How to find a bride: An old-fashioned dating guide from the 1850s

Parties and courtship in 1850

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The etiquette of courtship & marriage: Advice from 1850

From the book “Facts for the People, or Things Worth Knowing” (Published in 1850)

No subject in this work is more important, and certainly none will be studied with as much attention, as that of the present section.

Love is the universal passion, courtship is the most interesting avocation of human life, and marriage one of the great ends of existence. As our wives are not purchased as in China, nor stolen as in some parts of Africa, nor in general negotiated for by parents, as in some countries in Europe, but wooed and won by polite attentions, the manner in which a gentleman should behave towards ladies, is a matter of the greatest importance.

Charms, filters, and talismans are used no longer — the only proper talismans are worth and accomplishments.


How to win the favor of ladies

To win the favor of the ladies, dress and manner must never be neglected. Women look more to sense than to beauty, and a man shows his sense, or his want of it, in every action of his life.

When a young man first finds himself in the company of the other sex, he is seldom free from a degree of bashfulness, which makes him more awkward than he would otherwise appear, and he very often errs from real ignorance of what he should say or do. Though a feeling of respect and kindness, and a desire to be obliging and agreeable, will always be recognized and appreciated, there are certain forms very convenient to be understood.

How to address a lady

We address a married lady, or widow, as Madam, or by name, as Missis or Mistress Jones. In answering a question, we contract the Madam to ma’am — as “yes, ma’am, no ma’am, very fine day, ma’am.”

A single lady, of a certain age, may also be addressed as Madam.

A young lady, if the eldest of the family, unmarried, is entitled to the surname, as Miss Smith, while her younger sisters are called Miss Mary , Miss Julia, &c. The term “Miss,” used by itself, is very inelegant.

It is expected, that gentlemen will, upon every proper occasion, offer civilities to ladies of their acquaintance, and especially to those for whom they have a particular attachment.

Fancy dresses from 1854 - Antique clothing

A gentleman meeting a lady at an evening party, is struck with her appearance. Ascertaining that she is not engaged, which he may do from some acquaintance, he makes some opportunity of saying,

“Miss Ellen, will you honor me, by accepting my escort home to-night?” or,

“Miss Ellen, shall I have the pleasure of seeing you home?” or,

“Miss Ellen, make me happy by selecting me for your cavalier;” or,

“Miss Ellen, shall I have the pleasure of protecting you?”

The last of course, as the others, may be half in fun, for these little matters do not require much seriousness.

The lady replies, if engaged,

“Excuse me, Sir, I am already provided for;” or, pleasantly,

“How unfortunate! If you had been five minutes earlier, I might have availed myself of your services ;” or, if disengaged,

“Thank you, sir; I shall be obliged for your attention;” or,

“With pleasure, Sir, if my company will pay you for your trouble;” or, any other pleasant way of saying that she accepts, and is grateful for the attention proffered to her.

The preliminaries settled, which should be as early as possible, his attention should be public. He should assist her in putting on her cloak and shawl, and offer her his arm before leaving the room.

Fashionable women of 1854

Preliminaries of courtship (aka dating)

There is no reason why the passion of love should be wrapped up in mystery. It would prevent much and complicated misery in the world if all young persons understood it truly.

According to the usages of society, it is the custom for the man to propose marriage, and for the female to refuse or accept the offer as she may think fit. There ought to be a perfect freedom of the will in both parties.

When a young man admires a lady, and thinks her society necessary to his happiness, it is proper, before committing himself, or inducing the object of his admiration to do so, to apply to her Parents or Guardians for permission to address her; this is a becoming mark of respect, and the circumstances must be very peculiar, which would justify a deviation from this course.

Everything secret and unacknowledged is to be avoided, as the reputation of a clandestine intercourse is always more or less injurious through life. The romance evaporates, but the memory of indiscretion survives.

Young men frequently amuse themselves by playing with the feelings of young women. They visit them often, they walk with them, they pay them divers attentions, and after giving them an idea that they are attached to them, they either leave them, or, what is worse, never come to an explanation of their sentiments. This is to act the character of a dangler, a character truly dastardly and infamous.

The etiquette of marriage: The engagement, wedding ceremony & after (1850)

A man and woman in a shop back in the 1850s

How to commence a courtship

A gentleman having met a lady at social parties, danced with her at balls, accompanied her to and from church, may desire to become more intimately acquainted. In short, you wish to commence a formal courtship. This is a case for palpitations, but forget not that “faint heart never won fair lady.”

What will you do? Why, taking some good opportunity, you will say,

“Miss Wilson, since I became acquainted with you, I have been every day more pleased with your society, and I hope you will allow me to enjoy more of it. If you are not otherwise engaged, will you permit me to visit you on Sunday evening?”

The lady will blush, no doubt — she may tremble a little, but if your proposition is acceptable to her, she may say:

“I am grateful for your good opinion, and shall be happy to see you.”

Or if her friends have not been consulted, as they usually are before matters proceed so far, she may say:

“I am sensible of your kindness, Sir, but I cannot consent to a private interview, without consulting my family.”

Or she may refuse altogether, and in such a case, should do so with every regard to the feelings of the gentleman, and if engaged, should say frankly:

“I shall be happy to see you at all times as a friend, but I am not at liberty to grant a private interview.”

As, in all these affairs, the lady is the respondent, there is little necessity for any directions in regard to her conduct, as a “Yes” ever so softly whispered, is a sufficient affirmative, and as her kindness of heart will induce her to soften as much as possible her “No.”

To tell a lady who has granted the preliminary favors that you love her better than life, and to ask her to name the happy day, are matters of nerve, rather than form, and require no teaching.

The etiquette of love letters (1850)

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