The History of Etiquette – Part 2

by Claire Valenty on November 14, 2010

From Colonial Times to the Early 1900s

Although manners of the royal courts and aristocracy had become well established in Europe by the 1600s, much of it was lost when the early Colonists crossed the ocean to the New World. Etiquette had to be re-established in America, basically from scratch. In Part 2 of the series, we will examine how—from Colonial Times to the Early 1900s—crude ways and uncouth behaviors eventually gave way to refinement and civility.

Etiquette during the Colonial Times

When the first colonists arrived at Plymouth on Massachusetts Bay in December 1620, they brought little with them in the way of manners. These simple Nottinghamshire separatists were not “gentlemen” exhibiting  “gentlemanly traits,” but rather Puritans, plowmen, merchants, farmers, shipbuilders, fishermen, and indentured servants. The principles of a hereditary aristocracy did not cross the water, nor did the etiquettes associated with it. [1] Puritanism eventually dissolved into “Yankee,” and with it, a new order of manners arose. Americans, having broken geographically and politically from the Mother Country, dispensed with many of the European rituals of civility. [2] A crude standard of public behavior came into being, begging for someone—anyone! —to set some guidelines. That someone was young George Washington, who—in 1747 at the age of sixteen—penned “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior on Company and Conversation.” What the civil, courtesy-focused young man was up against may be gleaned from some of the transcribed rules. Consider, for instance, the rule: “In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.” Or contemplate the sage advice of “Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice, ticks in the Sight of Others.” [3] Yes, a great nation had been born, but civility—as previously known—had been laid to rest.

Antebellum South

The men and women of the Antebellum South were the first to begin to remedy the lack of a general sense of etiquette in the New World. With their cultivation of attitudes of feudal aristocracy and the desire to be “gentlemen,” the men of the South began to rebuild manners, based on class and hierarchy. [4] Plantations thrived in the South, and with them, specific codes of conduct came into being. In some ways, manners came to function as intimidation (such as the requirement of having slaves address the plantation owner as “Master” or “Mistress”). [5] In other ways, the manners were simply a matter of decorum and ceremony: cookbooks popular at the time outlined elaborate strategies for the arrangement of dishes on the table and rules for the etiquette of serving. [6] Specific guidelines for behavior were provided, such as the advice that a Southern gentleman never affront a “Yankee” with the fact of his birthplace. [7] Eventually, the war would destroy this elaborate social order, but many of the manners and etiquettes of the Old South would endure—a Southern gentleman would always be a gentleman, despite immense losses of stature and wealth, and a Southern lady would always be a lady.

Western Frontier Etiquette

Meanwhile, on the Western Frontier, swift changes were in progress between 1850 and 1900. Americans were moving steadily westward, conquering deserts, mountain ranges and Indian tribes. With the new developments came situations not previously encountered, and with these, new rules of conduct were required. [8] Most notable were the rules of the Western Dual, sometimes referred to as “Murder at Ten Paces.” While the dual, or “shoot-out,” was not governed by written agreements, some rules were simply understood, such as “Don’t ever shoot a man in the back,” or “If he reaches for his artillery, then you’ve got a license to shoot.” [9] The stagecoach was another unique situation Western expansion brought into being, and with it, a list of very specific rules for conduct. Wells Fargo, one of the oldest banks in the West, had guidelines drawn up for their stagecoach service that included “Forbidden topics of discussion are stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings” and “Gents guilty of unchivarlous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It’s a long walk back.” [10] The Western Frontier may have been wild, but it did have specific rules designed to govern conduct, based on the basic principles of civility and basic respect.

Early 1900s Etiquette in America

During the flush post Civil-war years, Americans in large cities on the East coast of the states came to develop excessive refinement, much like that being cultivated by their European Victorian counterparts. American men of substance—complete with a generous residence and an ornamental iron fence—were now regarded as “gentlemen.” “Lady” became a fashionable term, as women of means now had servants and staff. [11] Accordingly, these men and women came to consider what to do with the cherry pits once the butler has passed the fruit bowl. They pondered the fork—its placement in a setting, the proper way to load it with food, its conveyance to the mouth, the respectable method of using it to maneuver bits of bone around the plate, where to place it once one had finished with it, and so on. A new age in etiquette had been ushered onto the American stage, and with it came a new development: the nineteenth century etiquette book.

As you saw in this part of the series, the founding figures of America had many obstacles to overcome in order to get etiquette re-established to Old Country standards. In Part 3, we will investigate how etiquette has developed during modern times, as new technologies and advancements have come into being.  And, yes, we will come to the shocking conclusion that what we learned from watching “Mad Men” is, actually, quite true.

© 2010

1. Gerald Carson, The Polite Americans (New York: William Morrow & Company), 4.
2. Mark Caldwell, A Short History of Rudeness (New York: Picador USA, 2000), 42.
3. George Washington, Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation: A Book of Etiquette (Williamsburg, VA: Beaver Press, 1971).
4. Gerald Carson, The Polite Americans (New York: William Morrow & Company), 41.
5. Mark Caldwell, A Short History of Rudeness (New York: Picador USA, 2000), 180.
6. Gerald Carson, The Polite Americans (New York: William Morrow & Company), 45.
7. Gerald Carson, The Polite Americans (New York: William Morrow & Company), 52.
8. Slatta, Richard W. Slatta, Richard W. “Western frontier life in America.” World Book Online Reference Center. 2006. World Book, Inc. 19 Jan. 2006 .
9. Gerald Carson, The Polite Americans (New York: William Morrow & Company), 124.
10. “1800s Rules for Stage Passengers.” Deadwood Magazine (2001) .
11. Gerald Carson, The Polite Americans (New York: William Morrow & Company), 150.

Leave a Comment