An Evening Out: Etiquette for the Street, House Parties, and the Dining Room
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
As we pointed out when we began this series, Regency/Federal Era period etiquette is an extremely broad subject, and we cannot cover every aspect of the rules and expectations polite society had for the conduct of ladies and gentlemen during this period. Additionally, when discussing late-18th/early-19th Century etiquette, we must remember that one cannot view the rules and expectations of early-19th Century society through the lens of today’s societal standards of equality and political correctness. Many of the rules of etiquette from the past reflect attitudes towards women, gender roles, and relationships between the sexes that prevailed at that time, but some people today might find ridiculous or even offensive. One cannot, however, really reflect upon what it was like to live in that period of history without consideration and understanding of the framework within which they existed. So, those caveats in place, we can continue our investigation into etiquette in Early America.
In this article we are going to explore the rules of etiquette involved in several activities. These are when dinning, at house parties, and when out on the street in public. However, before that, we are going to talk about something that was just as important, if not more so, then the rules for specific situations. That subject is one’s deportment or bearing – one’s posture, demeanor, behavior, and how one carried oneself.
What Is Etiquette?
What makes for a civilized society? Considering the complex mix of competing interests and opinions, how do societies keep from tearing themselves apart? The answer is simple - etiquette and manners – also known as Civility.
Etiquette, often defined as “a code of behavior that sets expectations for social behavior within a society, social class, or group according to contemporary, conventional norms,” is a necessary part of the foundation of any successful civilized society. Etiquette greases the wheels of society, making it easier for everyone to live in harmony with one another. In the past, it was often used to exclude those who were not a part of the social elite, in most socially advanced societies the codes of etiquette required that this behavior be extended not only to those within one’s peer group, but to all the members of the society, regardless of their station in life.
During the Federal period, manners meant more than just “please and thank you.” They referred to one’s manner as well as politeness. They related to how people conducted themselves, their character, air, and sincerity of address. This notion of character and self-presentation was at the heart of social interactions and was key to success in society.
Federal Era manners were based on the conduct of the upper crust of Renaissance Italy, as well as 17th Century France. The fashions and the codes of conduct were influenced by both, but the Federal Era carved out a specific style all its own. Social rank was more obvious during the Federal Era. While here in the United States, upward social mobility was readily obtainable, while one was moving up it was important to know one’s place and to act accordingly. Social status determined many everyday interactions.
In past centuries, aristocratic children were taught the rules of society and polite behavior from an early age. Knowing when to show emotion, how to dress and move elegantly, the rules for when and how to make graceful conversation and act courteously proclaimed them as members of upper society. Failure to conduct oneself properly betrayed a lack of “good breeding.” The young learned from parents, tutors and governesses, and dance masters among others.
In considering the Federal period, it makes sense to recognize that those who were then teaching deportment had learned their social graces in the late 18th century, influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. One author wrote:
“Politeness’ may be defined as a dext’rous management of our words and actions, whereby we make other people have better opinion of us and themselves.”
Gaining entrée to this world of special social rules was the ambition of many middle-class hopefuls as they gained in wealth but not status.
The Concept of Good Breeding and Society's expectations of Men and Women
Good breeding was seen as encompassing knowledge of all that is refined, amiable, and elegant in manner and conversation. This came first from training at the mother’s knee and the father’s side and secondly from an ability and willingness to accept and internalize those experiences and knowledge that association with the well-bred and exposure to proper etiquette provided.
Men from socially elite families of the period were taught how to be a “gentleman” from a very young age. A gentleman was expected to speak and act with confidence; to use correct English and to avoid vulgarity in speech (Note: in the 19th Century the word vulgar had the connotation of low, mean, course, loud, plebian, inappropriate for polite society); to be exceptionally dressed; to walk with confidence and proper posture; to dance well; to act with proper manners; to show consideration to those less fortunate than themselves; and to have a well-rounded education that included science, math, the arts, literature, etc. In fact, a liberal education was considered so important that one period etiquette book stated:
“A gentleman must not expect to shine in society, even the most frivolous, without a considerable stock of knowledge. He must be acquainted with facts rather than principles. He needs no very sublime sciences; but a knowledge of biography and literary history, of the fine arts, as painting, engraving, music, etc., will be of great service to him.”
In contrast, during the Federal era women were expected to be meek, obedient, docile, fragile, and dependent on the men in their lives. She was expected, just as the man was, to use correct English and to avoid vulgarity in speech. A woman’s appearance was her crowning glory; therefore, women were expected to take care with their dress and hair. Well-bred women were thought to have a “natural” sense of delicacy and grace. Taste and poise, it was believed, should come naturally to a lady. It was a formal accusation against their breeding to be seen to publicly worry about their looks.
The significance of these matters cannot be underestimated, a young lady’s social standing, and her prospects for the future depended on her reputation, for once a young woman’s reputation was tarnished, nothing could bring it back. For her, the utmost care to all aspects of etiquette was required since, although these patterns of etiquette might appear awkward and restrictive, they safeguarded against misunderstanding and embarrassment.
Here are a few general deportment or etiquette guidelines:
A well-bred person walked upright, stood, and moved with grace and ease.
A well-bred person kept an elegance of manners and deportment.
A well-bred person was never awkward in either manner or behavior and could respond to any social situation with calm assurance.
A well-bred person was never pretentious or ostentatious.
A well-bred person behaved with courteous dignity to acquaintance and stranger alike but kept at arm's length any who presumed too great a familiarity.
A well-bred person controlled their features, their physical bodies, and their speech when in company.
Overt displays of emotion were considered ill-bred.
Vulgarity was unacceptable in any form and was to be continually guarded against. Indiscretions, liaisons, and outrageous behavior were forgivable, but vulgarity never was.
Icy politeness was a well-bred man's or woman's best weapon in putting vulgar individuals in their place.
A lady always spoke, sat, and moved with elegance and propriety.
For a lady to be thought 'fast' or to show a lack of proper of conduct was the worst possible social stigma.
A lady did not engage in any activity that might give rise to gossip.
A lady never forced herself upon a man's notice.
Women were expected to be ignorant of any proposed duel.
Appropriate subjects for polite conversation include current events, describing a novel or play, telling of some recent experience, discussing poetry or music, love, or friendship.
Subjects of an intimate nature such as childbirth should be avoided in polite conversation as well as puns, long arguments, gossip, and the subjects of religion and politics. (Although it is questionable whether gossip was truly avoided between close acquaintances)
Laughter was to be moderated in polite company, particularly when among women.
Men could give themselves up to unrestrained laughter, provided they were in only the company of other men or women of low repute.
A gentleman was expected to pay his gambling debts at once, as well as any debt of honor.
It was unacceptable to owe money to a stranger.
It was acceptable to owe money to a tradesperson.
It was considered bad form to borrow money from a woman.
A female did not engage in finance or commerce if she had a man, such as a husband, father, or brother, to do it for her.
A lady did not visit a moneylender or a pawnbroker.
A gentleman never smokes in the presence of ladies.
Etiquette in the Street (public places)
Most rules for conduct in the street were written focused on men as it was considered unlikely that a young woman (of an age where she needed “coaching” on etiquette) would be walking out in the streets without a male escort. Women’s conduct, however, can be deduced from the male oriented instructions by keeping in mind the “expectations” for women’s deportment and using them to “modify”, where necessary, the instructions for men.
Do not walk too fast, nor tread heavily, nor with affected lightness, or trippingly, but with steadiness, and regularity. To walk in a hurrying manner is only fit for a servant: walking heavily looks indolent; a studied manner of walking has an appearance of affectation, which is always unbecoming: nothing that does not seen natural is pleasing.
Some people, when they salute, just touch their hat; others nod their head, and others take off their hat, without accompanying this action by any motion of the head or body. These modes of saluting are all wrong. A genteel man, on the contrary, before he makes any motion of either his head or body, takes off his hat. This is carried out by, using the right hand, removing the hat, and extending his arm, to bring his hat down to his knee, and then he makes his bow, the depth of which is according to the social rank of the person he salutes
A gentleman does not speak to any lady unless she speaks to him first.
Meeting a lady in the street whom you know only slightly, you wait for her acknowledging bow - then and only then may you tip your hat to her, which is done using the hand farthest away from her to raise the hat.
If a gentleman meets a lady in the street who is a good friend, and she signifies a wish to talk with him, he should turn and walk with her if he wishes to converse. It is not "done" to make a lady stand talking in the street.
If an individual of even the lowest social rank takes off his hat to you, you should do the same in return. If you acknowledge it, you must pay the full amount.
If there is any of your acquaintances, with whom you have a difference, do not avoid looking at him, unless from the nature of things the quarrel is necessarily for life. It is always better to bow with cold civility, though without speaking.
When you are introduced to a gentleman do not give your hand, but merely bow with politeness.
When a gentleman walks with a lady, even if the lady be young and unmarried, he should offer his arm to her.
In riding horseback or walking along the street, the lady always has the wall.
Although it is the custom that Men should walk closest to the street, if a gentleman walking with a woman who had his arm crossed the street, it was better not to disengage your arm, and go round upon the outside.
When two gentlemen are walking with a lady in the street, they should not be both upon the same side of her, but one of them should walk upon the outside and the other upon the inside.
A woman should never take the arms of two men, one being upon either side; nor should a man carry a woman upon each arm. There are, to be sure, some cases in which it is necessary for the protection of the women, that they should both take his arm, as in coming home from a concert, or in passing, on any occasion, through a crowd.
In a carriage, a gentleman takes the seat facing backward. If he is alone in a carriage with a lady, he does not sit next to her unless he is her husband, brother, father, or son. He alights from the carriage first so that he may hand her down. He takes care not to step on her dress.
At a public exhibition or concert, if accompanied by a lady, he goes in first to find her a seat. If he enters such an exhibition alone and there are ladies or older gentlemen present, he removes his hat.
If unmarried and under thirty, a lady is never to be seen in the company of a man without a chaperone. Except for a walk to church or a park in the early morning, she may not walk alone, but should always be accompanied by another lady, a man, or a servant.
If riding with a lady, keep on that side of her on which her face will be turned to you; some ladies shift their saddles and ride, sometimes with their feet on the near side of the horse, sometimes on the off. Your situation when accompanying her should be accordingly.
Etiquette for Dinner and House Parties
It was thought that there are few ways a gentleman or lady can show themselves to be well-bred to others in their society than through their hosting a dinner or house party.
However, except at Washington, or state capitols, in the United States we do not observe “official” rank at dinner parties, except in the case of the President. (In Washington there must be some show of respect to the Diplomatic Corps however.)
Some rules for dinner parties and at home:
Invitations should be sent as early as possible, even as early as 2-week before in the busy season.
Dinner invitations should be answered quickly and positively. Always answer either yes or no. Never leave any sense of contingency.
Do not invite guests without thought but give thought to congeniality of the guests to each other.
It is not kind to keep guests at the dinner table more than two hours.
Servants and social inferiors are always kept at a proper distance but without arrogance, pride, or aloofness.
Servants are spoken to with exactly the right degree of civility and never with the casual informality with which a person speaks to an equal.
Neither a lady nor a gentleman discusses personal business in the presence of servants.
Servants are generally ignored at mealtimes.
It is essential to dress for dinner.
When going into the dining room, the man of the house always escorts the most socially prominent lady present. The remaining dinner guests also pair up and enter the dining room in order of social prominence.
In the United States, except as noted earlier, dinner guests are not seated according to rank but rather in accordance with the host or hostess' wishes, in the case of guests of honor, the lady is seated on the right-hand side of the host, who always sat at the head of the table and the man is seated on the right of the hostess, who is always seated at the foot of the table.
Whenever possible, the seating should be arranged man–woman-man-woman alternating around the table.
Gentlemen should remain standing until all the ladies are seated. If a lady (or ladies) rises to leave the table, the gentlemen should rise and remain standing until the lady has left the room.
At a formal dinner one does not talk across or down the dinner table but confines conversation to those on one's left and right.
When dining informally it is acceptable to talk across or round the table.
Above all things, the gentleman must be attentive to the ladies on either side of him. He should encourage the timid, draw out the silent, and do his best to see that the ladies are entertained in conversation.
Ladies are expected to retire to the withdrawing room after dinner, leaving the men to their port and their 'male' talk. On rising, the gentlemen sometimes go with the ladies to the withdrawing room and then return to their drinks, and sometimes only go to the door, always remaining standing until the ladies have disappeared.
A hostess must never give the signal to rise from the table until everyone at the table has finished.
In going up a flight of stairs, the gentleman precedes the lady; in going down, he follows.
When your guest offers to go, there should be no solicitation to stay, unless for the whole night, and that no farther than to give him a moral assurance of his being welcome so to do.
We have covered only the most obvious parts of Federal era etiquette in this series however, if one only mastered and practiced these rules they could do well in the early United States and in today’s world as well, although, some would think you strange. When we as humans acknowledge our essential humanity and accept others as an integral part of our human species, when we treat one another with respect, not because of our perceived station in life, but because we are human, society becomes a better place in which to live.
After all, the essence of good manners is to make society a pleasant and harmonious place to in which to live. The way in which we treat one another says a lot about us as people. When we are civil and polite, people become more willing to accept each other rather than perceiving themselves as deserving of courtesy. Today, some people argue that etiquette no longer matters, that the rules for good behavior are old-fashioned and out of date. The problem with that argument is, without etiquette, members of society show far too much impatience and disrespect for one another, which leads to insults, dishonesty, cheating, road rage, fist fights, shootings, and a rash of other unfortunate incidents. When we spend a disproportionate amount of time angry at one another or hostile instead of gracious, society begins to fracture and break down.
We hope you found today’s article on Dining, Parties, and General Etiquette of the Early United States to be interesting and informative. Hopefully, you learned something you did not previously know about the etiquette of late-18th and early-19th century America. Please join us again in two-weeks as we examine dueling and the concept of personal honor in early America.
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Dunbar, M. C. Dunbar's Complete Handbook of Etiquette. New York: Excelsior Publishing House, 1834.
Gisborne, Thomas. An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. London: A. Strahan, 1801.
Jones, William Foster, Ellis, George B., Fagan, J. A Manual of Politeness: Comprising the Principles of Etiquette, and Rules of ... Philadelphia: Marshall & Co., 1837.
Stanhope, Philip. The Honors of the Table or, Rules for Behavior During Meals. Bath, England: Gye and Son, 1807.
Trollope, Mrs. Domestic Manners of the Americans. New York: Whittaker, Treacher, & Co., 1832.
Z., A. "On Elegance in Conversation." The Belfast Monthly Magazine 30 April 1812: 260-262.