Social etiquette for girls in the 19th century

Written by brittany luongo
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Social etiquette for girls in the 19th century
Both men and women were expected to follow social etiquette. (Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images)

The 19th century was a time when behaviour and manners were of the highest importance. Numerous books on etiquette were written describing how both men and women should act at home, in public, at the dinner table, and at parties. The rules of conduct were taught to mostly to upper class girls as a part of daily instruction, and those who had the best manners were highly respected in their society.

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Addressing Company

Titles were crucial in 19th century society, so both acquaintances and family friends and relations were almost always referred to by full name in public and in private. When addressing an elder or person not of the immediate family, girls were taught to use the appropriate honorific (Mr. or Mrs.) and a surname or family name. This practice even extended to a man speaking to his wife when they were in the company of people other than their children or close relatives.

Conversing

Polite conversation also had a set of rules for girls to follow for interacting with mixed company. A polite young lady was told never to speak loudly or with vulgarity in the company of anyone, especially with a gentleman who would be offended by her crudeness. Conversation etiquette dictated that an individual should not speak of her family's private matters with another person not related or outside of the home. Girls and boys alike were also taught that it was inappropriate to note when someone had misspoken or used a word incorrectly.

Attire

Girls in upper-class homes in the 19th were often clothed in very expensive attire to display both her parents' wealth and her potential worth as a bride in the future. As there was much attention paid to what a young lady was wearing, there were also several rules about how certain articles of clothing must be worn and when. According to writer Pauline Weston Thomas, girls often wore long, heavy layers of skirts and underclothes, which made their movements very restricted. Despite her limitations, a polite girl would not lift the hem of her dress too far past her ankle, nor would she lift both sides of the skirt at the same time. If the ankle were to show, it would seem that the girl was ill-mannered and indelicate.

Display

In the 1800s, girls were educated in manners and appearance in order to secure a good marriage with a reputable boy of her social circle. Events like balls or dinner parties were perfect locales for a young lady to showcase her refined decorum and attract a husband. At these social occasions, girls could show their talents by singing or playing the piano for the guests, but only after permission was given from the host or hostess. If she performed well, the girl would be praised for her good breeding and would be seen as an ideal wife.

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