Manners and Etiquette  



Manners and Etiquette in the Antebellum South

Etiquette and manners played a large part in the Southern Antebellum society. It was believed that the desire to become true American ladies and gentleman was the goal of most citizens living in this time period. An individuals manners, such as how to wear your hair, how to dress, bowing and curtseying, dinner etiquette, among many others defined who you were in society. However, interestingly enough, all manners were put aside when it came to the chewing of tobacco. During the Antebellum period more people, both ladies and gentleman, chewed tobacco like never before. The residents living in Athens, Georgia, however, were no exception. The individuals that lived in this small Southern town during the Antebellum period were representative of the rest of the South in most aspects of manners. In this paper I will discuss the typical manners displayed by southerners in the Antebellum period, and discuss how Athens, Georgia represented the South on a national scale when it came to everyday etiquette and manners in the social lives of these citizens. 

The years from 1830 to 1870 were the ideal period of the perfect lady. Around early 1830, the waistline, which was mostly raised to the bosom as fashion had required early in the century, fell back to its natural position. Dresses continued to grow fuller from that time on, until they reached several yards in circumference. They were held out by petticoats, and of course corsets were a must. Throughout the Antebellum period, Southern women continued to delight in showing off their shapely bodies. American women decided to be as seductive as possible in order to emphasize their independence. However, women were expected to appear submissive, sweet and resigned at the same time. While proper ladies tolerated no bright colors, perfume was also a major issue among women in the 1840‘s. There were not any restrictions on perfume, and so, they used it rather liberally. At about this same time in Athens, Georgia, some women chose to dress a little differently. It came to the attention of some travelers that some women chose to break the norm and wear men’s clothing. This type of dress was condemned, stating that “it is ok for them to wear them in the privacy of their homes but in public it is an affront to men“.

The dress of men during the Antebellum period was much more conventional than that favored by the women. The ministers dressed in all black and the majority of other men wore black, gray, and dark colors in general. Their clothes remained the same, with a “high stovepipe hat; a long frock coat, at first full and later fitted; trousers with straps beneath the instep; a puffy cravat skillfully knotted to create an impression of deliberate negligence”. Around 1860, sideburns also became popular among men. Beards and mustaches had strictly been ruled out before this time however, “primarily city gentlemen of fashion, began to sport mustaches”.Shaving brushes and lather bowls played a prominent part in men’s lives. It was fashionable for men to have their initials stamped on them in gold. 

Hairstyles for women demanded a great deal of taste and judgment. The style of hair varied with the different forms of face. They rarely did their hair themselves, and often times they went to a hairdresser, who would fix their hair according to their facial features. The women of Athens, especially used hairdressers before large social events, for example the commencement ceremonies at the University. 

The change in hairstyle for men marked potential social change. After the 1800’s, wig and powder went decisively out of fashion among the better sort, spurred in part by the President’s casual style-much to the dismay of city barbers. From then on men decided to adopt the short hair style. 

Some of the basic recommendations for individuals to display correct manners included never sleeping in one’s clothes during the day, never to keep one’s hat on in the presence of a lady, not to tilt one’s chair, not to touch one’s partner they are conversing with, never grab women by the waist or, in general to touch them, and not to make fun of those who bathed and washed regularly. 

Cleanliness also became a major issue, one that was new to the Antebellum period. The engraining of habits so thoroughly as to make them feel like second nature implies that powerful cultural forces once worked on the minds and bodies of western men and women. The idea of bathing significantly changed from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth century. For normal cleanliness, the usual eighteenth century method was a basin of water and a towel, what we would call a sponge bath today. However, at the turn of the century, bathhouses were introduced, where individuals took baths in which their bodies were totally immersed in water. 

It was not until about 1850 that regular personal washing become routine in middle class households. Cleanliness became an intense social importance. Cleanliness had social power because it was a moral ideal and a standard of judgment. Being clean was valuable to those individuals who wanted to better their lives and who wanted to move out of the lower classes. Dirty hands, greasy clothes, offensive odors, and grime on the skin all entered into complex judgments about the social position of the dirty person and actually his or her moral worth. By the middle of the nineteenth century, among the middle class anyway, personal cleanliness ranked as a mark of moral superiority and dirtiness as a sign of degradation. Cleanliness indicated control, spiritual refinement, breeding; the unclean were vulgar, coarse, animalistic. A dirty person evoked one of the most powerful of social forces-scorn.

Relationships between men and women played an important role in the new code of good manners. When women were involved in conversations with gentlemen, they were never supposed to ask them about their health. Gentlemen, were advised against asking ladies a question period. If they wanted to give a gift to a particular lady, a bouquet of flowers or a book were the only suitable gifts. The slightest contact, however, was to be avoided between ladies and gentlemen in public.

Dancing was probably the one issue that caused the most problems. The sexes were simply kept apart as much as possible. The only body part that was allowed to be touched during a dance was the elbows. The men never put their hand around the woman’s waist. That was just not acceptable. Her waist was forbidden. Other etiquette strictly enforced among women included: never allowing anyone to help her with her coat, shawl, etc. Certain words were also forbidden. For example, a woman called her chest her neck, and she was to call her stomach, her chest. Never was it acceptable for women to show their legs in public. 

The manners and etiquette in dealing with sexual manors are quite humorous. Since it was inappropriate for women to show the slightest bit of their legs in public, you can imagine how people in the Antebellum period felt about sex. Showing any affection towards one another was strongly prohibited. Even for married couples holding hands, laying your head on your husbands shoulder, or hugging would surely be looked down upon. As the years progressed during the Antebellum period, things began to change slightly. Couples were allowed to sleep in the same bed together, fully clothed, with a board separating them so any contact would be impossible. However, research shows that the rate of pregnancy increased, and the number of women who were pregnant when they married increased as well. I think sex was kind of an issue that everyone knew happened, between those who were married and even those who were not, but most people simply turned their heads and pretended that it did not happen. 

Mealtime also had it’s own set of manners. It was not appropriate to blow your nose with your napkin, nor was it acceptable to pick up your soup bowl and drink from it. Women were expected to always remove their gloves as soon as they were seated at the table, spread their napkin in their lap or sometimes they would even pin the napkin to their dresses. They were also not supposed to look at anyone for a long period of time if they were eating loud or happened to spill something on themselves. It was never appropriate for men or women to make any noise chewing. Such noises would be classified as inconsiderate.  

As previously mentioned, all manners were set aside when it came to the use of tobacco. Most travelers, mostly European to be exact, felt that people of the south were sincere and cordial. However, these virtues took on an unreserved spontaneity, especially in the art of tobacco chewing. Tobacco chewers were most notably criticized for spitting in public places, especially churches, trains, and boats. It was a mystery to these travelers how men could so entertain themselves as to create an uninterrupted deluge of spit on the floor. They also spoke of the ceaseless spitting on the decks of boats people were traveling on. Some of these stories are believed to be a little exaggerated, but Alexander Mackay, a traveler from the United States, wrote that the floor in his railway car was so covered in tobacco spit, that he decided to ride his whole trip on the platform. Mackay also reported that he saw a man use the tobacco from his mouth to draw pictures on the window of the train. 

Another traveler, visiting Athens, Georgia, spoke about chewing tobacco in churches. This individual stated: 

I have visited cities, and have never heard better sermons than in Athens; your churches too are commodious, neat buildings, or were neat before being used for the worship of God; but how shall I express the horror I felt at seeing the shocking defilement which is permitted in those temples of a pure and holy God.
The habits of devoted tobacco users were repulsive to most European travelers who visited Athens, as well as any other place in the South. It did not matter where tobacco chewers spit, nothing was off limits.

Surprisingly, women also participated in this nasty habit. Women mostly preferred to use snuff, which today we would call, dipping. They even carried around stylish boxes to hold their snuff, and these boxes became somewhat of a fashion statement. Dipping snuff together became a way for the ladies to make friendships, because it was such a common practice. In Athens, as throughout the South, Tobacco chewing among women was not class specific. Individuals seemed to use tobacco, whether they were rich, poor, or middle class. After 1820, however, the use of tobacco among women began to decline. When appearance started to become more important, women decided that it might be inappropriate to continue such practices.

Tobacco use among men was much greater than women. They used different methods such as smoking through a pipe, chewing, snuff-dipping, and smoking cigars. However, smoking was a fire hazard, and was the less frequent mode of using tobacco. Smoking cigars was the most frequent method for individuals who were financially secure, and this was the expensive way to consume tobacco. Associated with tobacco use was also the consumption of alcohol. Both of these practices became everyday rituals for some. 

As we have seen, in the society of the Antebellum South, etiquette and manners played a large part in the daily life of the average citizen . A profound desire to become true American ladies and gentlemen, the goals of most citizens, dictated how you wore your hair, how you dressed, and how you acted in every aspect of life in this time period. As previously noted, however, this desire to live in a mannered society was put aside in regard to the subject of tobacco use, by both men and women alike. The residents of the sleepy little southern college town of Athens, Georgia, as we have seen, were no exception to this prevalence of a desire for manners and proper social behavior, nor to the use of tobacco by both men and women alike. Athens was truly a microcosm of the Southern life and times.

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