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.
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.
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."
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
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,
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."
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
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."
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Martine's Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness. Arthur
The New Family Book or Ladies' Indispensable Companion and Housekeeper's