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