By the time of the American Civil War, Victorian America followed many of Great Britain’s rules of society. Ladies looked forward to their next copy of Godey’s for the latest fashion for instance. What Queen Victoria did in London set the tide for manners and etiquette both in England and “across the pond” here in the United States. It is these actions that dictated society and guarded the sexes that give us a taste of life back then. Let us take a look at the foundation of society as set back in the mid-19th century.
Introductions: When people met back then, introductions were made based on the rules of etiquette. No man would consider simply walking up to a lady he didn’t know and say “hi”. That was considered rude and crass. If there was a lady he wished to meet, he needed to find someone who knew them both to make introductions. “Miss Smith, may I introduce Mr. Silvers of Charleston…” Now, if Mr. Silvers was of low account and totally unsuitable for the lady, this friend could deny introducing him or if it was made and she didn’t care for Silvers, she could snub him off. Really raise her nose as it were and ignore the man. This, of course, would be held against him as unworthy and the news passed quickly to avoid him.
While we are here, let us discuss names. Gentlemen and the workingman were always called Mr. Lastname while in public. Ladies were Miss if they were single or Mrs. if they were married (there was no such creature as “Ms.”). Mrs. John Smith was Mary Smith’s public name as ladies took their husband’s surname at marriage and protocol stated the first in public. If Mary was single and her father’s name was Charles Silvers, her name on invitations to her coming out ball were “Miss Charles Silvers invites…”
It was a gentlemen’s role to protect the fairer sex. For instance, if he was with her on the boardwalk in the city, he’d place himself between the street and her to keep her away from harm if a wagon or horse got out of control and barreled into the curb or to give her another type of barrier from mud or horse dung from slinging off the road onto the curb. If she were on an outing with a servant, the maid or male servant would serve the same purpose.
If a man was courting a lady, first the man had to ask her father for permission (or her male guardian if her father was deceased). Courting had its own rules. Ladies of the lower classes could marry at age 14 – an age we writers shy from, considering today’s way of thinking. Middle to upper class ladies usually had a “coming out” at about 18 or 19 years of age. Many times this was a ball where they were introduced and they dressed in bright pastels like pink, yellow or light green, often with flowers in their hair – even if it was winter. They wore the light colors because in candle or oil light, darker color dresses blended with the walls but the light stood out.
As they made the marriage circuit, it should be easy to find a husband in America at this time as the number of men out numbered the women prior to the War. Granted, some men headed west where land was cheap but that is another discussion. If a man wanted to court a lady, he needed to be 5 to 10 years older than her (if she was 18, he needed to be 23-28) and show he had the way and means to support her and their future children – in other words, he needed to have a job and a house, not living at home off of mom and dad.
Courting rules were simple – the couple was never allowed alone. A trusted servant or family member accompanied them – trusted by the parents, not the daughter. If she liked him enough, she might allow him to call her by her first name but it was her decision, not his. Otherwise, she was Miss Silvers. Also, fashion had women wearing gloves whenever they were out or in formal situations. These gloves were generally white or ivory though they could match the color of her dress. Made of kid leather for the upper classes and cloth for the lower, these gloves protected her hands from the sun and other elements and from chafing. If she started to have feelings for her gentleman friend, not only would she allow him to call her by her first name, but also grant him the privilege of holding her bare hand (prior to this, only her father, brothers and lady friends could do so). And gentlemen of all classes wore gloves as well and one reason was, it was an honor and a privilege to help a lady in distress (i.e.: she fell or needed help in a carriage). If he ruined her gloves with callus on his hands, he was obligated to replace her gloves. For the workingman, kid gloves equaled more than he made in a month!
Back to courting, there were two ways a couple could be “alone.” One was on the front porch – basically they were on display for the whole street. No hanky-panky there. The other was the front parlor. Usually the front parlor had a couple of doors to it and/or a parlor mirror. These mirrors were convex in shape and reflected EVERYTHING in the room that anyone could see as they passed the doorway. Quite a hampering device.
Rule of thumb was if they were alone anywhere else for more than fifteen minutes, she was ruined, a “soiled dove”, and no man would want her therefore the young man with her would be forced to marry her to save her reputation. The “shotgun” marriage so to speak though there no doubt was a time or two daddy stood with a loaded gun and cocked it if the man almost backed out from saying “I do.” If he was shot after the ceremony, she was a widow and in good standing. Not saying that happened but…
Divorce – unacceptable in the Victorian age. Only one ground allowed it to happen and that was infidelity, mostly by the wife. No, if you didn’t like your spouse, you might live on different floors of the house and never meet or in different houses but if invited to an event, you went together as husband and wife and put a front on for society.
If she made it to age 23 without getting a proposal (a forward lady, speaking her own thoughts or opinions and not being the demur delicate flower could steer men away), the lady was now a spinster, “put on the shelf” as it were. If she attended balls, she had to wear the darker colors of navy, dark green, etc. with no flowers in her hair and sit against the wall, resigned. Society wasn’t designed to have ladies be “independent”. Women were under male guardianship their entire lives – first their father than husband. If a wallflower, they still were under dad and could be the mistress to their father’s home if mother was dead, the nanny to their sibling’s kids or work in a hat boutique – those were about the only options available. If they taught, they had to go out to the wild west (at this time, Kansas City represented the wild west) for lady teachers were not the norm in the 19th century and very few allowed to teach in a classroom. The west was desperate for teachers so they’d take anyone willing to travel to the sparsely settled wilderness. If in KC teaching, she meets the man of her dreams and they marry, it is expected of her to quit teaching. Which brings us to another issue –
Work. Ladies didn’t work. The lower classes did but middle to upper were not suppose to. Even if her husband lost his job, it was unacceptable for her to work, as it’s his job to make the money to feed and support the family and hers to raise the kids and run the house (the “Spheres of Domesticity” firmly in place). Therefore, some took in mending or laundry, under the table, and kept it hidden. If discovered, it could be a problem. And as to domestic abuse, the rule was what happened behind marriage doors was no one’s business. Quite disturbing.
This is a taste of society in Victorian America. There are plenty of etiquette books made at that time – these were for the middle and lower class and mostly for men so they’d know how to carry themselves. Upper classes were taught this as they grew up.
What time do you want to live in? Back then, it’s very polite and structured but for ladies of an independent nature, it was hell!