Minding Your Victorian Manners: Leaving Calling Cards, Making Introductions, and Seating Your Dinner Guests

From “Letts’s Illustrated Household Magazine, A Complete Encyclopedia of Domestic Requirements” 1884, London.

N the treatment of a subject, the operation of which pervades the whole system of social ethics, it is difficult, almost impossible, to prescribe a strict code of rules which shall be applicable to every occasion that may present itself, because, in the natural course of all things, circumstances must govern cases. Yet, as a general rule, good judgment may be shown in the avoidance of errors—errors so marked that there can be no difference of opinion about them. With this view then, we shall, in offering suggestions for observance in connection with the accepted rules of etiquette, supplement those observations by pointing out the mistakes that are often made—thus removing the corn from the husks; for, in promulgating a code of laws intended to bind the more refined and educated classes together, and to establish a good general understanding amongst them, it is important not only to know what to do, and how to do it, but also what not to do, and how not to do it.


a practice which principally devolves on the mistress of the house, who should leave cards on behalf of herself and her husband; it is not etiquette, however, to include bachelor friends, for whom the husband alone leaves his card. Bachelors, however, are expected to leave their cards for both husband and wife, on hearing that they have arrived either at their town house or their country seat.

A visiting card should not only have the name on it, but the prefix also — “Mrs.’ — the omission of which is an impropriety. Initials, signifying degrees, at the end of the name, should neither be printed nor written on the card. For instance, the addition of Q.C., of M.D., or M.P., is not in accordance with polite usage. Military titles or professional degrees should necessarily precede the name —thus Colonel, Captn., Bevd., or Dr., and the address be printed in the right-hand corner. Cards must invariably be left in person—never sent, neither by hand nor by post. It is expected that married ladies should leave their cards on coming to their residence, either in town or country: it cannot be expected that their friends and acquaintance should leave cards for them, because the former are not to know, until informed pro forma, of their arrival.

A lady’s visiting card should be thin, and without glaze, about three and a half inches by two, name in centre, address right-hand side, and using the husband’s christian name, if his father or elder brother be living. Young ladies have their names printed beneath that of their mother; in the case where the mother is not living, beneath that of their father.

Cards should always be returned within ten days. They should be left after any invitation, whether the invitation were accepted or otherwise, as soon as possible, and between the hours of 2.30 and 6:30. Wedding cards, funeral cards, and christening, are almost out of date—the two last-named especially.


From three to four o’clock is the recognised time for morning calls. Ceremonious calls should never be made on Sunday. Husbands and wives usually make calls together. When they announce themselves to the servant, they should invariably put the prefix Lady, Lord, Mr. or Mrs. to their names—the only exception being “The Honourable.” Of course, if the host or hostess be absent from the drawing-room, no conversation whatever should take place with the servant.

A gentleman calling on a lady takes his hat in his hand, and, if the visit be a short one, continues to hold it; nor should he put it on until he reaches the hall—to leave his hat in the hall is inadmissable. Gentlemen, when shaking hands with a lady, should never allude to gloves in any way. “Excuse my glove,” is desperately vulgar, gloved or ungloved needs no apology. Indeed, fussy behaviour, whether practised by host, hostess, or guest, is in bad form— fussiness is a conclusive proof of inferior breeding.

There is no distinct etiquette in reference to bridal calls. A bride should not send any intimation of her arrival at home; but her relations and friends will call upon her, about a week after her arrival. On such occasions bride-cake is never offered—this is strictly avoided in good society.

INTRODUCTIONS should never be made without a previous knowledge that they will be acceptable to both parties. A gentleman is always introduced to a lady, however high his rank may be, without reference to hers;—this rule is invariable—“place aux dames.” In the case of obtaining a partner for a lady at a dance, it is necessary to ascertain, on both sides, if the introduction be desired.

The mistress of the house should shake hands with every one introduced to her. In sending guests down to dinner, who are strangers to each other, the hostess should introduce the gentleman to the lady whom he is appointed to escort—the lady’s permission in this case is not necessary.

DINNER PARTIES are, perhaps, more appreciated than any other form of entertainment; the master of the house occupies a prominent position—a position assumed by him on no other occasion. For large and ceremonious dinners, twenty-one days’ notice is usual; for small parties a week or ten days’ are sufficient. Refusals should be sent without delay. The hostess sends out the invitations; young ladies are not often asked to dinner. Guests should arrive within fifteen minutes of the hour named on the invitation. A lady and gentleman should not enter the room arm-in-arm—the lady takes precedence.

The lady of highest rank is taken from the drawing-room by the host; the gentleman of highest rank takes the hostess; relations should never go down to dinner together. The host usually tells each gentleman, on his arrival, the name of the lady to whom he is to be the escort to the table. The lady whom the host has selected, sits on his right, that order being strictly preserved by all the guests. The host stands at the bottom of the table to place his guests. Slips of paper, with the names inscribed, arc now in disuse.

As soon as a lady takes her seat, she removes her gloves and unfolds her serciette: Fanciful menuholders are much in use; but in small, unceremonious parties, they may well be dispensed with altogether. Conversation at dinner-parties, as a rule, is to be indulged in and encouraged. The dinners now are almost universally served a la Russe; but, whether served in that fashion or at the table, half an ordinary ladle is the proper quantity of soup. The dessert is usually arranged down the centre of the table, with the flowers and plate. Fish should be eaten with a silver knife and fork, and not with two forks; or, worse still, with a single fork and a crust of bread, a mode that Dickens describes as ” chasing the fish all over the plates.” This practice is altogether tabooed. It should be recollected that, for sweetbreads and cutlets, the knife is necessary. In eating asparagus, a knife and fork should be used, cutting off the points with the knife. There is no excuse for using the fingers, although the custom still obtains in the city.

In the case of stone-fruit tarts—damson, plum, or cherry—the dessert-spoon or fork should convey the stone from the mouth to the plate. Jellies, blancmange, &c., are eaten with a fork, not with a spoon. Gentlemen do not pledge one another, and ladies take no more than one glass of wine at dessert. Grace latterly is sometimes omitted; but good sense  and propriety of feeling prompt a different course, for what is more natural, and, indeed, more consistent with our duty, than to return thanks to the Giver of all Good for the privileges we enjoy and for the sustenance we receive at his hands? A very simple and becoming grace before the meal — one that a popular preacher,* a friend of the writer’s, always uses at his own table, as well as in public—is in this wise: “The Lord relieve the wants of the poor, and give us grateful hearts.”‘ And, after the meal, “For what we have received, God be thanked.”


There is no rule for the departure of guests, but ten, or half-past, is generally regarded as the accepted time.


The guests of an evening party are frequently invited to attend after the dinner is over. Being thus invited only for the evening, there is no stated period for arriving. The choice of time is rather capricious, varying in accordance with fashion. At one time it was thought to be the correct thing to be later than the hour appointed; then the custom changed, and punctuality “reigned in its stead.” At the present time visitors are mostly at liberty to use their own discretion, making the time of arrival suit their other engagements: but it should be between the hours of nine and twelve. Thus it frequently happens that members of the world of fashion attend two, or even three, parties in one evening. This, however, of course, is not the rule; it is rather the unpleasant exception to it. At evening parties it should be remembered that the hostess does not advance, as at dinner-parties, to welcome newcomers. She merely acknowledges their presence by rising from her seat. The master of the house, however, usually introduces the gentlemen one to another. The practice of non-introduction is both disadvantageous and inconvenient, and ought to be discouraged. The bare announcement by a servant of the name of the guests is most unsatisfactory, for it frequently happens that names are wrongly pronounced, and it is found afterwards that visitors were present who were desirous of knowing each other, or of obtaining an introduction. Care should be taken, in sending out the invitations, to make it understood that it is simply an evening party that is to be given, and not a dance.

The rule of behaviour, or etiquette, at evening parties is rather of a negative character. “Do not be afraid of doing too little,” says a good authority, but rather study the manifestation of ease and geniality of manner, combined with “masterly inactivity.”




2 Replies to “Minding Your Victorian Manners: Leaving Calling Cards, Making Introductions, and Seating Your Dinner Guests”

  1. 1884 and serving a la Russe had not yet vanquished the old way of serving.Jane Austen mentions some people invited to Visit with Mr. Woodhouse after dinner. In that case those so invited were a bit down the social scale from those invited to dinner. Now I think I would be insulted at such an invitation, but fear I probably wouldn’t have if I had been invited in such circumstances 200 years ago.
    Also interesting to read about the slips of paper once used to tell people where to sit at the table were no longer used in 1884. I wonder when they started using place cards?
    I also imagine that the main parts of the etiquette would have been the same in the Regency period. Some minor variations were likely.
    The fact that the author mentioned that funeral and christening cards were no longer used seems to imply that they had been used up until fairly recently.
    Most of your posts are interesting and you always choose great illustrations.

  2. “Most of my posts are interesting?” Not all my posts!? That’s it, you’re not invited for dinner! (but you can come to the party later that evening…just be sure to leave by ten)

I would love to hear your thoughts!

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