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Etiquette Old And New – Navigating the Social Landscape with Grace

The following book chapter called ‘Etiquette Old And New’ was written by Beryl Irving, grandmother and great-grandmother of the founders of Irving Scott. It is an extract from the ‘The Family Weekend Book’ originally published around 1931 and republished in 1949. You can find out more about the author on Illustrations are the author’s own.

Etiquette Old and New

Procedure at Christenings


This is how they did it in the XVIIl century: At a Ball.

“Not long after a young man, who had for some time looked at us with a kind of negligent impertinence, advanced on tiptoe towards me; he had a set smile on his face, and his dress was so foppish that I really believe he even wished to be stared at; and yet he was very ugly.”

“Bowing almost to the ground with a sort of swing, and waving his hand with the greatest conceit, after a short and silly pause, he said,’Madam, may I presume?’ and stopt offering to take my hand. I drew it back, but could scarce forbear laughing. ‘Allow me, Madam,’ continued he, affectedly breaking off every half-moment, ‘the honour and happiness – if I am not so unhappy as to address you too late – to have the happiness and honour’… I said no, I believed I should not dance at all… uttering the same ridiculous speeches of sorrow and disappointment… he retreated. Very soon after another gentleman gayly, but not foppishly dressed, desired to know if I would honour him with my hand. So he was pleased to say, though I am sure I know not what honour he could receive from me; but these sort of expressions, I find, are used as words of course, without any distinction of persons, or study of propriety. And so he took my hand and led me to join in the dance.”

(Later Evelina, reproved by the silly beau, admits that she has never once “considered the impropriety of refusing one partner and afterwards accepting another”; the sort of offence that would still hold good at the type of dance where one does not cling to one sole dance-partner the whole night.)

On Calls. “Before our dinner was over yesterday Madame Duval came to tea, though it will lessen your surprise to hear that it was near five o’clock, for we never dine until the day is almost over. She was asked into another room, while the table was cleared; and then was invited to partake of the dessert. She was attended by a French gentleman whom she introduced by the name of Monsieur Du Bois; Mrs. Mirvan received them both with her usual politeness, but the Captain looked much displeased, and after a short silence very sternly said to Madame Duval, ‘Pray, who asked you to bring that their spark with you?”.

Well, there are occasions on which we should all like to make that sort of remark nowadays when for instance dear old Dolly will insist on turning up with some impossible blue-eyed “cissie” who cowers behind a large blue button­ hole to match his eyes, or dear old Doodles brings a girl whose purple-painted mouth looks as if it had been extended in the New Guinea belle’s manner with pieces of wood, but etiquette forbids.

“The first speech was made by Madame Duval, who said,’ It’s quite a shocking thing to see ladies come to so genteel a place as Ranelagh with hats on; it has a monstrous vulgar look.’”

“I found Madame Duval at breakfast in bed, though Monsieur Du Bois was in the chamber; which so much astonished me, that I was involuntarily retiring, without considering how odd an appear­ance my retreat would have, when Madame Duval called me back and laughed very heartily at my ignorance of foreign customs.”

Here is an exposition of the correct etiquette on surprising a would-be suicide.

“Wild with fright, and scarce knowing what I did, I caught, almost involuntarily, hold of both of his arms and exclaimed, ‘Oh, sir, have mercy on yourself!’ The guilty pistols fell from his hands which disengaging from me he fervently clasped and cried: ‘Sweet Heaven is this thy angel… what would you do?’ ‘Awaken you,’ I cried ‘to worthier thoughts, and rescue you from perdition.’ I then seized the pistols… glided quick by him, and tottered downstairs, ere he had recovered from the extremest amazement.”


(Extracts from Evelina by FANNY BURNEY, 1778.)

“When the duck and green peas came, we looked at each other in dismay; we had only two-pronged black-handled forks. It is true the steel was as bright as silver; but what were we to do? Miss Matty picked up her peas, one by one, on the point of the prongs much as Aminé ate her grains of rice after her previous feast with the ghoul. Miss Pole sighed over her delicate young peas as she left them on one side of her plate untasted; for they would drop between the prongs. I looked at my host: the peas were going wholesale into his capacious mouth, shovelled up by his large round-ended knife. I saw, I imitated, I survived! My friends, in spite of my precedent, could not muster up such enough courage to do an ungenteel thing: and, if Mr. Holbrook had not been so heartily hungry, he would probably have seen that the good peas went away almost untouched.”


(Cranford, by E. GASKELL.)

(Thus the early nineteenth century.)

Now let us turn to those dreadful, prurient-minded, prim but good people the Victorians, and see how they managed things in their days.

Those folk who dare not mention “trousers” because of the awful associations conjured up in the minds of the pure by the word. Call them “nether garments,” “pantaloons,” “limb-coverings,” or even as is delicately put in a little book of etiquette popular in those days, “Werther showed his misery by wearing the same coat and appendices for a whole year” – but never call them trousers!

By the way, the author of this delightful book also assures us, while on the subject of cleanliness, that since ”a hot bath is a unnatural agent it should be but sparingly indulged in, for it exhausts the physical powers and leaves us prostrate.”

Now he tells the male of his correct attire on all occasions should he aspire to be mistaken for a gentleman:

“In London where a man is supposed to make visits as well as lounge in the park, the frock coat of very dark blue or black, or a black cloth cut-away, the white waistcoat, and lavender gloves are almost indispensable.”

“The frock coat, or black cut-away, with a white waistcoat in summer, is the best dress for making calls in.”

Another author of the same date tells us that “it is no longer in good taste for a gentleman to be married in a black coat; a blue coat, tight grey trousers, white satin or silk waistcoat; ornamental tie, and white (not primrose-coloured) gloves, form the usual costume of a bride groom according to present usage.”

One supposes that the ornamental tie and satin waistcoat were the only way by which the bridegroom could burst into song… Now our author gets busy with the dress of a lady.

He tells us how those dresses referred to loosely as “of the Regency period” were “happily obliged to yield, and the full-flowing dresses came into fashion, and kept their place, after a disgraceful interregnum of very short petticoats, only not showing the knee.”

In fact this author’s book is so full of plums that we cannot do better than just take a run through some of the choicer passages. One is tempted to think sometimes that he wrote with his tongue in his cheek, or a waggish finger on his nose.

Respect to the Sex: “It should be the boast of every man that he had never put modesty to the blush, nor encourage modesty to remove her mask. But we fear there is far too little chivalry in the present day. If young men do not chuck their partners under the chin they are often guilty of pressing their hands when the dance affords an opportunity. There is a calm dignity with which to show that the offence has been noticed, but if a lady condescends to reprove it in words, she forces the culprit to defend himself, and often ends by making the breach worse. On the other hand, let a woman once overlook the slightest familiarity, and fail to show her surprise in her manner, and she can never be certain that will not be repeated. There are few actions so atrociously familiar as a wink. I would rather kiss a lady outright than wink or leer at her, for that silent movement seems to imply a secret understanding which may be interpreted in anyway you like.”

What villainous behaviour! Surely the author gave one wink as he wrote the above, and leered to himself.

“It can never be pardonable to swagger and lounge, nor to carry into even the family circle the actions proper to the dressing room.

A man may cross his legs but should never stretch them apart.

“Scratching, pinching, or lying down… should never be permitted in a mixed society of men and women.”

“It is clear that nature has intended some things to be hidden… civilisation, removing farther and farther from nature yet not going against it, has added many more. In this respect civilisation has becomes second nature and what it has once concealed cannot be exposed without indelicacy. For instance, nothing is more beautiful than the bosom of a woman, and to a pure mind there is nothing shocking, but something touching indeed, in seeing a poor woman who has no bread to give it suckling her baby in public.”

(Perhaps the Victorian babies whose mammies did have bread to give them were fitted with special Victorian teeth to masticate it, or is that bread-giving of the rich, the reason why so many died?)

Our author deplores the tight-lacing still prevalent.

He tells us impressively:

“A physician at dinner one day with his was summoned by knocks and rings to a house in the same street where there had been a dinner-party. The ladies had just retired to the drawing-room when suddenly, the youngest and fairest of them fell back fainting into her chair… The physician came, an aged and practical man well versed in every variety of female folly. He took out his penknife: the company around thought he he was going to bleed the unconscious patient. ‘Ha, this is tight lacing’ he suddenly said; and adding, ‘No time to be lost, he cut open the bodice of the dress; it opened, and with a gush, gave the poor young lady breath: the heart had been compressed by tight lacing and bad nearly ceased to art.”

Now he lays down the law as to female wear in the country:

“The bonnet may still, though plan, and perhaps of straw or whalebone, be becoming. The hat, now so prevalent used, admits of some decoration… long feathers, even in the most tranquil scenes are not inappropriate.”

(For beagling or hiking and other country pursuits we suppose.)

Now he tells the would-be gentleman a little about boxing, ending up:

“Two gentlemen never fight; the art of boxing is only brought into use in punishing a stronger and more impudent man of a class beneath your own.”

”Of course” (he observes naively), “to knock a man down is never good manner, but there is a way of doing it gracefully… Never assail an offender with words, nor when you strike him use expressions such as ‘Take that,’”.

An English lady without her piano, or her pencil or her fancy work, or her favourite French authors and German poets, is an object of wonder, and perhaps of pity… and to work neatly and skilfully at fancy work is one of the of good female society.”

“After finishing one song, a lady should rise from the piano even if she be brought back again and again.”

All accomplishments have the one great merit of giving a lady something to do, something to preserve her from ennui; to console her in seclusion, to arouse her in grief; to compose her occupation in joy. And none answers this purpose much better than fancy work or even plain work.”

”Sketching and archery stand first among out-door amusements. They are healthy, elegant, and appropriate to the feminine character; while, first thoughts of mammas! – they assemble rather than exclude the younger members of the other sex.”

How many men reading the following passage will sigh for the good old days when they really were gods?

“When Pater Familias asserts his rights, standing with his coat-tails spread before the fire, which he hides from everybody else, we cannot, dare not object openly, but we certainly feel chilled, inwardly, by his solemn dignity, and outwardly by the deprivation of calorific.”

”But when a man finds that his lively badinage suits a band of merry, lissome girls, he must not be so wild as to rush at papa with the same kind of banter.”

Even nowadays pa would object, poor fellow, and its little enough respect he gets from the boy-friends.

Now for the carriage of that noble beast the Victorian man:

“A certain dignity is the first requisite… the chest should be expanded but not so much as to make a ‘presence.’ The head should be set well back on the shoulders but not tossed up nor jerked on one side with that air of pertness you see in some men… In standing the legs ought to be straight, or one of them bent a little… in walking they should be moved gently but firmly from the hips. There is, however, one good habit which must not be over­ looked. You should never speak without a slight smile, or at least a beam of goodwill in your eyes, and that to all, whether your equals or inferiors.”

This advice was obviously based on general custom, for does not the foregoing paragraph conjure up immediately one of those photographs in an old family album, of your great-uncle John,” chest very expanded, one of his tartan­ clad legs slightly bent, and as required, a beam of stern goodwill for all emanating from the eye?

Of Smoking: “One must never smoke, nor even ask to smoke, in the company of the fair… again one must never smoke in the streets; that is, in daylight. The deadly crime may be committed, like burglary, after dark, but not before. One must never smoke in a room, inhabited at times, by the ladies…. One must never smoke without consent, in the presence of a clergyman, and one must never offer a cigar to any ecclesiastic over the rank of curate.” (Poor vicar!)

Of Flirtations: “One great discredit to the present day is the fast young lady.” Also: “We all dread for our daughters imprudent and harassing attachments, let it not, however, be supposed that long practised flirtations are without their evil effects on character and manners. They excite and amuse, but also exhaust the spirit. Yet the fast young lady clings to flirtation as the type of her class… she forgets that, with every successive flirtation, one charm after another, disappears like the petals from a fading rose) until all the deliciousness of a fresh and pure character is lost in the destructive sport. On all these points a woman should take a high tone in the beginning of her life.” (Here the author adds rather dampingly: “It is sure to be sufficiently lowered as time goes on!”)

On Female Deportment: “As a lady enters the drawing­ room, she should look for the mistress of the house, speaking first to her. Her face should wear a smile; she should not rush in head foremost; a graceful bearing, a light step, an elegant bend to common acquaintances, a cordial pressure, not shaking, of, the hand extended to her, are all requisite to a lady. Let her sink gently into a chair, and, on formal occasions retain her upright position; neither lounge nor sit timorously on the edge of her seat. Her feet should scarcely be shown, and not crossed… Excepting a very small and costly parasol, it is not now usual to bring those articles into a room. An elegantly worked handkerchief is carried in the hand, but not displayed so much as at dinner-parties. A lady should conquer a habit of breathing hard, or coming in very hot, or even looking very blue and shivery. Anything that detracts from the pleasure of society is in bad taste.”

This is certainly an advance on such behaviour as that indicated in our extract from Evelina, further back, in regard to calls.

Women’s Rights: “No man may stop to speak to a lady until she stops to speak to him. The lady has the right in all cases to be friendly or distant. Women have not many rights, let us gracefully concede the few that they possess.”

“A young and single man should never walk with a young lady in public places, unless especially asked to do so… If you walk with a lady alone in a large town, particularly in London you must offer her your arm, elsewhere it is unnecessary and even marked. Middle-aged people think it a compliment to be asked to a ball about as much as the boa-constrictor in Regents Park would. Both he and they like to be fed, and after five and thirty, it is laborious not only to dance, but even to look on at dancing.” (!!!!!!)

On the Proposal: “Letters are seldom expressive of what really passes in the mind of man or, if expressive, seem foolish since deep feelings are liable to exaggeration. Every written word may be the theme of cavil. Study, care, which avail in every other species of composition, are death to the lover’s effusion. A few sentences, spoken in earnest, and broken by emotion are more eloquent than pages of sentiment, both to parent and daughter. Let him, however, speak and be accepted… Such is the notion of English honour, that the engaged couple are henceforth allowed to be fre­quently alone together, in walking and at home.”

Picking up a little book entitled The Etiquette of Courtship and Matrimony, we delve further into the charm of a Victorian engagement. “It is then,” it states, ”that both parties are kept, as it were, on the fret until the happy moment of opportunity arrives in sweet suddenness, when the flood gates of feeling are loosened and the full tide of mutual affection gushes forth uncontrolled. It is, however, at this peculiar moment of ‘shilly-shall’ of mutual caution that a lady should be careful lest any spirit of retaliation on her part lose her, for ever, the loved object of her choice. For true love is always timid, and his sharpest arrows are those poisoned by temper and pride. A lover needs very few words to assure him of the devotion of the loved one – a glance, a single pressure of the hand, confirm his hopes.”

The Etiquette of the Proposal, as seen through late Eighteenth-Century Eyes: “Valancourt again sat down; but was still silent, and trembled. At length he said with a hesitating voice ‘This lovely scene I am going to leave! – to leave you – perhaps for ever! These moments may never return! I cannot resolve to neglect, though I scarcely dare to avail myself of them. Let me, however, without offending the delicacy of your sorrow, venture to declare the admiration I must always feel of your goodness – oh, that at some future period I might be permitted to call it love!”

“Emily’s emotion would not suffer her to reply; and Valancourt who now ventured to look up, observing her countenance change, expected to see her faint and made an involuntary effort to support her, which recalled Emily to a sense of her situation, and to an exertion of her spirits.”



From The Mjsteries of Udolpho.

The Behaviour of the Betrothed: In private, the slightest approach to familiarity must be avoided, as it will always be resented by a woman who deserves to be a wife. The lady’s honour is now in her lover’s hands, and he should remember that he is dealing with his future wife.”

The Privilege of a Lover during Betrothal: “It is the privilege of the lover during this happy period, as it is also his duty, to give advice to the fair one, who now implicitly confides in him. If he see a fault if there be a failing he would wish to have corrected – now is the time. He will find a ready listener, and any impulse given by him now will be blindly followed. After marriage it may be too late, for advice on trivial points of conduct may not improbably be then resented as unnecessary interference; now the fair and loving creature melts like pliant wax in his hands, and loves to mould herself to his will.”

I run sure all modern men will read this passage with regret, sighing once more, “Oh, the good old days.”

Conduct of the Lady on Retiring from her Engagement. ­

“The case should be so put that the gentleman himself must see and acknowledge the justice of the painful decision arrived at. Incompatible habits-loose expressions denoting vice” (What can I these be; we wonder?) “any ungentlemanly action… all these are to be considered as sufficient reasons.”

Now skipping a few pages, we come to the words “Honour and obey.” The Victorian bride has reached her wedding day. She is enjoined to speak these words clearly, for our author says that “As Christ is to the Church so is man to the wife.” I really do not, think in fairness to our women readers I can quote any more of the above passage. I should be dismayed and pained to cast them into a passion in which they might perhaps give utterance to expressions of quite nasty vice or rage.

We will just cast our eye over:

The Departure for the Honeymoon: “The young bride, divested of her bridal attire, and quietly costumed for the journey, now bids farewell to her bridesmaids and lady friends… Some natural tears spring to her gentle eye, as she takes a last look at the home she is now leaving. The servants venture to crowd to her with their humble though heartfelt congratulations; and finally melting, she falls weeping onto her mother’s bosom. A short cough is heard, as of someone summoning up resolution. It is her father. He dares not trust his voice; but holds out his band, gives her one kiss, and then leads her, half turning back, down the stairs and through the hall, to the door, where he delivers her to her husband.”

This, be it observed, is under the rules of etiquette, so let us hope that the father practised his cough to attain the true note of emotion in it, otherwise he would be breaking rules.

And with this final extract on the correct behaviour for the little Victorian bride embarked on the thorny path of marriage, we will close the book:

Etiquette after the Wedding Evening at an Inn: “The lady, at the proper period, retires to her apartments, and after having taken sufficient lime for her evening toilette, directs the chambermaid to inform her husband that his apartments are ready.”

And so we proceed onwards, down through the Edwardian days. We conjure up memories of ladies still paying calls; memories of ourselves as little girls, long­ haired or short haired, tied up in nice sashes, with silk dresses inlet with lace, and starched “appendices” which pricked and tickled; taken round perhaps on a series of boring calls with our mothers. Dragged away, after ten minutes without tea, because “it was a first call, dear.” Gradually with many the call is dying out.

But still procedure goes on.

No longer does the bridegroom burst into flower with his “ornamental” tie. But there are certain things which must still be done.


Etiquette To-Day

Procedure at Weddings

The parents of the bride should issue the invitations to the wedding at least from two to three weeks beforehand.

The bride must personally acknowledge all presents received.

The bride should not, on the day of the wedding, see her husband until she reaches the church. She should drive to the church with her father or nearest male relative or some intimate male family friend.

The bridesmaids await her in the church porch. The bride walks up the aisle on the right arm of her father. If a choral service has been arranged she is preceded by the choir, but always followed by her bridesmaids. The chief bridesmaid stands just behind the bride on her left ready to assist her with her bouquet during the service.

The bridegroom drives to the church with the best man and should be there in good time to receive the bride. He should stand on the right of the chancel with his best man. The latter must help him in matters such as looking after his hat and seeing that he has the ring. When the service is concluded the best man should offer his arm to the chief bridesmaid and follow the wedded couple to the vestry, where the register is signed. Only those intimate with the bridal couple should follow them to the vestry.

The bride and bridegroom now drive back together to the reception, the best man following with the bridesmaids after tipping and paying fees.

During the wedding ceremony the mother of the bride, accompanied by a male relative, should be seated to the left of the nave, the bridegroom’s relatives and friends being seated on the right of the nave.

Ushers show the other guests to their seats elsewhere.

When the bridal couple leave the church the bride should take the left arm of the bridegroom.


A girl has two godmothers and one godfather. A boy has two godfathers and one godmother.

The christening party on arriving at the church should place themselves near the font, the godparents being nearest, and the godmother to the left of the clergyman. The nurse will hold the baby until the moment at which the godmother will be required to take the baby and place it on the left arm of the clergyman. When the baptism is concluded the clergyman returns the baby to the nurse. There is no fee for baptism, but it is usual to place a small contribution in the box at the door. The verger may also be tipped.

It is customary to invite the clergyman to the christening tea after the ceremony.

The child should cry during the baptism, to let the devil out of him, ’tis said.


Precedence: A young woman should be introduced to an older woman. “May I introduce Miss Squeaker?” “Miss Squeaker, Mrs. Boomer.”

An unmarried lady should be introduced to a married lady, unless there is such an obvious gap in their station in life that even nowadays it could not be overlooked.

Similarly, except in the cases of Royalty, a gentleman is always introduced to a lady. They may bow and perhaps follow it up with a handshake.

Ladies remain seated on being introduced. The hostess rises to meet everyone, man or woman. The hostess will always shake hands.

Card-Leaving: In general, where card-leaving is still observed, the married lady should leave one of her own and two of her husband’s cards. If a newcomer to the place, she should of course wait for the local ladies to call upon her. In the Navy, however, a junior wife arriving at a port would call upon her Captain s wife before that lady calls upon her.

Ceremonious Forms of Address

  • Addressing and Beginning Letters (in Alphabetical Order)
  • Baron: “The Right Hon. Lord…” Begin: ”My Lord.”
  • Baroness (either in her own right or her husband’s).­ ”The Right Hon. the Baroness…” Begin: “My Lady.”
  • Baronet.” Sir (Christian name and surname), Bart.” Begin: “Sir.”
  • Baronet’s Wife: “Lady (surname).” Begin: “Madam.”
  • Clergy: “The Rev. (Christian name and surname)” Begin: “Rev. Sir.”
  • Companion of an Order of Knighthood: The initials, C.B., C.M.G., C.S.I., or C.I.E. are placed after the ordinary form of address.
  • Countess: “The Right Hon. the Countess of…” Begin: “Madam.”
  • Doctor: The initials D.D., M.D., LL.D., Mus.D., are. placed after the ordinary form of address.
  • Duchess: ‘Her Grace the Duchess of…”
  • Begin: “Madam”
  • Duke: “His Grace the Duke of…” Begin: “My Lord Duke.”
  • Earl: ” The Right Hon. the Earl of…” Begin: “My Lord.”
  • Judge (English): “.The Hon. Sir…” if a Knight, or “The Hon. Mr. Justice…” Begin: “Sir.”
  • Judge of County Court: “His Honour Judge…”
  • Justice of the Peace in England: “The Right Worshipful.”
  • The King: ”The King’s Most Excellent Majesty.” Begin: “Sire,” or “May it please Your Majesty.”
  • King’s Counsel: Place K.C. after the ordinary form of address.
  • Knight Bachelor: “Sir (Christian name and surname)…” Begin: “Sir.”
  • Knight of the Bath, of St. Michael and St. George, or of the Star of India: “Sir (Christian name and surname)” with the initials, G.C.B., K.C.G., K.M.G., or K.S.I. added. Begin: “Sir.”
  • Knight of the Garter, or the Thistle, or of St. Patrick: The initials of the above are added to the address, “K.G.,” &c.
  • Knight’s Wife: As Baronet’s wife.
  • Lord Mayor of London: “The Right Hon. the Lord Mayor of London.” Begin: “My Lord.”
  • Lord Mayor’s Wife: ” The Right Hon. The Lady Mayoress of: “Begin: “Madam.”
  • Marchioness: “The Most Hon. the Marchioness of…” Begin: “Madam.”
  • Marquess: “The Most Hon. the Marquess of…” Begin: “My Lord Marquess.”
  • Prince (if a Duke): “His Royal Highness the Duke of…” (If not a Duke) – “His Royal Highness, Prince (Christian name)… Begin: “Sir.”
  • Princess (if a Duchess): “Her Royal Highness the Duchess of… (If not a Duchess)-” Her Royal Highness the Princess (Christian name) Begin: “Madam.”
  • Viscount: “The Right Hon. the Lord Viscount…” Begin: “My Lord.”
  • Viscountess: “The Right Hon. the Viscountess…” Begin: “Madam.”
Etiquette Old And New - Navigating the Social Landscape with Grace 3