Era Etiquette Guide

The ‘Net Guide to
19th Century Courtship
And Manners
Emma Moniz

1st Edition: 3 August 2000
2nd Edition: 29 May 2001

Questions and Answers
Why This Is Here

"I'm sorry, but I'm just thinking of the right words to say
I know they don't sound the way I planned them to be"
~The Promise, "When In Rome"

This is not intended as a flame or a reprimand. This document has been created solely to enhance the role-playing experience. As an amateur historian, I am well versed in the social history of the late 1800s. That is the knowledge I am using for this document. The language is British standard-the spelling and grammar I am most comfortable and fluent in. Do not ask me to change it. Most Americans will have no trouble with this guide, I assure you. As with all other RPG Guides, it is just that-a guide, a compass to point you, the player, in the right direction. Remember always the hard and fast rule of role-playing-if it doesn’t work for you, throw it out. If this guide has been utilised by your moderator/DM/Storyteller/etc., and either you have a problem with its contents, or have found research to counter my own, contact me. Do not flame your moderator/DM/Storyteller/etc. They are friendly, loveable, hard-working people who have a hard enough time as it is. That being said, I welcome all additions, comments, questions and flames. Life’s not interesting enough without feedback. As the author and editor, I reserve all right to add or subtract things from this guide. Rest assured, however, that your name would be attached to what you contribute. And if you distribute this document, I ask that you send it intact, or use proper notation, keeping my name, and the name of the contributors with the document. In other words, give credit where credit is due. Thank you, and enjoy.

Addendum to the 2nd Edition: Amazing what one can learn and encounter in a year, is it not? In this second addition, there are rules for conversing within the bounds of propriety as well as extensive notes on death from Harper’s Bazar. Precious little else has been changed as the Guide has held up quite well over the past year of gaming. So, onwards and upwards.

Section I:
What Your 19th Century Mother
Would Have Taught You

"Be polite; write diplomatically; even in a declaration of war
one observes the rules of politeness."
~Otto von Bismarck, German statesman

Ah, yes, manners. In our modern world of telephones, chat rooms, television and email, manners seem a throwback to the previous century. The first and foremost thing to remember as a good role-player is that you are not in your own day and time. So, as they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Whether you are a plantation belle in a Gone With the Wind PBEM or a Kindred of the Victorian Age with an Etiquette skill of 1, manners are dreadfully important. You have to know which fork to use, as it were, to fit in with the given setting and to interact in a positive way with the people around you.

Manners are the love child of morality and social conventions. Both change with every generation, hence, manners change. At this point in time, America was recovering from a bloody civil war, the English held the largest empire the world had ever seen and were fighting bloody wars as well. Manners were the hallmark of civilisation, that which separated man from beasts, high society from the battlefield. They were a way of keeping the darker angels of human nature from surfacing. Hence, they were strict and to our modern eyes, somewhat silly. But they were needed, they had a basis in people’s every day lives, and most people took etiquette very seriously.

Two things we as role-players love to throw around form this time are the terms "lady" and "gentleman". These were not just compliments, nor archetypes. They were the concrete aspirations of everyone in society, the perfect model of behaviour. So, as usual in my guides, I shall divide this portion into the definition of a lady, and the definition of a gentleman.

A lady is sweet, even-tempered and kind, never shying away from her Christian duty to any in need. A lady is always properly and nicely dressed, be she tending the sick, having tea or attending the ballet. A lady never raises her voice, for a show of temper is unsightly in a woman. A lady is meek and humble, never seeking to raise herself with words, but always to extol others’ virtues and accomplishments. A lady never knows more than a gentleman on any given subject, and if she does, she is obliged to hold her tongue. A lady never fails to be polite to anyone, be he or she queen or a beggar, a widow or a child. A lady offers everything of herself and her home to any who asks it of her. A lady never seeks the company of a gentleman, and is never alone with a gentleman who is not her relation, husband or fiancé. A lady seeks to give pleasure to those around her, through her words and deeds. A lady never runs, never exerts herself. A lady is generous yet economical. A lady knows when to speak, to add to the conversation with her gentle views, and she knows when to be silent, for men always know the world far better than a woman. A lady is a teacher and a student, imparting lessons of virtue to her children, yet learning obedience and honesty from God. She is always virtuous, always temperate, never rude nor angry. A lady is the morality of the world.

I know all of you playing a Victorian woman are about to hang up your bonnets. It seems impossible, to be perfect. And if you’re all ready playing, you know you’ve forgotten to do some of that. To be quite honest, that is the idea. The lady was a model, like the Virgin Mary, an impossible standard to emulate.

To define a gentleman, I submit this quote, my standard in RPGs for the better part of two years now: "It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause ajar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast; -- all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their case and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blunder. [From The Idea of a University, 1852]"

Sometimes, I wonder if the guys have it harder than the women. Lads, you have to be the perfect knight in shining armour. But take the advice I gave the women-this is the ideal. Strive for it, but do not berate yourself if you have failed in the past, or fail in the future.

Manners are the simple things like removing one’s hat upon entering a building, saying only the things appropriate to the time and place, and treating each other with civility both in and out of character that makes the game go smoother for all involved.

A note for all those gentlemen who wish to be suave: As a Storyteller, I immediately grant a free level of Etiquette to any male player who knows the rule of etiquette regarding kissing a lady’s hand. A single gentleman only kisses the hand of an older married woman, never a young single woman, never a widow and never a young bride. Married gentlemen do not greet any woman with a kiss of any kind, save his lady wife and his sainted mother.

Section II:
How to Win a Genteel Lady
Without Looking Like a Royal Fool

"Perfect love is rare indeed -
for to be a lover will require that you continually have
the subtlety of the very wise, the flexibility of the child,
the sensitivity of the artist, the understanding of the philosopher,
the acceptance of the saint, the tolerance of the scholar
and the fortitude of the certain."
~Leo Buscaglia

Love is the stuff that makes the world go ‘round. It’s delight and despair, pleasure and pain all at once. Where would the world be without love? Probably a lot smaller, but that’s not a topic for me to take on.

So your character has fallen in love. What to do, what to do. Take your lovely lady out on a date? Nope. Give her jewellery? Definitely not. Perplexed? I’m not surprised. Here is the basic run down on how to be a world-class suitor. Ladies, this is mostly for the gentlemen, I fear. You have to be the passive goddess who is worshiped. Enjoy it.

First things first. If you give your lovely lady jewellery gentlemen, be prepared to marry her within six months. The only time jewellery was given was when courtship had almost come to its natural end-engagement. First of all, the gentleman has to meet the lady. That doesn’t seem hard, but in the Victorian times, meeting a girl was almost impossible within the boundaries of polite society. A gentleman can rarely introduce himself to a lady and expect the same if he is alone. Ladies speak to gentlemen if she is in danger, or a companion or a chaperone accompanies her. Granted, this rule is often broken, but it is the standard of the day. And if you meet your lady at a ball, she is not required to speak to you ever again. That introduction is only good for the evening. It’s shareware with a kick.

Well, once you get past the introduction phase, it’s time for you to go meet the lady again, at her home. Bring flowers, dress nicely, but if you think you’re getting out the door with your potential girlfriend on your arm, you’ve got another thing coming. For the first few calls, bring your card, leave it with the servants, and be prepared to sit in the parlour and chitchat for a while. That’s about as far as you’re going to get.

Finally, you have reached the stage where you can take your lady out. However, be advised. If you act in an ungentlemanly fashion towards your lady, you’re going to end up at the church quickly. Honour means a great deal to a gentleman. Acceptable activities include escorting a lady to a dance or a party, going on a picnic or taking her out to dinner. This is the stage where most engagements are made. Once the couple is comfortable, the greatest hurdle comes. Asking permission to wed the girl.

Dress up sweet and sharp, as Riff in "West Side Story" would say, and pay a respectful call to the girl’s father. This is where engagements are made in Victorian times. The father decides whether you are worthy of his daughter, and decides what dowry you will receive. Think of it as the ultimate encounter with a date’s father, and the worst ‘what are your prospects’ speech ever given.

Finally, once the father gives his consent, it is time to ask the girl. She still can refuse you, mind you, so buy a nice diamond or pearl, the only truly acceptable solitaire rings, get down on your knees and beg-I mean, ask. There’s no creativity here, for engagement is a serious, age-old ritual and a great commitment. If the girl accepts, you get married after a long engagement. It is now acceptable for you to kiss her, and call her dear or sweetheart, whatever term of endearment you wish. If she rejects you, take her home and leave quickly, but always remain what you strive to be-a gentleman.

Ladies, I know it seems like you have no say in this entire process, but the point of your gentleman suitor’s calls are to please you and prove that he isn’t the scum of the earth. At any time, you have the right to tell him to leave. You decide upon the length and frequency of the calls, you ultimately accept or dismiss his offer. If you do dismiss him for a particular reason, such as he is too old for you, too young for you, will not provide well for you or his character is unacceptable, manners demand you write your ex-beau a letter and tell him of his breech of conduct. Be scathing yet polite-it is within your right as a lady.

Section III:
Don’t Say That!

"As the grace of man is in the mind, so the beauty of the mind is eloquence."

Remember when I said that manners are the love child of social convention and morality? Here’s where more morality comes in. The Victorian Age isn’t as simple as it seems, is it? Conversation is an art. As a little girl growing up, I was taught that to be able to make conversation appropriately was the hallmark of good breeding. That is, after all, to what one is striving, and it is a point I hope is remembered. Conversation is the easy give and take of two acquaintances during a meeting. Seems simple, right? There are many points that go towards the creation of good conversation. The goal is, after all, to trade information and to leave the meeting with a mutual feeling of goodwill and pleasure. To do so takes some skill in the art. First and foremost, there are topics one should avoid in polite company:

Sex. It doesn’t exist. Remember Queen Victoria’s immortal advice to her daughter? "Lie back and think of England." This is not the modern era, and Sex and the City certainly is not something that would come up in Victorian drawing rooms. Emblazon this upon your memory, and steer clear of this topic.

Money. It is impolite to talk about it now with anyone but your spouse and stockbroker. It was also impolite then. So keep your francs, dollars and pounds to yourself.

Pregnancy. This goes along with the sex topic. If it must be mentioned, think of the Virgin Mary. She was "with child". So is the expectant mother in question. End of story.

Crime. Just leave it alone. Murder, rape, robbery…not polite, not enjoyable.

Gossip. Granted, this seems a little unfair, but it is mostly angled at polite mixed company. If two girlfriends are together, they are going to gab. But don’t attempt it with a gentleman present. You’ll be thought to be, as Scarlett O’Hara puts it, "an old pea-hen."

Embarrassing topics in general. If the other person involved is made uncomfortable by a topic-a war veteran and the war, etc-drop it. This is simply good manners, yesterday and today, and Emily Post will agree with me on this point.

Remember your goals as ladies and gentlemen. Treat everyone with respect, never mind their station or condition, and conversation will flow like a river.

Section IV:
Four Funerals and…a Funeral

When one by one our ties are torn,
and friend from friend is snatched forlorn;
When man is left alone to mourn, oh! then how sweet it is to die!
~Anna Letitia Barbauld

Death, mourning, funerals. All of these were essential parts of the Victorian world view, and they brought with them certain customs, traditions and, you guessed it, terms of etiquette. Death was an indicator of one’s social standing in life. Instead of my endless pontificating on the subject, I offer an article from the 17 April 1886 edition of Harper’s Bazar, a popular lady’s periodical of the time.

"Nothing in our country is more undecided in the public mind than the etiquette of mourning. It has not yet received that hereditary and positive character which makes the slightest departure from received custom so reprehensible in England. We have not the mutes, or the nodding feathers of the hearse, that still form part of the English funeral equipage; nor is the rank of the poor clay which travels to its last home illustrated by the pomp and ceremony of its departure. Still, in answer to some pertinent questions, we will offer a few desultory remarks, beginning with the end, as it were - the return of the mourner to the world.

When persons who have been in mourning wish to re-enter society, they should leave cards on all their friends and acquaintances, as an intimation that they are equal to the paying and receiving of calls. Until this intimation is given, society will not venture to intrude upon the mourner's privacy. In cases where cards of inquiry have been left, with the words "To inquire" written on the top of the card, these cards should be replied to by cards with "Thanks for kind inquiries" written upon them; but if cards for inquiry had not been left, this form can be omitted.

Of course there is a kind of complimentary mourning which does not necessitate seclusion - that which is worn out of respect to a husband's relative whom one may never have seen. But no one wearing a heavy crape veil should go to a gay reception, a wedding, or a theatre; the thing is incongruous. Still less should mourning prevent one from taking proper recreation: the more the heart aches, the more should one try to gain cheerfulness and composure, to hear music, to see faces which one loves: this is a duty, not merely a wise and sensible rule. Yet it is well to have some established customs as to visiting and dress in order that the gay and the heartless may in observing them avoid that which shocks every one - an appearance of lack of respect to the memory of the dead- that all society may move on in decency and order, which is the object and end of the study of etiquette.

As for periods of mourning, we are told that a widow's mourning should last eighteen months, although in England it is somewhat lightened in twelve. For the first six months the dress should be of crape cloth, or Henrietta cloth covered entirely with crape, collar and cuffs of white crape, a crape bonnet with a long crape veil, and a widow's cap of white crape if preferred. In America, however, widows' caps are not as universally worn as in England. Dull black kid gloves are worn in first mourning; after that Gants de Duede or silk gloves are proper, particularly in summer. After six months' mourning the crape can be removed, and grenadine, copeau fringe, and dead trimmings used, if the smell of crape is offensive, as it is to some people. After twelve months the widow's cap is left off, and the heavy veil is exchanged for a lighter one, and the dress can be of silk grenadine, plain black gros grain, or crape-trimmed cashmere with jet trimmings, and crepe lisse about the neck and sleeves. All kinds of black fur and seal-skin are worn in deep mourning.

Mourning for a father or mother should last one year. During half a year should be worn Henrietta cloth or serge trimmed with crape, at first with black tulle at the wrists and neck. A deep veil is worn at the back of the bonnet, but not over the head or face like the widow's veil, which covers the entire person when down. This fashion is very much objected to by doctors, who think many diseases of the eye come by this means, and advise for common use thin nuns' veiling instead of crape, which sheds its pernicious dye into the sensitive nostrils, producing catarrhal disease as well as blindness and cataract of the eye. It is a thousand pities that fashion dictates the crape veil, but so it is. It is the very banner of woe, and no one has the courage to go without it. We can only suggest to mourners wearing it that they should pin a small veil of black tulle over the eyes and nose, and throw back the heavy crape as often as possible, for health's sake.

Jet ornaments alone should be worn for eighteen months, unless diamonds set as mementos are used. For half-mourning, a bonnet of silk or chip, trimmed with crape and ribbon. Mourning flowers, and crepe lisse at the hands and wrists, lead the way to grey, mauve, and white and black toilettes after the second year.

Mourning for a brother or sister may be the same; for step-father or step-mother the same; for grandparents the same; but the duration may be shorter. In England this sort of respectful mourning only lasts three months.

Mourning for children should last nine months. The first three the dress should be crape- trimmed, the mourning less deep than that for a husband. No one is ever ready to take off mourning; therefore these rules have this advantage - they enable the friends around a grief stricken mother to tell her when is the time to make her dress more cheerful, which she is bound to do for the sake of the survivors, many of whom are perhaps affected for life by seeing a mother always in black. It is well for mothers to remember this when sorrow for a lost child makes all the earth seem barren to them.

Wives wear mourning for the relatives of their husbands precisely as they would for their own, as would husbands for the relatives of their wives. Widowers wear mourning for their wives two years in England; here only one year. Widowers go into society at a much earlier date than widows, it being a received rule that all gentlemen in mourning for relatives go into society very much sooner than ladies.

Ladies of the family attend the funeral of a relative if they are able to do so, and wear their deepest mourning. Servants are usually put in mourning for the head of the family - sometimes for any member of it. They should wear a plain black livery and weeds on their hats; the inside lining of the family carriage should also be of black.

The period of mourning for an aunt or uncle or cousin is of three months' duration, and that time at least should elapse before the family go out or into gay company, or are seen at theatres or operas, etc.

We now come to the saddest part of our subject, the consideration of the dead body, so dear, yet so soon to leave us; so familiar, yet so far away - the cast-off dress, the beloved clay. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes!

As for the coffin, it is simpler than formerly; and while lined with satin and made with care, it is plain on the outside - black cloth, with silver plate for the name and silver handles, being in the most modern taste. There are but few of the "trappings of woe." At the funeral of General Grant, twice a President, and regarded as the saviour of his country, there was a gorgeous catafalque of purple velvet, but at the ordinary funeral there are none of these trappings. If our richest citizen were to die to-morrow, he would probably be buried plainly. Yet it is touching to see with what fidelity the poorest creature tries to "bury her dead dacent." The destitute Irish woman begs for a few dollars for this sacred duty, and seldom in vain. It is a duty for the rich to put down ostentation in funerals, for it is an expense which comes heavily on those who have poverty added to grief.

In dressing the remains for the grave, those of a man are usually "clad in his habit as he lived." For a woman, tastes differ; a white robe and cap, not necessarily shroud-like, are decidedly unexceptionable. For young persons and children, white cashmere robes and flowers are always most appropriate.

In the course of a month after a death all friends of the deceased are expected to leave cards on the survivors, and it is discretionary whether these be written on or not. These cards should be carefully preserved, that, when the mourner is ready to return to the world, they may be properly acknowledged."

Yup, death is a big deal. Complicated, messy and a very big deal. Hopefully, you will never have to deal with this section in your game and can skim over it. But it is here, for those who find themselves in need.

Section V:
A Few Good Links

"Knowledge is of two kinds.
We know a subject ourselves, or we know
where we can find information upon it."
~Samuel Johnson

Occasionally, both role players and Storytellers/DMs/Moderators/etc find themselves in situations where they are at a loss. There are no guides to cover the given action, and their own knowledge falls short. This is to be expected. No-one knows everything. But there are places to turn, the Internet being one of the best. Granted there are expected sites to go to-ask Jeeves, any of the search engines, things of that nature. But for some particularly Victorian questions and concerns, there are a few good sites to try. Hand tested and approved by this author, of course. This site is mainly devoted to antiques and things of that nature, but there is a nice resource page, and plenty of articles from the time period. Personally, I love this site, and the information contained within is fabulous. I’ve used this site for term papers and other projects for school. Even if you don’t have a question, I’d recommend stopping here to browse before starting or playing in a Victorian chronicle or RPG. This is a nicely laid out, pretty site. There are a great many different topics covered here, and if they don’t have it, they can point you on to someone who does.

These are a few of the places to look. And, if all else fails, try that staple of civilisation-the public library. The ladies and gentlemen at the reference desk will be more than happy to show you where to find Victorian resources.

Section VI:
A Note of Gratitude
You Like It, You Really Like It!

"I see you shiver with antici...pation!"
~Rocky Horror Picture Show

Of course, I couldn’t do this on my own. Well, I could have, but it wouldn’t be halfway decent. So there are some people I have to thank, given that they are largely responsible for this. I won’t tell the FBI if you won’t….

Susan Matthews DeWitt: Beta editing and the initial idea, Moderator of the Original Gone With the Wind RPG, a PBEM.

Brianne Hennel: Beta editing, assistant Moderator of the Original Gone With the Wind RPG, a PBEM

If you have any questions, comments, flames, death threats, what have you, send them to me, Emma at All will be taken in stride, and are greatly appreciated. This guide is in no way affiliated with White Wolf, Inc., TSR or any other official RPG company. It is my own creation, intended for free and complete distribution on the Internet to enhance period gaming wherever it may be.

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