Today I’m excerpting from The Gentleman and Lady’s Book of Politeness and Propriety of Deportment: Dedicated to the Youth of Both Sexes by Elizabeth Celnart and translated from the Paris edition in 1833. The beautiful illustrations are from an 1836 issue of the famous French journal Le Bon Ton, which, oddly enough, can be found appended to Blackwood’s Lady’s Magazine and Gazette of the Fashionable World, Or, St. James’s Court-register of Belles Lettres, Fine Arts, Music, Drama, Fashions, &c on Google books. Enjoy!
I was going to say, let us begin with private balls; but I recollect that this denomination is no longer fashionable. We do not say, a ball at Madam such a one’s, but an evening party (soirée). Nevertheless, when we wish to give a dance, we give the invitations a week beforehand, that the ladies may have time to prepare articles for their toilet.
If it is to be a simple evening party, in which we may wear a summer walking dress, the mistress of the house gives verbal invitations and does not omit to apprise her friends of this circumstance, or they might appear in unsuitable dresses. If, on the contrary, the soirée is to be in reality a ball, the invitations are written, or what is better, printed, and expressed in the third person.
A room appropriated for dresses, and furnished with cloak pins to hang up the shawls and other garments of the ladies, is almost indispensable. Domestics should be there also to aid them in taking off and putting on their outside garments.
We are not obliged to go exactly at the appointed hour; it is even fashionable to go an hour later. Married ladies are accompanied by their husbands, unmarried ones, by their mother or by a chaperon. These last ladies place themselves behind the dancers; the master of the house goes before one and another, procures seats for them, and then mingles again among the gentlemen who are standing, and who form groups or walk about the room.
The toilet of all the assembly should be made with great care. A gentleman who should appear in a riding-coat and boots, would pass for a person of bad ton.
When you are sure of a place in the dance, you go up to a lady, and ask her if she will do you the honor to dance with you. If she answers that she is engaged, invite her for the next dance, and take care not to address yourself afterwards to any ladies next to her, for these not being able to refuse you, would feel hurt at being invited after another. Never wait until the signal is given to take a partner, for nothing is more impolite than to invite a lady hastily, and when the dancers are already in their places; it can be allowed only when the set is incomplete.
A lady cannot refuse the invitation of a gentleman to dance, unless she has already accepted that of another, for she would be guilty of an incivility which might occasion trouble; she would besides seem to show contempt for him whom she refused, and would expose herself to receive an ill compliment from him.
Married or young ladies cannot leave a ball-room or any other party alone. The former should be accompanied by one or two other married ladies, and the latter by their mother, or by a lady to represent her.
We should avoid talking too much; it would occasion remarks and have a bad appearance to whisper continually in the ear of our partner.
The master of the house should see that all the ladies dance; he should take notice of those who seem to serve as drapery to the walls of the ball-room, or wall-flowers, as the familiar expression is, and should see that they are invited to dance. He must do this wholly unperceived, in order not to wound the self-esteem of the unfortunate ladies.
Gentlemen whom the master of the house requests to dance with these ladies, should be ready to accede to his wish, and even appear pleased at dancing with a person thus recommended to their notice.
Ladies who dance much, ought to be very careful not to boast before those who dance but little or not at all, of the great number of dances for which they are engaged in advance. They should also, without being perceived, recommend to these less fortunate ladies, gentlemen of their acquaintance.
In giving the hand for ladies’ chain or any figures, those dancing should wear a smile, and accompany it with a polite inclination of the head, in the manner of a salutation. At the end of the dance, the gentleman re-conducts the lady to her place, bows and thanks her for the honor which she has conferred. She also curtsies in silence, smiling with a gracious air.
In these assemblies, we ought to conduct ourselves with reserve and politeness towards all present, although they may be unknown to us.
Persons who have no ear for music, that is to say, a false one, ought to refrain from dancing.
Never hazard taking part in a quadrille unless you know how to dance tolerably. If you are a novice or but little skilled, you would bring disorder into the midst of pleasure. Being once engaged to take part in the dance, if the figures are not familiar, be careful not to advance first. You can in this way govern your steps by those who go before you. Beware also of taking your place in a set of dancers more skillful than yourself.
When an unpractised dancer makes a mistake, we may apprise him of his error; but it would be very impolite to have the air of giving him a lesson.
Dance with grace and modesty; neither affect to make a parade of your knowledge; refrain from great leaps and ridiculous jumps which would attract the attention of all towards you.
In a private ball or party, it is proper to show still more reserve, and not to manifest more preference for one lady than another; we should dance with all indiscriminately, but we may, moreover, invite the same lady more than once.
In public balls, a gentleman offers his partner refreshments, which she very seldom accepts, unless she is much acquainted with him. But in private parties, the persons who receive the company, send round cake and other refreshments, of which each one helps himself as he pleases. Near the end of the evening, in a well regulated ball, it is customary to have a supper, when the gentlemen stand behind the ladies who are seated.
In a soirée without great preparation, we may dispense with a supper, but refreshments are necessary; and not to have them would be the greatest impoliteness.
The waltz is a dance of quite too loose a character, and unmarried ladies should refrain from it in public and private; very young married ladies, however, may be allowed to waltz in private balls, if it is very seldom, and with persons of their acquaintance. It is indispensable for them to acquit themselves with dignity and decency.
I have spoken of public balls, in contradistinction to private ones, and I might also have mentioned balls by subscription, for, in regard to the public balls of Paris and other large cities, we have nothing to advise our readers but to shun them. As to masked balls, it is an amusement altogether to be condemned, except those of the Opera. Neither should we appear there except in a domino.
We should retire incognito, not to disturb the master and mistress of the house; we should make them during the week, a visit of thanks, at which we may converse of the pleasure of the ball and of the good selection of the company.
Of different Kinds of Visits
Visits are a very important part of the social relations; they are not merely the simple means of communication established by necessity, since they have at once for their object, duty and pleasure, and they enter into almost all the acts of life.
There are many kinds of visits, but we shall confine ourselves to the principal ones; as for those which only occur under peculiar circumstances, the reader will find them mentioned in the course of this work. The first are the visits on new year’s day; next, visits of friendship and of ceremony: we shall not speak of visits of business; what we have said in speaking of propriety in relation to different professions, will dispense with our entering into new details.
At the return of each new year, custom and duty require us to present ourselves to our relations first; afterwards to our patrons, our friends, and those who have done any kindness for us.
These visits are divided into several classes; those of the evening or afternoon, which are the most polite; of the morning, which are the most friendly and respectful; by cards, and presenting one’s-self, and by cards without presenting one’s-self; visits weekly, which are confined to acquaintances with whom we have not very close relations; monthly, which are less ceremonious, but however partake of coldness: it is at Paris more than any other place, that these visits are permitted; such calls demand much attention to the toilet; they should be as short as possible; a visit of quarter of an hour is long enough, and we should be careful to retire when other persons come in.
We should appear ridiculous to wish persons a happy new year, in ceremonious visits.
I shall not mention friendly calls, except to remind my readers, that almost all ceremony should be dispensed with. They are made at all hours, without preparation, without dressing; a too brilliant attire would be out of place, and if the engagements of the day carry you in such a costume at the house of a friend, you ought obligingly to make an explanation. Should you not find them at home, do not leave a card; such useless ceremony would astonish your friends. Merely remind the domestics to mention your calling, and do not leave your card, except the servants are absent; then the card should be rolled up, and put in the key-hole. It will be well to call again soon.
With a friend, or relation whom we treat as such, we do not keep an account of our visits. The one who has most leisure, calls upon him who has the least; but this privilege ought not to be abused: it is necessary to make our visits of friendship at suitable times.
On the contrary, a visit of ceremony should never be made without keeping an account of it, and we should even remember the intervals at which they are returned; for it is indispensably necessary to let a similar interval elapse. People in this way give you notice whether they wish to see you often or seldom. There are some persons whom one goes to see once in a month, others once a fortnight, &c.; others, however, less frequently. In order not to omit visits, which are to be made, or to avoid making them from misinformation, when a preceding one has not been returned, persons who have an extensive acquaintance, will do well to keep a little memorandum for this purpose.
We cannot make ceremonious visits in a becoming manner, if we have any slight indisposition which may for the time affect our appearance, our voice—which may embarrass our thoughts, and render our company fatiguing; such for instance as a swelled face, a cold, a slight headache; in that case it would appear impolite and familiar. On the 62contrary, make visits of friendship under such circumstances, and then you will appear more amiable and zealous.
To take a suitable time, is as indispensable in visiting, as in any thing else.
One can attain this, by remembering the habits of the person he is going to see; by making your arrangements so as not to call at the time of taking meals, in moments of occupation, and when our friends are walking. This time necessarily varies; but as a general rule we must take care not to make ceremonious visits, either before the middle of the day, or after five o’clock. To do otherwise would, on the one hand, look like importunity, by presenting one’s-self too early; and on the other, might interfere with arrangements that had been made for the evening.
After making one’s toilet with care, visitors should furnish themselves with cards, that is with small pieces of card or pasteboard, upon which their name is printed or well written. Gentlemen ought simply to put their cards in their pocket, but ladies may carry them in a small elegant portfolio, called a card case. This they can hold in their hand, and it will contribute essentially (with an elegant handkerchief of embroidered battise,) to give them an air of good taste.
We shall here make a digression in relation to cards. It was not considered impolite, formerly, to take the cards of a cast off pack, cut them crosswise into three parts, and write one’s name upon them; this, however, is now a subject of ridicule, and is only seen in provincial towns, where they sometimes also substitute for these cards small pieces of thick paper. Next to these cards come those made of thin pasteboard, smooth, gilt-edged, watered, and intended to have the name in writing. These are suitable for young gentlemen and young ladies; and they answer for half ceremonious visits. After these, come lithographic cards, then printed ones, and last those which are engraved. Some cards are figured in a rich manner, presenting every degree of expensive elegance. Every one will choose these according to his taste; but it is well to observe that cards ornamented with borders, and those of the color of the rose, and sky blue, are not suitable for men, nor for ladies of mature years, because they have an air of over-nicety.
The title is usually placed under the name, and, in large cities, the address, at the bottom of the card and in smaller letters. Mourning cards are surmounted with a black margin, half mourning ones are of a bright gray.
It is bad ton to keep the cards you have received around the frame of a looking glass; such an exposure shows that you wish to make a display of the names of distinguished visitors. At the beginning of a new year, or when from some cause or other which multiplies visitors at your house, (such as a funeral or a marriage,) you are obliged to return these numerous calls, it is not amiss to preserve the cards in a convenient place, and save yourself the trouble of writing a list; but if, during the year, your glass is always seen bristling with smoke-dried cards, it will be attributed without doubt, to an ill-regulated self-esteem. But let us return to our visitors.
If the call is made in a carriage, the servant will ask if the lady you wish to see is at home. If persons call in a hired carriage, or on foot, they go themselves to ask the servants. Servants are considered as soldiers on duty; if they reply that the person has gone out, we should by no means urge the point, even if we were certain it was not the case; and if by chance we should see the person, we should appear not to have noticed it, but leave our card and retire. When the servant informs us that the lady or gentleman is unwell, engaged in business, or dining, we must act in a similar manner.
We should leave as many cards as there are persons we wish to see in the house; for example, one for the husband, another for his wife, another for the aunt, &c. When admitted, we should lay aside our over-shoes, umbrella, cloak, &c. in the ante-chamber, even ladies should lay aside their cloaks in the houses of distinguished persons. In the provincial towns they commonly keep them on. We then are announced by the servant, if it is the custom of the house, or at least we wait until (without announcing us,) he opens the door of the apartment.
In case of the absence of the servants, you ought not to enter immediately, but knock gently with the finger, and wait until some one opens the door or bids you come in. If he does neither, you open the door slowly and softly: should you find no one, do not go about and open other doors, or pass into an inner room, but retrace your steps immediately, return to the ante-room, and remain until some one comes to give you an introduction. If you are obliged to stay very long, you can leave your card on a piece of furniture or with the porter. This is a case of rare occurrence; but it is well to provide for it, in order not to be taken unawares. When admitted, a gentleman presents himself with his hat in his hand, and advancing towards the lady, salutes her gracefully and respectfully. As soon as he observes the lady is looking for a seat to offer him, he must lose no time in providing one for himself (commonly a chair) this he places towards the door by which he entered, and at some distance from the lady, to whom he should leave the upper part of the room. He ought by no means to sit, except she is seated; and holding his hat upon his knee must not balance himself or sink down in his chair, but preserve an easy, polite and becoming attitude. It would be familiar and bad ton to put down the hat or cane, before the gentleman, and particularly the lady of the house, has invited you to do it. Even then it is proper to refuse, and not to do it until asked two or three times. In putting down the hat, we should not do it carelessly, nor ought we to place it on a couch, for this is impolite. The couch, which in ancient times was regarded as a sanctuary, ought neither to be touched nor approached by a man. It is best to put the hat on a bracket or chandelier stand, &c. The lady of a house does not attempt to take the hats of gentlemen, except she wishes to treat them with familiarity, and this is seldom done in calls of pure ceremony.
These remarks will apply also to ladies. Within fifteen years past it has be
en their custom to lay aside their hats and shawls; but that supposes an intimacy, which would authorize their abstaining from it at the houses of those with whom they are not much acquainted; and, if they are invited to lay them aside, 67they should refuse. The short time devoted to a ceremonious visit, the necessity of consulting a glass in replacing the head-dress, and of being assisted in putting on the shawl, prevent ladies from accepting the invitation to lay them aside. If they are slightly familiar with the person they are visiting, and wish to be more at ease, they should ask permission, which we should grant them, at the same time rising to assist them in taking off their hat and shawl. An arm-chair, or a piece of furniture at a distant part of the room should receive these articles; they should not be placed upon the couch, without the mistress of the house puts them there. At the house of a person we visit habitually, we can lay them aside without saying a word, and a lady can even adjust her hair and handkerchief, (ficher) before the glass, provided she occupies only a few moments in doing it.
If the person you call upon is preparing to go out, or to sit down at table, you ought, although he asks you to remain, to retire as soon as possible. The person visited so unseasonably, should, on her part, be careful to conceal her knowledge that the other wishes the visit ended quickly. We should always appear delighted to receive a visitor, and should he make a short visit, we must express to him our regret. Ceremonious visits should be short; if the conversation ceases without being again continued by the person you have come to see, if she gets up from her seat under any pretext whatever, custom requires you to make your salutation and withdraw.
If, before this tacit invitation to retire, other visiters are announced, you should adroitly leave them without saying anything. In case the master of the house, in waiting upon you to the door, should ask you to remain longer, you should briefly reply to him, that an indispensable engagement calls you, and you must entreat him with earnestness not to detain you. You should terminate your visit by briskly shutting the door.
If, on entering the room, you find strangers engaged in conversation, content yourself with the few words which the master or mistress of the house shall address to you; stop only a few moments, make a general salutation, and conduct yourself as in the preceding case. When you have happened to meet the strangers elsewhere, they may unite sometimes with the person you are visiting, to prevent your taking leave; reply in a polite and flattering manner, but still persist in retiring. If while you are present, a letter is brought to the person you are visiting, and she should lay it down without opening it, you must entreat her to read it; she will not do it, and this circumstance will warn you to shorten your visit.
When you make a half ceremonious call, and the person you are visiting, insists upon your stopping, it is proper to do so, but after a few minutes you should rise to go: if you are urged still further, and are taken by the hands and made to sit down as it were by force, to leave immediately would be impolite, but nevertheless you must, after a short interval, get up a third time, and then certainly retire. If, during your call, a member of the family enters the room, you need not on this account take leave, but content yourself by rising, and saluting the person. If a lady, you must not seat yourself until she sits down; if a gentleman, you can yield to the invitation made you to take your seat, while the other remains standing. If you make a visit with others, there are some points to be observed in relation to your companions. In going up the staircase, it is rigorously the custom to give precedence to those to whom you owe respect, and to yield to such persons the most convenient part of the stairs, which is that next the wall. Above all, do not forget this last caution if you accompany a lady; and a well-bred gentleman, at such a time, should offer his arm. When there are many persons, he should bestow this mark of respect on the oldest. If you meet any one on the staircase, place yourself on the side opposite to the one he occupies. It would be vexatious and out of place to make an everlasting ceremony as to who should be announced first; the preference must be given to ladies; next to them, to age and rank. The time of taking leave should be also determined by ladies, or by aged persons, and those who are of consequence. It would be impolite to wish to retire before they gave the signal. We should add, that it is unsuitable for more than three or four to visit together. Persons of high ton are accompanied even to the ante-room by one or two servants, who receive them again when going out.
To carry children or dogs with one on a visit of ceremony, is altogether vulgar and provincial. Even in half-ceremonious visits, it is necessary to leave one’s dog in the ante-room, as well as the nurse who holds the infant, for this circumstance alone excuses such a suite. As to animals, it is a thousand times better not to have them at all.
We justly reproach inhabitants of the province for lavishing salutations in meeting people, or in taking leave of them. This custom, which may make us contract a reservedness or too much familiarity, is extremely ridiculous. Is it not difficult to keep one’s countenance, when we see a visitor salute every article of furniture, to turn and turn again twenty times as you conduct him, and pour forth at every pause a volley of salutations and adieus? Our readers will beware of this over politeness; they will salute the first time, at the moment they take leave, and again, when the person who conducts them back shall have stopped at the door. We have before said that when we do not find persons at home, or when we are afraid of disturbing them, we leave a card; but this is not what we call particularly visits by card (visites par cartes). In these last visits, it is not our object to see the persons, since we do not ask for them, and we confine ourselves to giving our card to the porter or domestic. This custom, which has been introduced necessarily among persons of very general acquaintance, and especially at times when every one ought to be visited, as on the new-year’s day,—this custom so far is not ridiculous, but it becomes so by the great extent which has been given to it for some time past. This extent consists in making a visit without leaving our apartment; that is to say, merely by sending our card by a domestic, or indeed by means of an agency established for this purpose. The practice of visits by cards, seems to persons of good society the most impertinent and vulgar thing which can be imagined. Do not then permit it, except when the question is about returning visits made in this way; and do not use such retaliations, except to prevent these ill-advised visitors from thinking that you put yourself out to oblige them.