones and feminist Amber Hollibaugh.

Harvey Milk’s friend, Cleve Jones, spoke to a crowd on Castro Street through Milk's own bullhorn. He angrily denounced White's conviction, saying, “I saw what those bullets did. It was not manslaughter, it was murder.”

When the marchers reached City Hall, feminist and lesbian activist Amber Hollibaugh climbed onto the railing and gave a speech in front of the ever-growing crowd. She yelled, “It’s time we stood up for each other. That’s what Harvey meant to us. He wasn’t some big leader. He was one of us. I don’t think it’s wrong for us to feel like we do. I think we should feel like it more often!”

In the years after the protests, Jones and Hollibaugh would continue to be vocal activists in the LGBTQ community. In 1987, Jones became one of the creators of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a handmade quilt made up of more than 50,000 panels that commemorate the lives of over 105,000 people who have died of AIDS-related illnesses. It remains the world’s largest community folk art project. And Hollibaugh went on to establish Queer Suvival Economics (QSE) in 2014, a project that addresses the intersection of sexuality, poverty, homelessness, labor, and the criminalization of survival.

5. Chaos broke out once the crowd reached City Hall.

By the time the demonstrators had reached City Hall, they had attracted a crowd of 5000, and the peaceful march soon evolved into a full-fledged riot. Grieving and angry protesters broke the windows and bars of City Hall, set police cars on fire, pelted the cops with rocks, and ripped parking meters off the sidewalks, leaving 59 officers and 124 protestors injured in three hours. The White Night Riots remains one of San Francisco’s most violent protests, and one estimate put the cost of the damage at $1 million.

6. Some police officers covered their badges with black tape during the riots.

When police arrived on the scene, they were ordered to hold the crowd back. However, many officers began assaulting the demonstrators with night sticks, with some even covering their badges with black tape during the chaos. Protesters tore off tree branches to use them as protection against the police who were armed with clubs and riot shields. After three violent hours, the police used tear gas to stop the protestors. Later, the FBI investigated the police’s use of force but no officers were ever reprimanded.

7. Rogue police officers retaliated by raiding The Castro District, San Francisco’s “Gay Mecca.”

After the destruction at City Hall, some rogue police officers headed to The Castro District, an area known for its large gay community. Harvey Milk was an admired public figure throughout the district and was even nicknamed “the Mayor of Castro Street.” One of his favorite haunts was the Elephant Walk bar, a safe space for people otherwise unwelcome in straight bars.

During the White Night Riots, a crowd of people dashed into the bar for shelter, but the police stormed in and demolished the property. Officers clubbed and injured the people inside, crashed bar stools, and broke windows while shouting anti-gay slurs. When former police inspector Jack Webb questioned why officers were pouring into the Castro when it had been quiet and nonviolent, the police captain allegedly responded, “We lost the battle at City Hall. We aren’t going to lose this one.”

In 1995, 16 years after the riots, and after surviving a fire that almost destroyed the entire building in 1988, the Elephant Walk bar reopened under a new name: Harvey’s. You can still find it at 500 Castro Street.

8. Flyers were plastered all over Castro Street warning protestors from speaking out.

Days after the riots, flyers appeared around the Castro, warning neighbors to keep quiet in fear of persecution by the law. The flyers read, “Our defense against the police is each other, our strength is our silence.” The ongoing distrust in the gay community ran so deep that the flyers even discouraged people from cooperating with law enforcement looking for information about the Elephant Walk attack.

9. The day after the White Night Riots would have been Harvey Milk's 49th birthday.

The day after the riots, May 22, would have been Harvey Milk’s birthday, and an estimated 20,000 San Franciscans peacefully gathered to celebrate and honor his legacy. This event had been organized months prior to the riots, but in light of the protests, the organizers came prepared with community “gay monitors” who wore shirts with “PLEASE! No violence” printed on them. The community policed themselves as Mayor Dianne Feinstein ordered police not to enter the immediate area. The “noisy and sometimes drunken” celebration of Milk's life was a complete turnaround from the night before. “Last night, gay men and lesbian women showed the world we’re angry and on the move,” Cleve Jones said at the gathering. "Tonight, we are going to show them that we are building a strong community.”

10. The 2008 movie based on Harvey Milk's life and assassination omitted all mention of the White Night Riots.

Directed by Gus Van Sant, the biographical film Milk details the life of Harvey Milk, focusing on his rising political career as a gay rights trailblazer. But the film comes to an abrupt end when Dan White shoots Milk and Mayor Moscone, with a closing shot of a candlelight vigil across San Francisco. The film’s omission of the violence that wracked the city on May 21 also omits Harvey Milk’s legacy that sparked an aggressive fight for gay rights on the West Coast. In 2017, however, Van Sant did wind up recreating the riots as a producer on the miniseries When We Rise, which chronicles the major events in recent LGBT history.