The meaning of etiquette, from Old French meaning tag or label, shifted meaning by 1750 to define a list of ceremonial observances of a royal court, and then to mean a code of polite manners. Manners is often used interchangeably with etiquette, though manners refers more often to prevailing, and perhaps not so polite, customs and habits of a given people in a given place. Etiquette, on the other hand, is a formalized system of human behaviors considered polite, more often than not recorded and taught in a variety of ways to ensure civility. Both prescriptive and descriptive, etiquette and manners reveal much of how a given people in a given place and time order themselves and their world. Examining what is considered polite allows us to understand and connect the individual’s sense of self, human relationships, and society itself.
As Americans shifted from being subjects to being citizens, they candidly debated what system would replace traditional social conventions based on rank and deference. On the one (gloved) hand, George Washington (1732-1799) brought to the office of the president the social behaviors expected of Virginia gentry. Prescribed calling hours and weekly levees (at which First Lady Martha Washington [1731-1802] was seated on a raised platform) lent a formality and efficiency to the president’s public duties. Washington chose tablewares and furniture that evinced republican simplicity but still could impress foreign ambassadors and other dignitaries. Still, the Washingtons’ levees were criticized as monarchical and anti-republican, antithetical to the egalitarianism of the new Republic.
On the other (ungloved) hand, when Washington’s Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) became president in 1801, he was lauded for and met with criticism for being too egalitarian. One supporter, during the contentious election of 1800, asked “Ought we to follow the fashions and follies of old corrupt courts? Are we not a young Republic? … It is … to be hoped, that the next President will discontinue ridiculous levees, squaring the heal [sic] and toe and bowing like a country dancing master … aping old worthless sovereigns and courtiers and all … for the sake of etiquette. Mr. Jefferson … will doubtless trample under foot these baubles” (qtd in Davis, 510).
Jefferson trampled. Eschewing his fine French wardrobe for unsophisticated green breeches and gray wool stockings, he walked in republican simplicity to his inauguration. After taking the oath of office and addressing Congress, he walked back to his boardinghouse where, at the common table, he refused to take a better seat nearer the fire as befit his social station. Martha Bayard Smith, who admired Jefferson, admitted that “this was carrying equality too far” (qtd in Davis, 511). Jefferson abandoned the weekly levees the Washingtons and the Adamses had hosted, earning the dismay of many Washington socialites. Dedicated to ridding the nation of any vestige of courtly ritual, in 1803 Jefferson introduced his “Canons of Etiquette” covering diplomatic events, causing consternation and confusion for several foreign dignitaries.
As members of the Virginia gentry, Washington and Jefferson understood how their physical appearance and public deportment symbolized the new nation. Washington, who had never traveled to Europe, represented Continental, aristocratic privilege while Jefferson, an avowed Francophile after his five-year stay in Paris, adopted the rusticity of the “natural aristocrat” as his code of conduct. Like these two models, Americans sought to define themselves and the new social order of their new nation, well understanding that each model, rather than representing equality, was a system that excluded as well as included. Each model, it seems, assumed that there was such a thing as too much democracy.
Industrial Capitalism and Print Culture
Technological innovations in paper making, print type and presses, and bookbinding brought about another revolution, this time of print, in the nation. In the Early Republic, conduct books and etiquette guides, newspapers and novels offered lessons in gentility—refined manners that appeared naturally graceful and elegant.
Between 1820 and 1860, over one hundred etiquette guides were published, each offering increasingly precise advice about cleanliness and dress, public demeanor and deportment, and interactions with others at what had become genteel rituals: dining, conversation, and theater attendance, to name but a few. Moreover, etiquette manuals from 1820 onward contained guidance about social interactions in cities of strangers, reflecting Americans’ increased geographic and economic mobility, particularly in the North and the Midwest. These new rules also reflected the necessary adaptations of the built environment and material culture of industrial capitalism and the emerging, anxious middle class that economy created.
Jefferson’s rustic farmer, be he gentleman or yeoman, became in these years the country bumpkin, the backwards rube who, though honest, displayed bad or comic manners when faced with the novelties of town and city. In a society based on ever-changing status rather than fixed rank, the self-disciplined body became a sign of one’s personal behavior. He ate peas with a knife rather than the newfangled fork. His wife smoked in public. His children yawned and coughed in public. As members of the urban middle class defined and redefined themselves, the farmer could not demonstrate knowledge of every new system of conduct. As well, etiquette authors disparaged other groups: immigrants, servants, and the poor were considered incapable of improvement and thus membership in polite society. Despite etiquette writers’ admonition to readers to follow the Golden Rule, they did not follow it themselves, instead codifying rules that mirrored the increasingly complex interactions of commerce.
These groups created rules of etiquette for themselves. Men and women in smaller country towns constructed patterns of sociability that included aspects of urban civility and retained traditional mutuality to produce what historian Richard Bushman has termed “vernacular gentility.” Like farmers, urban working-class clerks and laborers saw themselves as producers in a society quickly dependent on consumer goods with which to buy (and not earn) their status. And, like the factory girls in the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, clerks in cities had leisure time in which to learn gentility. In this way, etiquette guides were self-help manuals, but helpful too were mercantile libraries and workingmen’s associations. While genteel members of the upper and middle classes of New York City strolled fashionably and genteelly the Broadway in the 1840s and 1850s, working-class “b’hoys” and “g’hals” of the Bowery had their own rules, imitating through exaggerated clothing and swagger the manners of the Broadway “swells.”
Politeness at Home
Like etiquette guides, houses taught behavior. By the 1840s, house plan books, household manuals, and decorating guides prescribed appropriate dwellings properly furnished for proper people. Specialized rooms such as the parlor and the dining room sacralized conversation and meal-taking. Middle- and upper-class women advertised “calling hours” in which they were “at home” to other women visitors of the same of higher social status. The lack of public leisure venues in which women could be included meant that heterosocial activities take place in the home, more often than not as a tea or dining party. These sparkling rituals were always tests: unfashionable dress, indecorous conversation, or use of the wrong spoon could be costly errors in the social competition that was gentility.
The Southern Code of Honor
The outcry after South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks (1819-1857) caned Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner (1811-1874) on the floor of the United States Senate in 1854 tells us much about growing regional differences in acceptable social behavior. Northerners condemned the violent act; South Carolinians sent canes to Brooks to replace the one he had broken in the attack. Warranted violence had its place in a society based on a code of honor.
Colonial planters in the region known as the “Old South” (Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia) developed a system of etiquette based on the English country gentleman. This code of honor required Southern man of landed wealth and standing to create and maintain an unsullied reputation for honesty and moral strength. He was master of himself and of those within his household (family and slaves). He was also courageous, willing to risk or inflict physical harm to defend any real or imagined insult to his reputation or in reaction to any threats to his household.
Especially after 1830, the wave of romanticism sweeping the nation heralded the Southern gentleman as a chivalric knight, well-trained in manners, and the Southern lady as coy and demure and to be protected. Brooks was protecting family honor; Sumner had attacked in an anti-slavery speech a member of Brooks’s family. When provoked the knight upheld his and his family’s honor, sometimes through the ritualized battle known as the code duello. Yet duels were fought between equals, and Brooks thought Sumner beneath his station. A public beating was in order.
Southern etiquette was based on this chivalric code, the performance of which was more theatrical than in the North. Formality was the rule in public gatherings; courtesy was expected at all times. Yet, as Charles Reagan Wilson has observed, Southern manners could simultaneously mask and institutionalize social and class inequities. For poor whites, the kindness and charity shown by the rich planter glossed differences in wealth and education and bound them together. For enslaved and free African Americans, derived from Africa and based in respect for elders, etiquette was “the ultimate weapon” (Wilson, 104) with which to frustrate Southern whites’ racism. It was also a way to survive.
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