May I Introduce You? The Etiquette of Introductions in 1885

Dear Gentle Reader,

What is your position in society? Is it higher or lower than mine? And what of your reputation? This is very important to know because  I might not want to be introduced to you. After all, Lady Constance Howard, author of Etiquette: What To Do, and How To Do It, is emphatic that I, being a female, should be careful with my introductions. She writes, “Those who are talked of in society, who are fast and immoral, should be carefully avoided, not from pride, but from a feeling that a woman’s good name is her greatest treasure, her crown of womanhood, and if she is known to associate with ‘any and all members of her own sex,’ her good name becomes tarnished, her fair fame is called in question, and irreparable mischief ensues.” Therefore, if you feel you are immoral or fast, perhaps we should avoid each other. Should we happen to be introduced by a host “without tact and knowledge of the world” we should follow Lady Constance Howard’s great advice and bow civilly for the sake of the host and then cut each other the very next time we meet.

I know, I know, perhaps you’re not a woman but a privileged nineteenth-century guy. All these rigid, girly rules don’t apply to you. You’re free to introduce yourself to whomever you please. After all, “gentlemen, as a rule, are always ready to make new friends and acquaintances; like butterflies, they like to flit from flower to flower among the pretty faces usually present at all social gatherings…” Well, Lady Constance Howard has some words of wisdom for you: “it is of no consequence to a gentleman in what society he makes his friends and acquaintances, although it is always a mistake for people to go out of their own set, and when gentlemen do, it is a decided mistake, often leading to life-long misery.”

Now that we know the importance of proper introductions, let us take proper heed of Lady Constance Howard’s wise counsel, as well as enjoy the art of Italian Impressionist Giuseppe De Nittis.

 

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Now we will proceed to the correct etiquette for ‘ introductions,’ which word signifies the act of’ presenting’ or ‘introducing’ people to each other, who are previously strangers to one another.

There are all sorts of introductions, premeditated and unpremeditated, ceremonious and informal. On no account should they ever be indiscriminately made; and the amount of tact and knowledge of the world and discretion required, among those who make the introductions, must necessarily be very considerable.

In making introductions, a previous knowledge should be obtained by those making them, as to whether those persons whom they propose to present to each other would be desirous of, or appreciative of, their good offices; or the reverse might be the case if they had expressed no such wish.

It would be a breach of etiquette, and extremely embarrassing, if, without first finding out their mutual wishes on the subject, a lady residing in the country, or in a cathedral town, or watering place, were to present two ladies to each other with whom she was acquainted, residing in the same town, but in different social positions, and consequently moving in opposite circles to each other, unless they had expressed a decided desire for such an introduction.

Without this express wish on the part of the ladies, the result of the presentation would be, a contemptuous disregard on the part of the lady to whom it was most disagreeable, and a prompt decision on her part to discontinue the acquaintance that offended her so much.

Therefore, indiscriminate introductions should never be made.

DeNittis19

If there is the smallest doubt as to the desirability of such an introduction, or how it would be received, it should never be indulged in; the awkwardness that must ensue would be indescribably painful to the lady making the introduction, and those introduced.

The correct etiquette is to consult the wishes of both persons before introducing them to each other, whether one person has expressed a wish for an introduction to another person, and has spoken of their desire to a mutual friend, or whether a hostess has an unpremeditated wish that two of her own friends should suddenly become acquainted through her good offices.

This only applies to persons of equal rank; it would be sufficient to ascertain the wishes of the lady of highest rank, where there is an inequality of social position. When their social standing is the same, the person about to make the introduction would ascertain the feeling of the person with whom she was on the most formal terms, for or against the presentation being made. In the same way, if A. expressed a desire to know B., there would only be B.’s pleasure to ascertain on the subject.

The proper form of introduction, according to the degree of intimacy existing between most people in society, would be for the person about to make the introduction, to say pleasantly,—

‘Mrs D., may I introduce Mrs L. to you?’ (being specially careful that Mrs L. did not hear her speech).

An answer having been received, we will say in the affirmative, the introduction would follow, remembering that it is always the lady of lowest rank who is introduced to the lady of highest standing, never is the lady of highest rank introduced to the lady of lowest; this is a very particular point of etiquette, and it must always be very carefully recollected and enforced, as the contrary presentation would be a grave solecism against all the rules of good society, and the remembrance of the strict observances of etiquette which all in a good social position are expected to render each other.

Thus, a hostess would say,—’ Mrs R.—the Duchess of B.,’ thereby speaking the name of the lady first who is lowest in rank, as she is the lady introduced to the lady of superior social position.

This is all that is necessary; it would be in bad taste to repeat the names reversed,—’ The Duchess of B.—Mrs R. Mrs R.—The Duchess of B.”

Once naming the names of those who are to be introduced to each other, is all that etiquette requires; more than this would be a breach of it, and, therefore, not to be indulged in.

Nittis_-_signora_napoletanaWhen the presentation is between two ladies— one married, the other unmarried—the unmarried lady should be introduced to the married lady, except when the married lady was of lower rank than the unmarried one, in which case the contrary would be the correct case.

When the presentation has been made, thus,— ‘Mrs R.—the Duchess of B.,’ the two ladies so introduced bow to each other, and make some little pleasant, civil speech, such as,—’Very happy to make your acquaintance,’ or, ‘I wanted so much to know you, I have heard so much of you,’ etc.

A bow is sufficient in most cases on being introduced to a stranger. Ladies do not generally shake hands at first, although it is quite etiquette for them to do so if either or both are willing.

If the lady of highest rank offers to shake hands with one in not so high a social position, it would show that she wished to be friendly, and would be very complimentary to the other lady. People who are ladies would always do so, particularly if the lady to be introduced to them seemed at all shy, as such a proceeding and mark of pleasure at making her acquaintance, and sign of friendship, would at once set the other lady at her case, and make everything much pleasanter for all concerned.

Any lady or gentleman introducing two strangers to each other, if they were already intimate friends of his or hers, would expect them to shake hands cordially, not give a stiff”, formal bow, and it would be perfectly consistent with etiquette (indeed a clear proof that they knew what society demanded of them) that they should do so.

It is a recognised privilege of ladies to be the first, indeed to take the initiative on being introduced, as far as shaking hands is concerned.

The lady of the house would, as a matter of course, shake hands with everyone introduced to her in her own house, whether the person introduced came with a mutual friend or by invitation, though previously unknown to the hostess, as certain people are always asked everywhere; they are on the list of every lady in society, and for them not to be present at any social gathering, would at once show that the hostess was not in the best society, the highest social position; their absence would be a fact at once known and reflected upon.

In the case where a visit is not made to the lady of the house, but to some friend or guest staying with her, it would not be necessary for her to shake hands with the visitor, unless she wished to do so, or had some special reason for wishing the visit so made to be the beginning of a friendly acquaintance with herself, and consequently the future entree to her house and parties; but in every case where the visit is made to the hostess, she would shake hands with her guest.

Where it is a question of engaged couples, the fact of persons being introduced to each other who are relations or intimate friends of the ‘fiancies’ would warrant their shaking hands on the introduction taking place; again, the relations on either side would shake hands when presented to each other, and the relations of the affianced on being introduced would shake hands with both bride and bridegroom elect.

When it is a question of ‘garden-parties,’ ‘five-o’clock teas,’ small ‘ At Homes, ‘ ‘afternoon concerts,’ etc., gentlemen would be introduced to ladies by the hostess, at least the principal guests would be so introduced, for the purpose of the gentlemen escorting the ladies to tea or supper, in the event of no other gentleman being present at the moment with whom they were already acquainted.

When any friends of their own were present, the ladies would naturally not be dependent upon the kind offices of the hostess in presenting gentlemen to them for the express purpose of showing them this imperative courtesy and mark of civility.

DeNittis16In cases where no gentlemen of their acquaintance are present, the hostess would introduce a gentleman to a lady without previously consulting her, as the fact of none of her friends being present would warrant such an introduction, and the gentleman, knowing why he was presented to any particular lady, would immediately ask the lady’s leave to take her to tea or supper.

A hostess at such assemblages would be entirely guided by her own tact and knowledge of the world in making general introductions, and where she thought an introduction to a gentlemen would be agreeable to any lady, she would proceed forthwith to introduce him to her, without in any way previously consulting her as to her wishes on the point.

The hostess would be specially careful in the matter of such introductions; young unmarried girls she would, if she thought it advisable, introduce to each other; it would only be when an introduction between two married ladies, or a married lady and an unmarried girl, or ladies of high social standing and rank, or great celebrities, that she would give them the option of an introduction, where she desired to make one between any two of her guests or friends.

The same at dinner parties; both ceremonious and informal ones.

General introductions are not necessary at dinner parties, although naturally, if previously unacquainted, a hostess would introduce to a lady the gentleman who was to take her down to dinner.

Such an introduction would be made during the quarter of an hour when guests are assembling before dinner is announced, and it would not be at all necessary for a hostess to ask the lady’s permission for such a presentation, as the fact of the gentleman being her escort to dinner, would be all sufficient to warrant the introduction being made, without any previous knowledge on the lady’s part of her hostess’s intentions with regard to her.

Of course the hostess would be certain beforehand that the gentleman so introduced was not in any way objectionable to the lady, and that, on the gentleman’s side, there was no disinclination to such an introduction to be feared.

Sometimes ladies are introduced to each other by the hostess when they have returned to the drawing-room after dinner, if she wished to do so, or had the chance of making such introductions in the twenty minutes or half-hour which elapses before the gentlemen leave the dining-room ; but nothing of the kind is necessary as far as the gentlemen are concerned, for whether they are previously acquainted or not, they would naturally fraternise after dinner over their wine and mutually interesting subjects of conversation; so that the host would make no introduction between his guests who were strangers to each other, the fact of their being present at his table being sufficient to warrant their addressing some pleasant remarks, and entering into conversation with each other, without committing any breach of etiquette.

When most of the guests at a dinner party are strangers to one another, etiquette permits the host and hostess to introduce the chief guests to each other, should they deem it well to do so; but in London it is seldom necessary to do this. There, most of the guests who meet have, at any rate, some slight acquaintance, which allows of their speaking to each other if they find themselves sitting or standing next to each other at a dinner party, or before dinner is announced ; in the country, such introductions are much more general and necessary, as there in all probability many of the guests have never even heard of each other’s existence, until they meet in the house of some mutual friend.

In ‘large parties,’ whether dinner or evening parties, nothing is so easy as for people who for some reason do not wish to speak to one another, or to be introduced to each other, to avoid such an introduction, or such a meeting. There is no solitude like that of a crowd, no place where it is so easy to have those whose acquaintance is pleasant to you, and to absolutely ignore the very existence of those who offend or are distasteful to you.

People may pass hours in the house of a mutual acquaintance, and never show by word or deed that they are conscious of each other’s presence.

In the case of a host or hostess without tact and knowledge of the world, such avoidance might be difficult ; he or she, all unknowingly, might present the two who wished to be strangers, to each other, in which case, good manners and etiquette would require that the two people so introduced should acknowledge the introduction by a slight bow, and take the earliest opportunity of engaging someone else in conversation, besides telling the host or hostess their reasons for so doing.

The bow thus exchanged would be simply given to avoid putting the host or hostess in a very awkward position, through their ignorance of their guests’ dislike to each other; and this civility to each other on the part of those so introduced, would only be meant as a courtesy to the host or hostess, and a dislike to be rude to them under their own roof on the part of their guests; also the two introduced would be at liberty to cut each other the very next time they met, both understanding perfectly why they had exchanged bows.

One rule is fixed as the law of ‘the Medes and Persians, which altereth not,’ namely, that ‘place aux dames’ is the order of the day with regard to introductions, and that absolutely regardless of the rank of a gentleman or that of a lady; whatever that may be, the gentleman is always introduced to the lady, never the lady to the gentleman.

Thus, ‘Lord A.—Mrs B.,’ not ‘Mrs B — Lord A.’

That would be a breach of etiquette too great for words to express.

Nittis_-_Intorno_al_paralumeWith regard to introducing gentlemen to each other, it is not as a rule necessary to do so. If they wish to make each other’s acquaintance, supposing some very particular reason exists why they should do so, or there is some powerful reason which would commend itself to the person making the presentation, or else to the person whose acquaintance was desired, the gentlemen may ask their host or hostess for such an introduction, without risk of their wish being refused, or their acquaintance declined ; but when no such reason exists, the gentlemen, as a rule, are content to talk to the gentlemen they already know, without seeking to extend the circle of their friends and acquaintances.

This only applies to general society; of course, where it is the question of an introduction to some celebrated man, where it is possible to obtain such an introduction, all gentlemen would naturally seek it, and consider themselves honoured by the introduction.

With regard to their introduction to ladies, gentlemen, as a rule, are always ready to make new friends and acquaintances; like butterflies, they like to flit from flower to flower among the pretty faces usually present at all social gatherings; they seldom if ever avoid, but always seek, the acquaintance of ladies, no matter in what society they may meet them; gentlemen are supposed to be chivalrous and gallant enough, even in the nineteenth century, to still wish for ladies’ society.

Of course a gentleman can be, and ought to be, polite to all his acquaintances in every circle, and if he has tact, he can be civil and courteous to all ladies, without offending the prejudices of those in a higher or lower social position ; it is of no consequence to a gentleman in what society he makes his friends and acquaintances, although it is always a mistake for people to go out of their own set, and when gentlemen do, it is a decided mistake, often leading to life-long misery.

When it is a question of one of his own sex, a gentleman is usually just as exclusive in the matter of whom he does or does not know, as a lady would be in choosing her friends, and in the matter of allowing strangers to be presented to her.

Mutual tastes, mutual sympathy, mutual friends form, as a rule, the groundwork of friendship and acquaintances between gentlemen ; of course there are exceptions to this, as to all other rules, no hard and fast line can be set down,’circumstances alter cases.’

When a gentleman is spoken of as ‘ Do you know M.? he is such a good fellow, one of the most charming men I know,’ and when all concur in a unanimous verdict as to his popularity, then you may be sure that all men will wish to make his acquaintance, likewise all the ladies; and when the fiat as to his excellence is pronounced by gentlemen, then people may be quite safe, as a man well spoken of by his fellow-men, is always one whose friendship and acquaintance is an honour and a pleasure; men have innumerable chances of judging other men’s characters, which ladies cannot possibly have, therefore a man’s opinion is the one to be guided by always.

A mutual acquaintance or friend may be asked by a gentleman for an introduction to a lady; it is quite in accordance with etiquette that he should do so; and when a gentleman wishes to make the acquaintance of any particular lady, it is the accepted rule that he should do so always.

As far as ball-room introductions are concerned, it is decidedly best to consult a gentleman, previously to introducing him to any lady, as to whether he wishes to be introduced to a lady or not. The hostess would say, ‘Would you like to be introduced to Miss C.?’ or some other civil speech which would have the effect of ascertaining the gentleman’s wishes on that point.

The reason for this is obvious, namely, at a ball a gentleman is usually introduced to a lady for the express purpose of requesting her to give him the pleasure of a dance, or take her to supper: a ball-room introduction means this.

Supposing the gentleman so introduced did not know how to dance, or did not wish to dance, if his wishes were not known to his hostess beforehand, the lady to whom he was introduced would feel extremely mortified at his apparent neglect of the express purpose for which he was presented to her, and the introduction, so far from availing anything in bringing about an agreeable friendship or acquaintanceship between the two thus introduced, would only prove a source of annoyance and awkwardness to both, which might easily have been avoided.

Colazione_in_giardino

When a lady does not wish to dance, it is not necessary to ask her if an introduction to any gentleman will be agreeable to her, the introduction would be undertaken as a matter of course, and as a looked-for and expected civility.

Ladies cannot be too particular as to the acquaintances they make, especially where members of their own sex are concerned. A lady should have too much consideration for her own character and good name, her social position, and her duty to society, to be seen with doubtful friends and acquaintances. Those who are talked of in society, who are fast and immoral, should be carefully avoided, not from pride, but from a feeling that a woman’s good name is her greatest treasure, her crown of womanhood, and if she is known to associate with ‘any and all members of her own sex,’ her good name becomes tarnished, her fair fame is called in question, and irreparable mischief ensues.

In ‘country houses,’ the principal guests, if previously unacquainted, would be introduced to each other by the hostess or host on the afternoon of their arrival, especially in the case of the ladies of highest rank. Such introductions would be made as the hostess deemed expedient; and where very large numbers of people were congregated, general introductions would be very fatiguing, quite unnecessary, and not required by strict etiquette.

Being under the same roof in a country house, except in the cases before named, is introduction enough; the fact of ladies and gentlemen so finding themselves, is really an act of presentation, although this fact does not oblige the guests to become great friends or acquaintances, it remains with the people so introduced to be friends or not in the future, though many intimate friendships are the result of meetings in country houses.

The same at ‘Afternoon Teas ‘ and ‘At Homes.’

People would converse generally, if they liked, and it would be no breach of etiquette on their part that they should do so.

Although ladies might converse with other ladies, gentlemen with gentlemen, and ladies with gentlemen, this civility would not constitute an acquaintanceship afterwards, beyond the act of a bow when they meet again, if they desired it; not that, if it were unpleasant to either or both of them.

If they so wished it, any gentleman and lady conversing under these circumstances, might bow when they next met, or two gentlemen might so form an acquaintance.

On leaving, if a lady and gentleman had been holding a long conversation in the house of a mutual friend or acquaintance, or he had shewn her any very marked civility, he would bow to her. In the case of two ladies who had been exchanging polite remarks at a ‘tea,’ it is optional whether they bow or not, but good manners should prompt them to do so. Should they be of different social positions, the lady of highest rank would, of course, take the initiative, and bow to the other lady when their conversation ended or she left the room.

If several people make a morning call at the same time, the hostess would be civil to each in turn, making some pleasant remark. She would not allow the conversation to become too general, except when all the guests were acquainted with each other.

No introduction should be made by a hostess unless she was quite sure that such an introduction would be agreeable to both, and in every way one to be desired. If a hostess knew that two people did not wish to make each other’s acquaintance, she would most carefully avoid such an introduction, even in the case when one lady only was averse to its being made.

When no such dislike exists, and their social positions warrant it, a hostess would at once introduce the guests to each other.

If a lady and gentleman who were strangers to each other met on the landing outside a drawing-room door, he would make her a bow, which courtesy she would acknowledge by one also; and he would step aside, so as to allow her to enter the room first.

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2 Responses to May I Introduce You? The Etiquette of Introductions in 1885

  1. This is amazing and proof of what different world the Victorians were living in mentally. So extremely complicated! How did people keep track of it all, how did they figure out who outranked whom? And the fact that Lady Constance Howard felt the need to write all this down (in such exhaustive detail) points to the fact that people were, in fact, probably getting it wrong all the time.

  2. Susanna says:

    I desire to read some of Lady Constance Howard’s fiction work. Her etiquette book is so very snobbish. However, I understand the later part of the Victorian age is much more rigid in its rules than the earlier.
    Do you think it would be fun if I excerpted chapters from Victorian and Regency fiction on the blog? Not the famous authors, but authors’ whose names have been forgotten.

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