Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Mind Your Manners

One hundred and sixty years ago in America people began moving into the cities to find work or start their own businesses. That migration resulted in many making their fortunes. The new money provided an opportunity to assume a much loftier position in society, which in turn produced the often desperate need for acceptance by those who already occupied those elevated ranks. And how does one fit in with upper crust of old money? Becoming an avid acolyte of their manners and morals certainly doesn't hurt.

Wayne Erbsen's Manners and Morals of Victorian America provides the reader with a fun and interesting trip through the Way Back machine to a time when Americans were obsessed with how everyone else should properly behave. Using actual illustrations and publications from the period, the author covers such topics as Bicycling, Cleanliness, Honeymoons, Kissing and even a section on Umbrella Etiquette.

As with everything in life there were trends in behavior, too. When attending a play we are advised that "It is not fashionable to applaud" for doing so "might indicate a natural emotion, and every thing like feeling is now out of fashion." The rules for each gender were often different, too; paying a brief visit to someone (aka calling on them) required a man to remove and hold his hat in his hands, but a woman didn't have to take off her bonnet. At a dance, the master of the house was instructed to see to it that all the ladies present dance, yet a woman was advised never to dance more than once with the same partner unless "she desires to be noticed."

Most of the advice issued is rigid, misogynistic, contradictory and often hilarious. Under certain circumstances shaking a lady's hand is allowed, but squeezing it is a dire insult. Robust people are approved to bathe "safely" twice a day in summer and once a day in winter, but those of "weakly constitutions" should only wash once or twice a week. Even following the rules can be a bit risky: "Don't be vulgar, but don't show that you are trying hard not to be vulgar." My favorite passage warns not to allow children to read freely, as "one-half of the youth in our prisons and houses of corrections started on their evil careers by reading bad books, or at best, worthless novels."

By reading through the categories of moral directives and mannerly advice you'll begin to see form an interesting portrait of Victorian American society. Men were expected to be polite but courageous, ever-prepared to deal calmly with ruffians and adversity, and cater to women as if they were delicate flowers about to be trampled at any moment. Women were encouraged to be modest, beautiful and cater to men as if their lives depended on it (which they generally did.) Some of the behavioral directives parallel our modern culture; our ancestors were just as worried about what everyone else thought of them as we are. Others we've happily left behind, like caning children who misbehave at school, marrying according to social rank and the somewhat bizarre custom of throwing old shoes at a newly-married couple.

Whether you're a feminist or not, any woman who reads this book will probably spare a moment to thank God they weren't born in the nineteenth century. Back then the ultimate object of our existence was to get married to the right guy and lovingly take care of him, his house and his children for the rest of our lives -- but no more than that. Women of the time who campaigned for the right to vote were classified as dangerous, hysterical, "nerve-sick" and thoughtless, and we're instructed that devoting all our energies to child-bearing and housekeeping should be enough to keep us busy and mentally occupied. If nothing else it will make you appreciate how much better our lives are now -- we have come a long way, ladies.

I really appreciated this book because through it I could clearly hear the voice of Victorian Americans: nervous, often pompous, but always in earnest. They wanted more and better for themselves, and however wrong-headed many of their rules were, they were obviously eager to improve their situation, make good decisions and live a decent, happy life. No matter what time we scrutinize, that was, is, and I hope always will be, the American experience.

8 comments:

  1. This book sounds fascinating! I need to track down a copy.

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    1. It's a wonderful read, Deb; one of those books that you end up passing around to friends, too.

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  2. Me too Deb. I read a lot of historical novels and I am always thankful that I live in the here and now. Much as I'd love a quick "time jump" to see how they all lived, I'd probably end up as the chimney boy or the scullery maid, right at the bottom of the food chain not the lady of the manor!

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    1. Ah, but the ladies of the manor never had any fun, Fran. Their husbands made sure of it. :)

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  3. I love the prohibition about reading. I'm so glad I'm living now.

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    1. I had a few moments while reading this one when I sent up silent prayers of gratitude, too, Darlene. Especially when I kept running into all the do's and don't's for women -- there were like a million of them.

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  4. One thing we don't often think about are the smells. There is an exhibit in York (England) where you ride through historical time. Somehow they have recreated the smells of each century, and omg, I can't begin to describe the nostril-burning odors.

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    1. Yikes! I don't think I could manage that, Terlee. I'm cursed with an extremely sensitive nose. But what an inventive way to put on exhibit....

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