Victorian etiquette: See 129 rules that men were supposed to follow

Victorian gentlemen drinking beer in Washington DC 1888

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Victorian etiquette for men: “Which treats of social manners and customs at the table” (1889)

By Nathan B Medbery, author “Social Etiquette”

Number 1 — Perhaps it is quite a simple occurrence to eat your breakfast, your dinner, or your supper, yet the gentleman or lady, and the low-bred man or woman, are not more strongly contrasted than when at the table.

The rules on this subject of table etiquette when in company, apply equally well to the home circle and family table, with perhaps a few unimportant exceptions.

Number 2 — Be prompt at meals. To be late is a wrong to your host or to your family, it is not calculated to promote good feeling.

Number 3 — If an invitation to dine is received, make no delay in replying, whether it is your intention to accept or decline.

Number 4 — Don’t seat yourself until the ladies are seated, or at a dinner party, until your host or hostess gives the signal.

Number 5 — We sometimes hear the phrase “company manners.” Practice “company manners” at home, for if you neglect them when at home you are sure to be rusty when in company. Extend the same courtesies to members of your own family as you would extend to those with whom you are not so well acquainted when in company.

Victorian etiquette for men

Number 6 — Sit at the proper distance from the table, not a foot away, nor jammed against it.

Number 7 — Bibs are for children and are to be used in the nursery, therefore don’t tuck your napkin under your chin or spread it upon your breast.

Number 8 — When the dinner is announced, the sign to leave the parlor will be given by the hostess. Each gentleman will probably be asked to escort a lady to the table. This should be done in the most polite manner.

At the table, the gentlemen should wait until the ladies are seated before taking their places.

Number 9 — In leaving the parlor, the gentleman should pass out first, the lady following, holding his arm.

Number 10 — When the door of the dining room is reached the lady should drop the gentleman’s arm.

Number 11 — The gentleman should pass in and and then wait on one side of the door until the lady passes to the place assigned to her at the table.

Number 12 — There are a hundred and one points to be observed in conduct at the table, which, although perhaps not necessary, are yet the ear marks, by which the well-bred person can be distinguished.

Number 13 — When you eat soup, do so in as quiet a manner as possible.

Number 14 — Take the soup from the side of the spoon and not from the end of it.

Number 15 — Refrain from overcrowding your mouth; in other words, do not “stuff.”

Number 16 — Make an effort to sit easily and gracefully.

Number 17. — Avoid crowding or jostling your neighbor.

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Victorian etiquette 72 simple rules for men while at the dinner table (1889)

Number 18. — If your host or hostess passes you a plate, keep it — especially if you have chosen the food which is upon it. If you pass it to your neighbor, you may be giving him dishes for which he does not care and which are distasteful to him.

Number 19 — If, in the course of a meal, you should happen to discover something wrong with your food, do not speak of it, but pass your plate to the waiter and he will bring you another.

Number 20 — Take good care of the lady you escort to the table. See to it that she is well supplied with all that is necessary for her comfort.

Number 21 — Refrain from hitching up your coat-sleeves, it looks very bad.

Number 22 — Let your chair rest squarely upon the floor, do not tip it back or lounge in it.

Number 23 — Avoid all manner of gesticulation, it is quite dangerous and is considered bad taste.

Number 24 — Let the conversation be carried on in an ordinary low tone of voice.

Number 25 — Do not attempt to speak when your mouth contains food, you are almost sure to fail.

Number 26 — Do not put upon your plate more food than you can use; it is better to be helped the second time.

Number 27 — The knife is to be used very little; it is proper to use it for the purpose of cutting your food but never as a means of conveying the food to the mouth.

Dining Room, Planters Hotel, St. Louis, Mo. 1897
Dining Room, Planters Hotel, St. Louis, Mo. 1897

Number 28 — Place bones or fruit seed on the edge of your plate or on a plate for that purpose, never on the table cloth.

Number 29 — In case a dish which you do not like is passed to you, decline it but under any circumstances do not explain the reason for your dislike, it may not be agreeable to your neighbors.

Number 30 — Don’t criticize the dishes or the manner of serving them.

Number 31 — Use the butter knife and the sugar tongs, not your knife or your fingers.

Number 32 — Do not eat bread from the whole slice, but break it off bit by bit.

Number 33 — Do not under any circumstances raise your plate to your lips.

Number 34 — Don’t blow your food; if it is too warm, wait until it cools.

Number 35 — If you are asked what part of a certain dish you prefer do not say “It is immaterial,” but name the portion which you desire.

Number 36 — There is, we know, such a thing as being “too nice,” more nice than wise. It is quite possible to be fastidious. Do not do this, it does not look well. However, there are also such things as decency and good order. Common sense will tell you where to draw the line.

Number 37 — Do not leave the house of your hostess as soon as dinner is concluded, but remain at least an hour in the parlor.

Number 38 — Do not drink from your saucer. While avoiding this, do not take notice of a similar error made by another.

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A story is told of an English nobleman who, once upon a time, gave a grand dinner, at which many of the fashionable families of the realm were present.

It happened that a rustic or countryman was present, one who was not well versed in the manners and customs of good society. During the dinner, the countryman poured his coffee into his saucer, much to the amusement of the other guests.

The host, noticing the amusement and its cause, quietly poured his coffee into his saucer and drinking from the saucer in that manner rebuked the ill-mannered guests.

Victorian etiquette for men

Guide to easy entertaining: Table settings (1958)

Number 39 — If the meat or fish upon your plate is too rare or too well done and you do not eat it, give an excuse that you prefer some other dish before you, but never tell your host that his cook has made the dishes uneatable.

Number 40 — If you wish to use your handkerchief, and cannot leave the table, turn your head away and as quickly as possible put the handkerchief in your pocket again.

Number 41 — Do not use your own knife or fork to help either yourself or another. There is always one before the dish at every well-served table, and it is proper to use that.

Number 42 — Try to accustom yourself to using your fork with the left hand when eating, in order to avoid the awkwardness of constantly passing the fork from your left hand to the right and back again when cutting your food and eating it.

Number 43 — It is becoming the rule that persons eat too fast. Take plenty of time, enjoy the meal, and save yourself from becoming the victim of dyspepsia.

Number 44 — Always wipe your mouth before drinking as nothing is more ill bred than to grease your glass with your lips.

Number 45 — Avoid mystery or an air of mystery when speaking to one near you at the table, it is bad taste.

Number 46 — Do not pour coffee, tea or chocolate into the saucer as a means of cooling.

Victorian etiquette 72 simple rules for men while at the dinner table (1890)

Number 47 — Do not blow the coffee to cool it.

Number 48 — After the finger bowls are passed dip your fingers into them gently and wipe them on your napkin.

Number 49 — Do not leave the table until the hostess gives the signal.

Number 50 — On leaving the table, do not fold your napkin unless you are a member of the household and expect to use the same napkin again.

Number 51 — Avoid stretching across another plate in order to reach anything.

Number 52 — Don’t mop your face or your beard with your napkin. Draw it neatly across your lips.

Number 53 — Do not ask the one who sits next to you to pass articles to you unless there is no servant present.

Number 54 — It is quite a common thing to see persons playing with their napkin ring, their goblet, their knife or their fork. Avoid this.

Number 55 — Don’t reject bits of bone or other substances by spitting them back into the plate. Quietly put them on your fork, holding it to your lips, and then place them upon your plate. Fruit stones may be removed by the fingers.

Number 56, — Do not turn your back to one person for the purpose of talking to another; don’t talk across the one seated next you at the table.

Number 57 — Don’t bend over your plate or drop your head to get each mouthful. Keep in an upright position as nearly as possible without being stiff.

Victorian people at a party in the 1880s

Number 58 — In eating soup, do not break your bread into bits and put it in the soup.

Number 59 — When you are cutting your meat do not spread your elbows, keep them close to your side.

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Number 60 — When you drink, do not elevate your glass as if you were going to stand it inverted on your nose; bring the glass perpendicular to the lips and then lift it to a slight angle, doing so gently and easily.

Number 61 — Eat vegetables with a fork as far as possible. The rule is not to eat anything with a spoon that can easily be eaten with a fork.

Number 62 — Do not leave your knife and fork on your plate when you send for a second supply.

Number 63 — Avoid, if possible, the appearance of trying hard not to be vulgar. It is perhaps better to make a few mistakes than to be obviously struggling not to make them.

Number 64 — Perhaps it is unnecessary to advise the ladies not to come to the breakfast table in curl papers, or to advise the gentlemen not to wear their dressing gowns at meals or to sit at the table in their shirt sleeves; the last is very vulgar.

Number 65 — Please don’t decorate your shirt front with egg or coffee drippings, and do not ornament your coat lapels with grease spots. Use care and you can prevent these accidents. It is rather disgusting to see a gentleman bearing upon his apparel an ocular demonstration of having been to breakfast or dinner.

Number 66 — In connection with the last rule, let me protest against the English fashion of omitting napkins at breakfast.

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Number 67 — Do not leave your spoon in your tea or coffee cup; if this is done it quite frequently leads to disaster, viz: the spilling of the contents of the cup.

Number 68 — Don’t forget that the lady next you has the first claim upon your attention.

Number 69 — Endeavor to be perfectly at ease, an embarrassed person may make many stupid blunders at the table.

Number 70 — In case you happen to drop your knife or fork, do not be disconcerted; ask the servant for another. Do not under any circumstances call attention to the blunder of yourself or another but let it pass without notice and without comment.

Number 71 — Don’t rest your elbows on the table, it is no place for them.

Number 72 — Make it a rule not to use a toothpick at the table, suffer a little before doing so. If, however, its use becomes necessary, cover your mouth with your hand while you remove the cause of the trouble.

Victorian etiquette 72 simple rules for men while at the dinner table (1891)

Victorian etiquette for men: In the parlor

Simple suggestions on conduct for gentlemen

Number 1 — Avoid self-consciousness. Be so thoughtful of the comfort and happiness of others that you have no time to think of yourself and your appearance.

Number 2 — In making an introduction, present gentlemen to ladies, young men to elderly men, and young women to elderly women.

Number 3 — Should you be asked to play or sing, do not refuse unless you do not wish to perform. Do not refuse simply for the purpose of being coaxed; it does not appear well.

Number 4 — Do not try to monopolize the conversation or talk in a loud tone.

Number 5 — It is not polite to whisper in company; reserve what you have to say for another occasion.

Number 6 — Avoid talking about yourself or about affairs which interest you only, do not talk about your ill health or your afflictions of any kind.

Number 7 — Don’t interrupt; it shows lack of respect, and is extremely rude.

Number 8 — Difference of opinion is one thing, contradiction is another. While the first is no cause of offense, the second is highly improper.

Number 9 — When you have a story to tell, tell it in a concise manner; do not go into every detail and branch off at every word — be direct, compact, clear, and get to the point as soon as you can.

Number 10 — While observing the above rule do not be so rude as to interrupt another in his story, however long or tiresome it may be.

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Number 11 — Be pleasant and affable; do not respond in monosyllables, this usually puts a damper on the feelings of the one who is talking with you.

Number 12 — Do not be impatient or appear listless or indifferent when others are talking. Make it a point to have the appearance of being interested in the conversation.

Number 13 — Show particular attention to elderly people. Nothing shows a better heart or is a better sign of good breeding than kindly attention to those advanced in years.

Number 14 — When you are in company, do not open a book and begin reading to yourself. This is disrespectful to the company.

Easter promenade by Smedley W 1893

Victorian etiquette for men: Which treats of dress and personal habits

Number 1 — ”Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Be tidy in dress and habits. Make careful note of this rule. Neatness is of great importance.

Number 2 — Don’t wear soiled linen. Never be seen wearing a dirty collar or pair of cuffs.

Number 3 — Be very particular about the little things. Do not neglect your fingernails, keep them well cleaned.

Number 4 — Nothing looks quite as ludicrous as to see the use of hair dye. Its use is easily perceptible, and usually makes a laughing stock of the one who makes use of it.

Number 5 — Formerly it was considered allowable to make use of hair oil and pomades, but at present, it is looked upon as vulgar.

Number 6 — Let your hat rest squarely upon your head; do not wear it on one side nor yet on the back of your head; one is rowdyish, the other countryfied.

Number 7 — Don’t walk with your toes turning in, nor with a slovenly, lazy gait. Do not take too long a stride nor yet too short a stride; walk erectly and firmly and at the same time, in a simple unaffected manner.

Number 8 — Pockets were not made to carry the hands, nor were the arm holes of your vest made as receptacles for your thumbs.

Number 9 — The habit of chewing gum seems to be becoming quite prevalent. This habit cannot be too strongly condemned, and should not be indulged in.

Number 10 — Don’t nurse a toothpick. If it becomes necessary to use one, do it in as private a manner as possible.

Number 11 — You should never blow your nose in the presence of others if you can possibly avoid it; above all things, don’t blow your nose with your fingers.

Number 12 — An eminent man has said: In all the discussions and differences of opinion as to what constitutes a gentleman, all disputants unite in excluding the man who blows his nose with his fingers.

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Number 13 — Avoid wearing a grin on your face and you will avoid looking destitute of wits.

Number 14 — A smiling face is pleasant to see. Cultivate a cheerful contented look. It will do your friends a great deal of good and add much to your own pleasure.

Number 15 — Avoid the habit of letting your lip drop and mouth remain open. “Shut your mouth” is the advice of a learned man who has written on the subject of etiquette. Breath through the nostrils and not through the mouth.

Number 16 — Sleep with your mouth closed. Keep it closed except when you open it for a purpose. An open mouth indicates feebleness of character, while the habit affects the teeth and the general health.

Victorian gentlemen drinking beer in Washington DC 1888

Etiquette topic: Which treats of manners to be observed when in public

Number 1 — Don’t fail to keep to the right of the promenade. This is a rule which is often violated, and such violation occasions a great deal of annoyance.

Number 2 — Avoid jostling people on the street; don’t elbow or push. In case you should happen to stumble against anyone, apologize immediately. Be polite.

Number 3 — Don’t stare at people or laugh at their peculiarities; it is exceedingly rude to do so.

Number 4 — Don’t stop acquaintances and stand in the center of the sidewalk, forcing everyone out of their path. On such occasions draw your acquaintance one side.

Number 5 — Don’t carry cane or umbrella in a crowd horizontally. This is very bad practice and is the cause of many mishaps.

Number 6 — It is very ungentlemanly to stand in a public place and stare at the passersby; do not obstruct the entrances to public places.

Number 7 — If you will smoke, do so in the place where it will be the least offensive. It detracts much from the dignity of a gentleman to see him walking along the street with a cigar in his mouth. Above all, do not smoke while walking with a lady.

Number 8 — Don’t expectorate on the sidewalk. Go to the curbstone and discharge the saliva into the gutter. Men who eject great streams of tobacco juice on the sidewalk or on the floors of public vehicles ought to be driven from civilized society.

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Number 9 — Raise your hat to every lady acquaintance you meet.

Number 10 — If you have occasion to speak with, or perform some service for, a lady with whom you are not acquainted, raise your hat in respect.

Number 11 — You may bow to a lady who is seated at a window if you are in the street, but you must not bow from a window to a lady in the street.

Number 12 — Be gentle, courteous and kind to children. There is no surer token of a low, vulgar mind than unkindness to little ones whom you may meet in the streets.

Number 13 — A true gentleman never stops to consider what may be the position of any woman whom it is in his power to aid in the street.

He will assist an Irish washwoman with her large basket or bundle over a crossing, or carry over the little charges of a distressed negro nurse, with the same gentle courtesy which he would extend toward the lady who was stepping from her private carriage.

The true spirit of chivalry makes courtesy due to the sex not to the position of the individual.

Number 14 — Offer your seat in any public conveyance to a lady who is standing. It is often quite as great a kindness and mark of courtesy to take a child in your lap.

Number 15 — Never join a lady whom you may meet without first asking her permission to do so.

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Number 16 — Don’t be servile to your superiors or arrogant towards inferiors. Maintain your dignity and self-respect in the one case, and exhibit a regard for the feelings of people, whatever their station, in the other case.

Number 17 — Leave tobacco severely alone. It is exceedingly disgusting to see a man continually expectorating a quantity of tobacco juice. No gentleman will be so thoughtless as to expectorate upon the sidewalk or in a public conveyance.

Number 18 — The habit of smoking is not quite as offensive as that of chewing, yet we can but protest against the former. Gentlemen never smoke in the presence of ladies without first obtaining permission.

Number 19 — The habit of cigarette smoking is becoming extremely prevalent. This habit is offensive to a person of refinement.

It is almost, if not quite, impossible for the cigarette smoker to rid himself and his clothes of the nauseating odor produced by the use of cigarettes. The hands become discolored and the breath repellant.

Victorian steamship travel

Number 20 — Extreme propriety should be observed in dress. Be careful to dress according to your means. Too great saving is meanness, too great expense is an extravagance.

Number 21 — A young man may follow the fashion farther than a middle-aged or elderly man, but let him avoid going to the extreme, if he would not be taken for an empty-headed fop.

Number 22 — Don’t bolt without notice into anyone’s private apartment. Respect always the privacy of your friends, however intimate you may be with them.

Number 23 — In connection with the above, let it be said that it is improper to pick up letters, accounts, or anything of a private character that is lying on another’s desk. Avoid looking over another’s shoulder when he is reading or writing.

Number 24 — It is a very common habit for one to twirl a chair or play with some object while listening to another. Do not do this, it is annoying and somewhat disrespectful.

Number 25 — Avoid drumming with your fingers or beating a tattoo with your feet. Don’t hum. Do nothing to annoy or inconvenience another.

Number 26 — Cleanliness and neatness are desirable habits but do not make your toilet in public, that is to say, do not cleanse your ears, or your nose, or trim your fingernails when in the presence of others.

Number 27 — There is a good rule for the dressing room: While you are engaged in dressing, give your whole attention to it; see that every detail is perfect and that each article is neatly arranged.

From the curl of your hair to the tip of your shoe, let all be perfect in its make and arrangement, but as soon as you have left the mirror, forget your dress

Nothing more betokens the coxcomb more decidedly than to see a man always fussing about his dress, pulling down his cuffs, playing with his mustache, pulling up his shirt collar or arranging his cravat.

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. All the manners at the table start with how you enter with the chair and end with how you rise from the chair and unfortunately this one is very controversial. It has historically been practiced by the defense forces personnel to lower in the chair from the left of the chair and rise from the right of the chair. However, Downton Abbey manners stipulate lowering from the right of the chair and again rising from the same side. Some American experts recommend lowering and rising from the right side only.

    If I have to trust someone, then it will be defense force personnel as they do this as a drill and arguably that’s the most correct way of sitting in a chair or leaving the chair for that matter.

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