What do you think about when you see the word “history?” A specific decade? A certain place? Figures you wish to emulate, or hate? Events you wish turned out differently, or you can see how they affected the current times? Well, here’s what I see when I read a book titled TRUE LADIES AND PROPER GENTLEMEN.
I know I’d originally designated this space to cover Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania history, but I can’t help but be fascinated by the intricacies of Victorian decorum and etiquette. In fact, I purchased this book while working on an old manuscript titled Project Firedamp, as it took place during the late 1890s. There are dozens of blogs out there which already cover this topic. In fact, here are a few I found on this very subject for your perusal:
Whew! That’s quite a link haul! But what I’ve enjoyed is noticing the many differences and similarities between how those in the Victorian era may have acted and how we conduct ourselves in our own century. And, in all honesty, there are some practices I think we could really benefit returning to. Like politeness. I find that sorely lacking as someone whose worked retail most of her life. Here are five items, one from the first five chapters of TRUE LADIES AND PROPER GENTLEMEN, edited by Sarah A. Chrisman, that I feel warrant another look. (Each chapter contains a myriad of subtopics, and it was hard to choose which ones I wanted to discuss).
1. Sweethearts, Old and New: on love-letters.
Honesty. The love-letter should be honest. It should say what the writer means, and no more. For the lady or gentleman to play the part of a coquette, studying to see how many lovers he or she may secure, is very disreputable, and bears in its train a long list of sorrows, frequently wrecking the domestic happiness for a life-time. The parties should be honest, also, in the statement of their actual prospects and means of support. Neither should hold out to the other wealth or other inducements that will not be realized, as disappointment and disgust will be the only result.
I can’t help but keep shows like Steve Wilkos and Maury from coming to mind. They are very front-and-center representations of what can go wrong in a relationship but in a very public setting. Imagine being a part of London’s ton, only to have your failures with love blasted for all to see in the newspapers. Sounds unimaginable, but reputations could easily be ruined by one such notice to the London Times. Or whatever paper they had in the 1800s. Maury and Wilkos may not have the…smartest…of guests on their shows, but I’ve often wondered how anyone in certain situations could’ve benefited just from being honest from the very beginning.
Honesty. It’s both a practice and a word that’s severely lacking in American society. Yes, we’re only human and we’re going to make mistakes. Heck I make several within one week at work, but I always always strive to correct what I can. If I’m ever in another relationship, I’ll also use this as a starting point in how I interact with him. We can learn a lot from the Victorians on how to have relationships. This leads to another point in the same chapter:
Intemperate Men. Above all, no lady should allow herself to correspond with an intemperate man, with a view to matrimony. She may reform him, but the chances are that her life’s happiness will be completely destroyed by such a union. Better, a thousand times, the single, free and independent maidenhood, than for a woman to trail her life in the dust, and bring poverty, shame and disgrace on her children, by marrying a man addicted to dissipated habits.
All right. Let’s begin this next segment by answering this question: what the heck does “intemperate” even mean?
Ah. I see. So, everything many of those men in the aforementioned shows truly are. So there’s truly some advice that’s lasted the test of time. While there were many things the Victorians got wrong, they certainly were right about many others. Including matters of the heart.
Leigh’s Advice: If you so choose to begin a letter writing campaign to someone you love, please make sure of their character first. No, you don’t need to do it exactly how the Victorians did with courting and all that jazz. Just be sure of the receiving party’s interest in you as well. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take the chance. You can bet your bottom dollar that the Victorians had etiquette advice for turn downs as well!
2. Victorian Health and Beauty Advice: The Curved Line.
The Curved Line. A prominent feature of beauty everywhere is the curved line. The winding pathway, the graceful outline of tree, cloud and mountain in the distance, the arched rainbow, the well-trimmed shrub the finely-featured animal, the rounded form of everything that is beautiful – all illustrate this principle. The delicately, finely rounded face, hands and general features, are essential to the highest forms of beauty in the person, and the same principles apply in the manufacture of dress. Every line and seam should run in curves.
While it is true that beauty can be found in symmetry, curves and nature, I prefer the phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” There’s a reason curves are so often present in the architecture of museums, libraries, capital buildings, and other public places. This is one sore area of disagreement I have with the Victorians. Oh, there are so many things I could say as a “modern woman” on this subject. The Victorians wanted all their ladies to fit into one mold, which is quite the impossible feat. I don’t see how any Victorian lady could’ve found her worth in this era if she didn’t match what society expected of her.
I say this, sitting here with the knowledge that I would be a spinster myself if I was judged on my looks alone. (I mean, I kind of am a spinster at this point, but that’s a different blog for another day).
The Victorians and I are in agreement when it comes to finding beauty in the things, and curves, around us. And it’s unfortunately true that those who have “that certain look” are most definitely given greater advantages when it comes to work or social media. It’s one of the many reasons I’ll never start my own Booktube channel, or even podcast.
Leigh’s Advice: if you struggle to find beauty in yourself, know that you are not alone. Find your self worth and stick with it. This beauty standard of the Victorians is actually something I think modern society could definitely do without. I leave you with this somewhat hilarious tidbit of advice from the same chapter:
Be sure that plenty of fresh air is admitted to the room throughout the night, by the opening of windows. Avoid feathers. A perfectly clean, moderately hard bed is best for health.
3. Etiquette in the Home: What Parents Shouldn’t Do vs. What Parents Should Do.
What Parents Shouldn’t Do. Do not reproach a child for a mistake which was made with a good motive at the time. Freely forgive, wisely counsel, and the child will thus be taught that there is no danger in telling the truth.
There are many parenting techniques which have withstood the test of time and many that haven’t. This is one that, I think, is still very good advice. While I’m not a parent myself, I can definitely see the difference between parents who continually criticize their children over ones who teach them to do the right thing. The tricky part sometimes can be in knowing if a child’s mistake was actually made with good motive or not. I do, however, wish that more folks would practice the last bit of the quote: telling the truth. So much drama and angst could easily be avoided if people were more honest with each other. Sadly, I don’t see that happening any time soon. Yes, there are good people out there. Lots of them, in fact. The news, unfortunately, likes to highlight those who aren’t. And that all circles back to wise counsel.
What Parents Should Do. Teach your children how to work; how to obtain a living by their own efforts. Teach them the nobility and the dignity of labor, that they may respect and honor the producer.
Boy oh boy – where to even start with this one? Especially with current events. “Teach your children how to work; how to obtain a living by their own efforts” is such a loaded topic. The other day my dad made the comment; “You’ve had more ‘first-day-on-the-job’ days than I ever had.” The biggest difference is my dad knew right from the get-go what he wanted to do with his life and he retired from the USAF after 34 years of service. Me? I’m still finding my purpose, and I’ve only been out of work twice in my life. Let me tell you, if you’ve never been, that it’s the worst feeling in the world – not being able to pay the bills.
Leigh’s Advice: Again, there are many more things that could be said about America’s modern workforce (or lack thereof), so I’ll leave this section with this: not everyone’s going to know their purpose, or why they’re even in the job they’re in. Work, and learning how to work with others, are still valuable teaching tools that need a comeback.
4. School Days: Duty of the Pupil.
Duty of the Pupil. The boy and girl at school foretell the future man and woman. Those who are prompt, punctual and orderly will be so in after-life. Those who are truthful, reliable and honest in childhood, will be trusted in position and place in after-years; and those who store the mind in youth with valuable knowledge will possess that which can never be lost, but on the contrary will always be a means by which they may procure a livelihood; and, if united with energy and perseverance, will be sure to give them reputation, eminence of position, and wealth.
In all honesty, this point speaks for itself. And, in all honesty, I wish I’d paid more attention and done better as a student. I’m not the most talent in my family, nor am I the smartest. I war my heart on my sleeve a bit too much and am hardly punctual for band practice at church on Sunday mornings. From the rest of the quote, I think it’s safe to say that the Victorians valued honesty and truthfulness above all else – even if many of them enjoyed a good gossip session or two on the side. My favorite line is “those who store the mind in youth with valuable knowledge will possess that which can never be lost.” This, my friends, is why I continue to pursue knowledge and history today.
Leigh’s Advice: Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone in order to learn something new. Especially if it’s something which makes you uncomfortable. We all need to be challenged from time to time. Don’t forget to learn the fun stuff – those interesting facts and tidbits about places and things. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find your next story in that new knowledge.
5. Out and About: Etiquette of Shopping
Ooooh this one. This one gets me so so much. I’m a 15 year employee of the retail biz (ten years with Target, one with a big bank and nearly three at my new job), and you’ve no idea how much I wish many of these concepts would still be practiced today. Let’s break down a few of them here.
“It is an insult to a clerk or merchant to suggest to a customer about to purchase that may buy cheaper or better elsewhere. It is also rude to give your opinion, unasked, about the goods that another is purchasing.”
Okay – this one can be a bit tricky to practice with today’s competitive market, especially when it comes to gardening supplies. While I do agree it’s rude for someone to step into a conversation a coworker and a customer are having, I’d rather point a customer in the direction of a nursery that may carry what they’re looking for. Especially if we no longer carry a particular product. That is, if they’re in a conversation with me.
“Injuring goods when handling, pushing aside other persons, hanging upon the counter, whispering, loud talk and laughter, when in a store, are all evidence of ill-breeding.”
Open packages annoy me so much. When I worked for Target, we’d repackage them. It’s a totally different beast when one works in a hardware store. We’re dealing with thousands of more dollars worth in sales. Big ticket items reside in every single aisle. The Victorians also never had Black Friday. Or stepped into WalMart on a Saturday night. If we used the term “ill-breeding” these days, man alive would we be recorded and cancelled on social media.