The History of Etiquette – Part 1

by Claire Valenty on November 1, 2010

Part 1: From Prehistoric Man to the Victorians

Emily Post certainly didn’t invent etiquette—its history spans many centuries. Wherever and whenever mankind has existed, so does behavior, and with behavior comes the need for basic guidelines regarding conduct. Although the rules of etiquette were quite different for prehistoric man than those for members of the royal French court, all abide by the basic tenets of respect and courtesy. In Part 1 of this series, we will explore how etiquette evolved on the European front.

Prehistoric Etiquette & Manners

Prehistoric people most likely cared little about the placement of the piece of sharp stone that served as an eating implement, or the proper way to grasp a club, or if an expression of regret was in order after inadvertently belching. They most likely never pondered the dilemma of whether to thank someone once or twice if he or she held the cave door open two times in a row. For them, etiquette was all about survival, and simply getting along. Ways to interact and behave based purely on practicality and necessity developed through trail and error, making life more pleasant for all involved. For instance, the handshake—which we now regard as a simple gesture of friendship and goodwill—has it roots in the practice of extending one’s hand to show no weapons were being carried: no clubs, no stones, no sharp blades. This was one of the first and most basic instances of manners in action; it was a way of establishing peace and respect, two concepts at the heart of all modern practices of etiquette.

Etiquette during the Middle Ages

By the Middle Ages, two men still extended their hands to show they were not carrying a weapon, although the weapons had evolved into more elaborate devices by that time, such as swords and pistols. Likewise, more elaborate rituals of behavior had also developed, based upon simple necessity and respect—the basic elements of civility. “Civility,” P. M. Forni notes, is “an attitude of benevolent and thoughtful relating to other individuals.” [2] So, when a Renaissance woman wearing a long gown had a difficult time maneuvering out of a carriage, it was benevolent and thoughtful for a gentleman to extend his hand in an offer to aid her egress. This gesture lives on today, as a man will often offer to help a woman exit a vehicle, although these days it is not a carriage, but a BMW or a Honda.

Etiquette at the Royal French Court

Extending of hands was still quite common in the French royal courts of the 1600s and 1700s, but now it was accompanied by much bowing and scraping and kissing and pomp. Manners had become serious business, so serious, in fact, that aristocrats were issued “tickets” of admission to court ceremonies that had an elaborate code of conduct printed on the back. “Etiquette,” by the way, is the French word for “ticket.” Thanks can be given to Louis XIV’s master gardener at the Garden of Versailles for its incorporation into current use. The gardener, annoyed at noblemen tramping across his pristine lawns, posted “etiquettes” with the admonition to “Keep Off the Grass.” Louis XIV instructed everyone in the court to “Keep within the etiquettes.” [3] Thus, not only did the birth of small officious signs placed on tidy city park greens worldwide take place, but the birth of the term meant to convey a specific and strict code of conduct also came into being: etiquette.

Victorian Area Etiquette

The Victorians, with their immense sense of propriety, took the rules of etiquette to a new level. Thick, heavy tomes were written, devoted entirely to the specifics of everything from “Art of Dress” to “Soirées, Musicals and Lawn Parties.” These guide books included chapters on “Table Etiquette,” “Club Etiquette,” “Home Etiquette,” “Bicycle Etiquette,” “Church Etiquette,” “Funeral Etiquette,” “Wedding Etiquette,” and, of course, “General Etiquette.” Etiquette was incorporated into very young woman’s curriculum, along with math and literature. A young lady had to peruse entire chapters, for example, simply to go on a bicycle outing, and she had to memorize several rules regarding what to wear, how to mount the bicycle, how to manage the bell, and so on. Specific “Don’ts” were included, as well, such as “Don’t leave your bicycle in the lower hallway of your flat-house for other tenants to fall over in the dark” and “Don’t believe the farmer boy who says it is ‘two miles to the next town.’ ” The Victorians, being Victorian, thought of every detail, and had a rule for every behavior imaginable.

As you saw in this part, the concepts of refinement and courtesy—once put into place—came quickly and naturally to the Europeans. In Part 2, we will examine how equally quickly etiquette took several steps backward after a mere jaunt across the ocean into a New World.

© 2010

1. Mark Caldwell, A Short History of Rudeness (New York: Picador USA, 2000), 41.
2. P. M. Forni, Choosing Civility (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), 9.
3. Richard Duffy, introduction to Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, by Emily Post (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1922), xix.
4. Maud C. Cooke, Social Life, or the Manners and Customs of Polite Society (London, Ontario: McDermid & Logan, 1896), 347.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gregory Corning November 18, 2018 at 5:56 pm

I think that the idea that people clasped each others’ hands to show that they bore no weapons is silly. It seems much more likely that shaking hands is a way of showing a sort of unity. People who don’t trust each other don’t touch each other. So by clasping or shaking hands, you show trust and a willingness to be together.

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