Mind Your Manners!

A Checklist of 19th Century Etiquette

By: Glenna Jo Christen 




To summarize the basic reason for polite behavior in any time period or situation:

“The true aim of politeness, is to make those with whom you associate as well satisfied with themselves as possible. ...it does whatever it can to accommodate their feelings and wishes in social intercourse.”

On Introductions:

“On introduction in a room, a married lady generally offers her hand, and a young lady not. In a ballroom, where an introduction is to dancing, not friendship, you never shake hands -- only a bow. It may perhaps be laid down, that the more public the place of introduction, the less hand-shaking takes place."

All quotations are from Civil War Etiquette: Martine’s Handbook and Vulgarisms in Conversation. (see bibliography)



    Wear gloves on the street, in church & other formal occasions, except when eating or drinking

    White or cream colored gloves for evening

    Gray or other darker colors for day wear

    Stand up when a lady enters a room (or your presence in a large room)

    Stand up when a lady stands

    Offer a lady your seat if no others are available

    Assist a lady with her chair when she sits down or stands, especially when at a table or when the chairs are small and light

    Retrieve dropped items for a lady

    Open doors for a lady

    Help a lady with her coat, cloak, shawl, etc.

    Offer to bring a lady refreshments if they are available

    Offer your arm to escort a lady (with whom you are acquainted) into or out of a building or a room at all social events, and whenever walking on uneven ground

    Remove your hat when entering a building

    Lift your hat to a lady when she greets you in public (Merely touching the brim or a slight "tip" of the hat was very rude)


    Refer to another person by their first name in public

    Curse or discuss "impolite" subjects when ladies are present

    Leave a lady you know unattended, except with permission

    Use tobacco in any form when ladies are present

    Greet a lady in public unless she acknowledges you first (see "Always" #12)

    Eat or drink while wearing gloves



    Graciously accept gentlemanly offers of assistance

    Wear gloves on the street, at church & other formal occasions, except when eating or drinking


    Refer to another adult by his or her first name in public

    Grab your hoops or lift your skirts higher than is absolutely necessary to go up stairs

    Lift your skirts up onto a chair or stool, etc.

    Sit with your legs crossed (except at the ankles if necessary for comfort or habit)

    Lift your skirts up onto the seat of your chair when sitting down (Wait for, or if necessary, ask for assistance when sitting down at a table or on a small light chair)

    Speak in a loud, coarse voice



    Gentlemen, it's an honor! Request it as such

    Ladies, never refuse one gentleman and accept another for the same dance, unless it was previously promised


    Gentlemen, lead the lady on and off the dance floor

    Bow and curtsey before starting to dance

    Gentlemen, always thank the lady for the honor of dancing with her

    Ladies, a smile and a nod are sufficient responses to a gentleman's "Thank you"

    Never dance with the same partner more than once or, at most, twice in an evening, especially with your spouse

    Gentlemen, when at a dance you are expected to dance, and dance frequently, leaving no "wall-flowers" who are willing, and waiting to dance



    Be punctual for all dinner engagements. Food may not be served before all guests are seated

    The host leads the guests into dine with the senior lady (in age or social standing) on his left arm. All other gentlemen follow with a compatible lady on their left arms. The hostess takes the left arm of the senior male guest and enters last

    Gentlemen seat the lady they are escorting to their left. All gentlemen remain standing until all ladies are seated

    Married couples are never seated together (They are together enough otherwise)

    Ladies remove their gloves when they are seated. Gentlemen remove theirs just before seating themselves (gloves were often placed in tail coat pockets - See Social Rules for Gentlemen re gloves)


    The gentlemen are to tend to the needs of the lady on their left, as well as make agreeable conversation with ladies to either side and across the table (size of table permitting)

    A lady never serves herself from a buffet line. She informs her dinner partner of her wishes and he brings her plate to her

    Basic rules of polite dinner manners apply then as now regarding use of table ware, personal habits, use of table ware, etc.

    Some interesting bits of advice for the era:

    Gentlemen may tuck his napkin into his collar to prevent soiling his shirt or tie, but ladies should place their napkin in their laps

    Do not use your knife to carry food to your mouth or put your knife into your mouth

    Do not rinse your mouth out and spit into the finger bowls or water glass

    Do not gorge yourself excessively during any one course. Never ask for seconds as all other diners must wait until you are finished before being served the next course

    Opinions varied regarding ladies’ withdrawal to the drawing room after the meal while the men indulge in port, cigars and masculine conversation. Follow the lead of the host and hostess


Aldrich, Elizabeth, From the Ballroom to Hell: Grace and Folly in Nineteen-Century Dance, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, Ill, 1991.

Chesterfield’s Complete Rules of Etiquette, Dick & Fitzgerald, New York, 1860. (available in facsimile format)

Civil War Etiquette: Martine’s Handbook and Vulgarisms in Conversation, R.L. Shep, Mendicino, CA, 1988. (Handbook originally published in 1866, and Vulgarisms in 1864.)

Hilgrow, Thomas, Hilgrow’s Call Book and Dancing Master, DaCapo Press, Inc. New York, (originally published in 1864.)

Kasson, John F., Rudeness & Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America, Hill and Wang (div. of Farrar Straus and Giroux), New York, 1990.

(Other sources were original etiquette books in the presenter’s personal collection.)