Eat cheese with a fork -- and other tips for civilized behavior
America in the late 1800s was changing from a rural to urban country. Seeking better lives, rural Americans migrated into cities: the percentage of urban dwellers doubled from 1860 to 1890. At the same time, waves of immigrants were finding their way in a new country. They naturally were uncomfortable in their new surroundings and unsure of what kinds of behavior were acceptable or unacceptable in a society defined by an elaborate set of Victorian manners. But upwardly mobile natives and immigrants alike could catapult themselves up the social ladder by acting like they belonged – and that meant having proper etiquette and manners, among other things. They had a slew of books and guides to show them precisely how to do that.
Books with titles like “Manners, Culture and Dress,” “The Bazar Book of Decorum,” “Ladies and Gentlemen’s Etiquette” and “Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms,” a young man (the books were heavily focused toward men; women were assumed to be mannerly already) could move from the farm to the city (or from the old world to the new) and, if he acted and dressed the part, ingratiate himself into respectable society.
This was easier said than done. Those seeking social acceptance had to learn an elaborate set of rituals: How to make introductions (work your way down from the most important to the least important person without the aid of Linkedin), how to compose a proper note inviting someone to a social outing, which corner of your calling card to fold to signify whether your visit is personal or social, dress requirements that would challenge the costumers of “Downton Abbey.” There were rules for how to stand, how to sit, how to walk, how to dress... and the manners books at the time covered everything in prescriptive detail. To read the books now is to transport yourself to another time, and by contrast, to measure just how much has changed and how what little etiquette we now practice. But they're also just a lot of fun. Consider these tips from "Don't; Or Directions for Avoiding Improprieties in Conduct and Common Errors of Speech" from 1894:
"Don't, while you drink, elevate your glass as if you were going to stand it inverted on your nose. Bring the glass perpendicularly to the lips, and then lift it to a slight angle. Do this easily."
"Don't eat garlic or onions unless you are dining alone, and intend to remain alone some hours thereafter. It is not desirable to carry with us unpleasant evidences of what we have been eating or drinking."
"Don't be a 'swell' or a 'dude,' or whatever the fop of the period may be called."
"Cheese must be eaten with a fork. Ice requires a spoon."
"Never pare an apple or a pear for a lady unless she desire you to, and then be careful to use your fork to hold it."
"Don't expectorate on the sidewalk. Go to the curb-stone and discharge the saliva into the gutter. Men who eject great streams of tobacco-juice on the sidewalk, or on the floors of public vehicles, ought to be driven out of civilized society."
"Don't have the habit of smiling or 'grinning' at nothing. Smile or laugh when there is occasion to do either, but at other times keep your mouth shut and your manner composed. People who laugh at everything are commonly capable of nothing."
"Don't borrow books unless you return them promptly. If you do borrow books, don't mar them in any way; don't bend or break the backs, don't fold down the leaves, don't write on the margins, don't stain them with grease-spots. Read them, but treat them as friends that must not be abused." (Some things still apply.)