Social customs in the regency period

Updated April 17, 2017

The Regency era derives its name from the period of English history between 1811 and 1820. When the illness of King George III left him unfit to rule, his son the Prince of Wales was designated as Prince Regent to rule in his place. However, the term "Regency Era" is often applied more broadly to the period between 1795 and 1837. The era, which is known for its developments in literature, fashion, politics and culture, is famously represented in Jane Austen's novels.


During the Regency Era, wet nurses cared for the children of well-to-do families for the first few years of life. Since it was commonly believed that a woman's breast milk was endowed with her characteristics, wet nurses were chosen based on their peaceful and patient demeanour. Young children had little parental contact. An under-nurse oversaw older children, while a nursery maid attended to the housework in the children's quarters. When children reached school age, they were assigned a governess. Governesses were primarily responsible for the education as well as the moral instruction of young ladies and gentlemen. A typical governess taught English, literature, poetry, letter-writing, French, Italian, arithmetic, geography, popular sciences and religion.


Calling was an established convention in Regency society. Persons called upon other families of their social class and left their calling cards if the members of the household were out of the house or could not attend to guests. The function of calling cards was to keep social aspirants at a distance, as the butler or maid of the house would ask an unwanted guest to leave his card so that a visit could be reciprocated. Ladies' calling cards were larger than gentlemens', since men carried them in their breast pockets. When a lady called upon someone, she remained in the carriage while her groom carried her card to the door. Only if the mistress invited her in would she then exit the carriage. Visitors' calling cards were placed on a silver tray in the entry hall.


The Regency Era was a debutante society. A debutante is a young woman who makes a formal debut into society, announcing her eligibility for marriage. During the era, women within the upper classes frequently debuted at balls or other formal social gatherings. A debutante had to be presented by a lady who had already been presented to society. This custom ensured social exclusivity. Mothers presented their daughters but sometimes other women presented girls whose mothers had died or were not themselves presented because of social standing. In some cases, married women who had never been presented were presented, if only for her to be acknowledged by society as a woman of status.


Courtship etiquette during the Regency Era was very strict. A young unmarried woman was bound by the most stringent decorum, never allowed to appear in public without a chaperon. It was improper for a woman to walk alone or ride unescorted in public. It was even more improper for her to attend parties without a chaperon or maid at her side. However, the most unauthorised act for a woman was for her to keep private company with a man. Young couples were supervised during courtship. They were not permitted to embrace, kiss or even shake hands. First names were off-limits until a couple was engaged, in which case first names might be uttered in private but never in public. Even married persons referred to each other formally in public, using "Mr." and "Mrs." Courting persons were not permitted to exchange gifts.

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About the Author

Audrey Farley began writing professionally in 2007. She has been featured in various issues of "The Mountain Echo" and "The Messenger." Farley has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Richmond and a Master of Arts in English literature from Virginia Commonwealth University. She teaches English composition at a community college.