The New York Rules Of Etiquette 120 Years Ago

The Extremely Formal & Somewhat Strange Greetings and Salutation Rules Of New York City Etiquette In 1899

A gentleman opens a door for a strange lady, holds it open with one hand and lifts his hat
with the other, while she passes through in advance of him. He always offers her the precedence; but he does it silently, and without resting his gaze upon her, as if he would say,
” You are a lady and I am a gentleman. I am polite for both our sakes. You may be young
and charming, or you may be old and ugly; it is all the same to me. I have not looked at you
to discern, but I am certain that you are a lady.” –  Social Etiquette of New York – Abby Buchanan Longstreet (D. Appleton & Co. – 1899)

“Ladies and gentlemen.” We’ve heard those words countless times, but what is it to be a lady or a gentleman? A century ago it applied to people who followed proper etiquette.

A society dinner c.1899

In the 19th and early 20th century etiquette was taken pretty seriously by some Americans. It was a time when etiquette meant proper behavior, civility and deportment. Manners and politeness were taken to heart.  The rigid rules and lessons were adhered to not just by wealthy society, but those who aspired to be true “ladies” and “gentlemen.”

If you were unsure of certain situational  behavior, scores of books were written on etiquette. Some books specifically concentrated on New York City etiquette.

“Everything which refines the habits of a people ennobles it, and hence the importance of
furnishing to the public all possible aids to superior manners.”

The sentiments are those of the doyenne of proper behavior,  Abigail Buchanan Longstreet (1833-1899) who wrote a number of books on good manners during the 19th century.

Longstreet’s book, written anonymously, Social Etiquette of New York, went through many editions and revisions between 1879 -1899, the year of  Longstreet’s death.

Depending on how you look at it,  you will see these rules as antiquated nonsense or quaint and dignified guidelines that are delightful to contemplate.

Today almost all of these forms of etiquette have been completely discarded or heavily modified.

Here are just a few of the rules for greetings and salutations. From the rules of Social Etiquette in  New York:

A gentleman always lifts his hat when offering a service to a lady, whether he is acquainted with her or not. It may be the restoration of her dropped kerchief, or fan, the receiving of her money to pass it to the cash-box of a car, the opening of her umbrella as she descends from a carriage — all the same ; he lifts it before he offers his service, or during the courtesy, if possible. She bows, and, if she choose, she also smiles her acknowledgment ; but she does the latter faintly, and she does not speak. To say ” Thank you ! ” is not an excess of acknowledgment, but it has ceased to be etiquette. A bow may convey more gratitude than speech.

Two ladies may extend hands to each other, and so also may two gentlemen, although hand-shaking is not so common as formerly.

If the difference in age between two ladies or two gentlemen be unmistakably perceptible, the younger is introduced to the elder. If a publicly-admitted superiority exists, age, unless
very advanced, is unconsidered in this formality. The unknown to fame is presented to the famous.

A faint smile and a formal bow are all that the most refined lady accords to the visitor of her family when she passes him in her walks or drives. If a gentleman lifts his hat and stops after she has recognized him, he may beg permission to turn and accompany her for a little way, or even a long distance. Under no circumstances will he stand still in the street to converse with her, or be offended if she excuses herself and passes on. She may be in haste, or otherwise absorbed, and his conversation may be an interruption to her thought, even though she be at other times graciously pleased to entertain him with her social accomplishments. Neither may he ask this favor of her unless he be an admitted friend and visitor of her family.

There may be circumstances when a gentleman may lift his hat to a passing lady, even though he can not bow to her. She may be offended with him, and yet he may respect and feel kindly toward her. He may deserve her disregard, and it is permitted him to express his continued reverence by uncovering his head in her presence ; but he has no right to look at her as she passes him. He must drop his eyes.

He lifts his hat to a lady whom he passes in a hall or corridor, unless the place be a thoroughfare, but he does not rest his glance upon her. This is an expression of respect and
courtesy to the sex.

Near the Plaza 1899.

A gentleman who is walking in the street with a lady touches his hat, and bows to whomever she salutes in passing. This is done in compliment to her acquaintance, who is most likely a stranger to him. If accompanying her across a drawing-room, and she bows to a friend, he inclines his head also ; but he does not speak.

He always raises his hat when he begs a lady’s pardon for an inadvertence, whether he is known to her or not.

In passing a group of mourners at a doorway, where their dead is being carried forth, or a funeral cortege in a quiet street, a gentleman will uncover his head. This is a beautiful
French custom, and it is now so fully incorporated with our own habits that it may well be
styled a part of our street etiquette. It is certainly an appropriate recognition of a sorrow
that some time or other falls to the lot of all of us.

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