Copyright - May not be reproduced without permission from:  Victoria Rumble  

Those of us who are living history enthusiasts encounter the term "Victorian" multiple times per day in conjunction with practically everything from the l9th century - architecture, clothing, jewelry, etiquette, domestic arts, etc.  In essence Victorian describes the period during Queen Victoria's reign - l837 to l90l - and all the things associated with this time period.  

The reason people the world over recognize Victoria and her reign is because she was so admired for her honesty, fairness, and graciousness.  Her reign was the turning point in English rule and she tried admirably to make up for the shortcomings of her predecessors.  While ever conscious of her duties as Queen she still managed to maintain a domestic quality and was as comfortable having tea with her subjects as with heads of state.  

The Victorian era is generally associated with gracious behavior in a gentler time.  There were, of course, those of coarse breeding and mannerisms as with any time throughout history, but for the most part it was a time many yearn for in today's chaotic world.  While it is impossible to summarize the material culture of a nation in one brief article, we will attempt to look at the basics that set the l9th century apart from the 2lst.

Gossip and evil speaking was condemned.  "A young lady should be very guarded, indeed, about speaking evil of any one, and equally so of how she repeats the disparaging remarks of another...The difficulty is, to make each one, who indulges this evil practice, conscious that she is really guilty of doing so, and therefore, a wrong-doer to others...A great deal of unhappiness is created, and a great deal of harm done, by indulgence in the bad habit we are now condemning...Let every young lady set her face against this as a serious evil.  Let her place a bridle upon her tongue, and upon her thoughts, lest she be betrayed in an unguarded moment into saying something against her young friend that may injure her in the estimation of others.  The surest way to avoid this fault is to look more at the good in our friends than the evil."  

A congenial and close relationship was expected amongst siblings.  While it was recognized that older brothers sometimes got caught up in their own lives advice was sometimes offered to young ladies on how to gain the respect and admiration of their brothers.  "There is no surer way for a sister to gain an influence with her brother, than to cultivate all exterior graces and accomplishments and improve her mind by reading, thinking, and observation.  By these means she not only becomes his intelligent companion, but inspires him with a feeling of generous pride towards her, that, for any thing else, impresses her image upon his mind, brings her at all times nearer to him, and gives her a double power over him for good."  

Ladies were encouraged to become the confidant of younger brothers and earn their trust that they might be a trusted advisor when life's temptations plagued the young gentleman.  Sisters were encouraged to spend time with their younger brothers, get to know their friends, and exert a positive influence on their lives because, "so many temptations beset young men, of which young women know nothing..."  

Young people were taught to respect their parents and to be aware of sacrifices they may have made in their early lives so that their children might not know the hard work and sacrifice of their youth.  Successive generations have wanted throughout history to give their children more advantages than they had themselves, and children during the Victorian era were taught, more so than today, to be aware of this and through their courteous and respectful behavior toward their parents to express their gratitude.  

"A sensible daughter, who loves her parents, will hardly forget to whom she is indebted for all the superior advantages she enjoys.  She will also readily perceive that the experience which her parents have acquired , and their natural strength of mind, give them a real and great superiority over her, and make their judgment, in all matters of life, far more to be depended upon than hers could possibly be.  It may be that her mother has never learned to play upon the piano, has never been to a dancing-school, has never had anything beyond the merest rudiments of education; but she has good sense, prudence, industry, economy; understands and practices all the virtues of domestic life; has a clear discriminating judgment; has been her husband's faithful friend and adviser for some twenty or thirty years; and has safely guarded and guided her children up to mature years."  

Books of the day often advised young ladies o how to react with young men upon coming of age.  One source says the two courses of action most often taken were simpering bashfulness, and a bold free air, both of which were equally offensive.  Introductions were generally made through fathers, brothers, or some particular family friend.  Others were frowned upon for fear the young lady would be exposed to a young man of questionable character.  "A young lady cannot be too particular.  It is no proof that a young man is worthy to be numbered among her friends, because he is well dressed, good looking, converses intelligently, and visits at the house or attends the parties given by this, that, or the other respectable person."

Should a suitor through rudeness or a lack of more educated topics of conversation begin idle gossip about mutual acquaintances the young lady was instructed to change the subject and endeavor to lead her companion into a conversation of more appropriate tone such as literature, music, etc.  

Men were likewise taught from an early age to revere women, serve as their protectors, and to assume responsibility thought too taxing on the female constitution.  "In this country politeness, deference, and attention to ladies, are considered cardinal virtues among well-bred men.  The best places at table, the most comfortable seats in public conveyances, the most delicate and choice viands at a repast-in fact every thing that is most comfortable, or that can at all be a matter of preference, --is generously yielded by gentlemen to ladies, not as their right, but from feelings of kindness, or from the dictate of that genuine politeness that always prefers another."

 The character of young men was expected to be honorable, and when it was discerned they had betrayed that innocence they were not to be admitted into the home circle of respectable young ladies regardless of their, "family status, polish, education, manners, intelligence, or ability to entertain."  Young ladies were cautioned of the possibility of being judged by the company they kept, and that upright suitors might find them unworthy of their admiration if the company they kept was questionable in character.  

Young men and women were also taught the responsibility of acting their part in society, and not sitting by idly expecting advantages to come to them unearned.  "I say to every young man, begin early to do for the social institutions in which you move.  If you have none of these, show an accommodating disposition by attending the sewing circle and holding yarn for the girls.  Do your part and be a man among men."  

The virtues young men were instructed they might offer to society included the ability to act in charades, dance, tell stories, discuss adventures in travel, if well educated the ability to impart valuable ideas, being vivacious in conversation, singing, playing whist, dressing appropriately thus bringing an ornamental quality to society, private theatricals, a willingness to wait on the ladies present, to present a healthful and uncorrupted nature which was advantageous for society to associate with, etc.  

Young ladies were equally well received when they offered their talents to society which might include playing the piano or other instrument, singing, sketching, painting, dancing, or something slightly more practical such as fancy sewing, embroidery, crochet, knitting, tatting, netting, braiding, bead work, etc.  Young ladies were taught they could carry on a conversation while their fingers nimbly pursued these domestic arts, and produce gifts for friends while visiting and entertaining.  

Because needlework was viewed both as an outlet for a woman in need to provide for herself and her family, and being a pleasant activity for the wealthy such domesticity was perceived as artistic and contributing to the social scene of the day.  Fancy sewing served a woman well -- it provided her with a socially acceptable past-time while during the course of a winter she might produce a remarkable garment such as a petticoat with wide elaborate white work embroidery.  
Sewing circles were a common form of entertainment for young people.  Locations were predetermined at the home of participants, and each week a different person was chosen to read aloud while the others present pursued their knitting, crochet, or fancy needle work.  Baby clothes such as elaborately embroidered long petticoats, caps, and booties were commonly constructed during such evenings as well.

Parlor entertainments were the rage of the day and young people who could contribute to these activities were always popular with their peers.  These sometimes included tableaux, charades, reading aloud, or musical presentations.  The hastily erected and improvised scenery or back drops for such activities was often as much a part of the fun as the activities themselves.  
Encouragement was offered to accept and play a small part with good natured enthusiasm, and put as much into its delivery as if it were a larger more attention-getting part.  Tableau vivants were still life pictures - a grouping of objects and people to represent a famous artwork, book title, etc., but which were done without any speaking parts.  These were popular forms of entertainment in the mid-l9th century and something which should be more often a part of our re-enactment of the l9th century.

Infractions commonly thought of as rude and evidence of ill-breeding included the following:  Gossip, looking over the shoulder of someone, standing with the hands on hips or arms crossed, restless movements of the hands and feet while in the presence of others, discussing one's self and interests rather than those of others present, walking in front of others versus passing behind their chairs to get to a certain location, to exchange glances, and facial expressions with a third party while speaking with someone, proceeding up stairs before a gentleman rather than allowing him to pass and following, whispering in public, accepting gifts from gentlemen, remaining seated while anyone older than yourself stands, goading someone into behavior once they have expressed a desire to refrain, reading alone while in company, engaging in conversations regarding questionable activities, speaking of a gentleman by first name unless there is a familial relationship, laughing at your own jokes, ridiculing others, allowing hands or elbows to rest upon the table, etc.  

By l86l the custom of receiving visitors called for the hostess to stand near the door so that her guests could speak with her first, paying whatever compliments they felt obliged to, upon first entering the home.  During the l850's it had been popular for the hostess to place herself near the back of the room necessitating the guests to walk past the other guests in attendance in order to speak first to the hostess.  

Hostesses were instructed to have a room made ready for guests, to provide a warm fire if need be, writing materials, books, a repast to tide the guest over until the next meal was served, and to supply her every want including abiding her habits.  A hostess never accepted an invitation to a gathering which did not include her guest.  

During the l9th century letters were the common form of communication and their composition was the study of many works of politeness.  Style as well as composition were encouraged to be appropriate to the subject of the letter whether it be congratulatory, of condolence, to family members or to a gentleman or lady, of thanks, invitations, or letters of recommendation.  Each called for its own style and these were outlined in publications of the day.  

Visiting, meeting friends in the street, visits to the opera or theater, attending a ball, letter writing, attending a dinner party, and attending church are examples of situations which called for a knowledge of the etiquette of the day.  Books abounded with advice on proper behavior and conduct for such occasions.  

Ladies were instructed to dress neatly, but quietly when going out upon the street so as not to call undue attention to themselves.  They were to dress fully indoors before venturing outdoors even to the last detail such as putting on their gloves and tying their bonnets.  She was to walk slowly and gracefully and never swing her arms as she walked.  No lady ever raised her dress above the ankle even in rough terrain.  It was felt better to have to launder the dress than show more of her lower limbs than was customary and necessary.  

Gloves were a routine part of dress during the Victorian era.  Their type and color varied with the occasion.  For morning calls dark gloves were appropriate, for bridal calls and formal occasions white was preferred.  For traveling ladies chose thicker sturdier gloves which should stand the rigors of entering conveyances.  While cotton gloves might serve well for day wear, evening festivities such as balls generally called for kid gloves.  These might be the color of the dress or white.  

Ladies when paying calls (not extended visits) often did not remove their bonnets because doing so necessitated some fuss in replacing them upon leaving.  Unless a visit had been arranged and the hostess was prepared for it to be an extended one a half hour was considered a reasonable length of time to remain, thus the time required in removing and replacing the bonnet was often considered too long to be practical.

A lady was never to speak to a gentleman in the street.  If he was an acquaintance and had something to say to her he was to be invited to join her, but not to stop and talk in the street.  This was customary when meeting lady friends, but more important when speaking with gentleman friends.  Ladies were expected to speak to gentlemen first, and not to do so and leave the gentleman standing uncomfortably waiting to be recognized was considered vulgar behavior on the part of the lady.  She was, however, not expected to acknowledge a gentleman whom she was not previously acquainted with, and such a gentleman would not speak with the lady until introduced by a male relative or close family friend.  A lady was encouraged not to venture out into the street after dark, but instead send a male relative or servant to accomplish her task.

Gentlemen were taught to wait to be recognized by a lady whom he knew when meeting in passing.  "Should you meet a lady of your acquaintance in the street, or in a public place, it is not necessary that you should speak, or even notice her, unless she at first recognizes you.  You should, however, give her ample opportunity to see that you are aware of her presence.  If she bows, you should take off your hat, or rather, lift it from your head, a mere touch of the hat will not answer."  
Slightly lifting the hat with the left hand in greeting of another male was acceptable, leaving the right hand free to shake hands.  In meeting a lady, however, the gentleman bowed somewhat lower, and lifted the hat a farther distance from the head.

Gloves were common accessories for men also.  Upon meeting a friend who had on gloves it was deemed proper to shake hands with the gloves on, however, should the friend not be wearing gloves it was proper for the other gentleman to remove his right glove before shaking his friend's hand.  A gentleman did not offer a gloved hand to a lady who was without gloves.  At a ball neither gentlemen or ladies were expected to remove their gloves, however, if a meal was served the gloves were removed for dining.

In recreating the activities of the mid-l9th century it is equally as important to act the part as to look it.  A study of etiquette books of the day will provide a basis for our behavior which in some ways is different from what most of us experience in our 2lst century lives.  Some of the books have been reprinted, some are available through interlibrary loan, or for those with money to spend used book stores can yield original copies at varying prices depending on year published and condition.  


  • Titcomb's Letters to Young People Single and Married.  Titcomb, Timothy.  New York.  Charles Scribner.  l859.

  •  Advice to Young Ladies on their Duties and Conduct in Life.  Arthur, T. S.  Boston.  Norman C. Barton.  l848

  • The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, Fashion, and Manual of Politeness.  Hartley, Florence.  Boston.  J. S. Locke & Co. l860.

  • Godey's Lady's Book. l86l.

  • Etiquette, and the Usages of Society.  Dick & Fitzgerald.  New York.  l860.

  • Martine's Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness.  Arthur Martine.  l866.

  • The New Family Book or Ladies' Indispensable Companion and Housekeeper's Guide.  l854

 18th Century

 19th Century

   20th Century