Outdated Etiquette Rules That Seem Ridiculous To Us Today

There’s no doubt that displaying proper manners improves our relationship with people. But back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, visiting at an inconvenient hour or fetching the wrong horse could land you in the social dumpster. In a world mostly devoid of cards and radios, people adhered to different social rules than we do today. Some may come off as just absurd–“too clean” is considered rude? No bowing to people in a window? Here are some of the most outdated and seemingly bizarre etiquette rules from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Good gracious! What foul language lies ahead!

No Marriage After 3 p.m.!

The Wedding March by Edmund Blair Leighton Victorian marriage etiquette
© Fine Art Photographic Library / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

Before the 1880s, marriage ceremonies were always held between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m. Legally–the state required those marriage times until 1886. As the nineteenth century rapidly approached, the time was extended to 3 p.m.

These hours had to do with the working schedule at the time. Many workers only received half a day off on Saturdays and Sundays, when most weddings were held. The celebration was expected to occur when most guests would be available. If it happened later, it would shape the couple as rude.

“Good Gracious!” Was A Swear Word

Widow, A (Une Veuve) Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1868 Victorian swear words
Picturenow / UIG via Getty Images

In 1883, Walter R. Houghton covered the basics of etiquette in his book American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness. As with any etiquette book, Houghton advised against foul language. But his definition of strong language included “The Dickens,” “Mercy,” and “Good Gracious.”

“If you are surprised or astonished, suppress the fact,” Houghton writes. “Such expressions border closely on profanity.” Other offensive expressions of surprise that Houghton didn’t provide include “Doggone,” “By gum” (similar to “by God”), and “Cripes!”

You picked THAT horse? How rude can you be?

Men, Fetch My Horse

Couple Standing Next to Horse Undated. Men Women Victorian horse etiquette
Getty Images

Before automobiles extended to the masses around 1908, most people traveled by horse. Should a couple decide the ride, the man had to choose the lady’s horse. On top of that, the man had to carefully select the right horse–one with a secure saddle and gentle temper that the woman could easily manage.

It was also considered impolite to keep a woman waiting too long in her “riding costume.” So the man had to pick the horse both quickly and correctly. If the horse turned out “wrong,” it would reflect poorly on his judgment.

Sing For The Crowd, When They Want You To

Rouget de Lisle chantant la Marseillaise singing party etiquette twentieth century nineteenth century
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In the early 1900s, most households did not yet have home radios. To entertain family and guests, they would sing or play instruments. If a person were asked to play, it was considered “a mark of vanity” to show anxiety or hesitation. Waiting to be urged or make a decision would label one as rude.

A person could turn down the request to entertain, but to remain polite, they had to refuse sternly and immediately. On top of that, if a guest performed, a host was expected to ask them again later the same evening, so they would not feel underappreciated.

The standards of fashion women had to follow remained vague, to put it lightly.

Be Clean–But Not Too Clean

Reddit / u/Souhondron

Victorian women were expected to dress cleanly for their husbands–but not “too clean,” whatever that means. If a woman presented herself as too clean, she would make others around her uncomfortable with her tidiness.

Same rules applied to fashion. Dressing too beautifully would imply that the woman spent too much of her husband’s money, or was attempting to court other men. Makeup was discouraged, as husbands had to pay for it, and they made women appear “of too easy virtue.” At the same time, women were still expected to have flawless pale skin and rosy cheeks.

Hats Off For The Ladies

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) greeting crowds on return, 16 September 1938.
Daily Herald Archive / SSPL / Getty Images

Many classrooms today ask that people take off their hats indoors, or during the national anthem. In the mid-twentieth century, however, men were expected to take off their hats in the presence of women. Should a man enter a room or space and see woman, he would take off his hat.

Women did not receive the same level of scrutiny. They could keep their hats on unless they interfered with someone’s work or view. While the “hats off” etiquette is still practiced today, the guidelines are different. It depends on the event rather than the gender of the crowd.

Bow From The Street, Not From A Window

 illustration from the magazine The Illustrated London News, volume LVII, October 8, 1870.
The Illustrated London News / Getty Images

When a man encountered a lady, he would traditionally bow. Except, of course, from a window. In Victorian times, a man bowing from a window suggested to neighbors that he may have been knocking the woman’s boots, or about to knock her boots. So to speak.

If a woman peered down from a window, and the man saw her from the street, he could bow to her. However, the bow could not be too dramatic because of the sexual window implication.

Card-giving required way more etiquette than just tossing an envelope in the mail…

Calling Cards, Also Known As Victorian Facebook Comments

A woman writing a letter at a bureau in 1891
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In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, guests would leave “calling cards” in a tray near the front door. Calling cards, also called visiting cards, were small letters used to express appreciation, offer condolences, or say hello. These cards came with their own strict etiquette rules.

Women were expected to give and receive calling cards, even on behalf of their husbands. Giving a calling card at the scheduled time during the morning or afternoon would eventually grant you a calling card in return. Folding certain corners on the page would communicate different things, such as condolence or congratulations.

Don’t Peek At Others’ Calling Cards

Victorian calling card illustration outdated etiquette
Pinterest / The Old Design Shop

Calling cards usually sat in a bin within the lady’s parlor. Some higher class people even displayed their calling cards, as that brandished their popularity. Should guests ruffle through another’s calling cards, they would appear untoward. After all, visiting cards did imply much of the host’s personal business.

Reading another’s calling cards equated to reading someone’s texts in the modern day. It would spark gossip, which also did not reflect well on one’s etiquette.

Women used to sit on one end of the carriage for… a compelling reason.

Visiting Hours Were Open Eleven To Three

Prodigal Son in Modern Life, The: The Departure Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1882 .
Picturenow / UIG via Getty Images)

Morning calls were informal visits where people could drop off calling cards or chat. These visits often considered mandatory in certain occasions, had to occur between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Earlier calls could interrupt breakfast or a woman’s household chores, and later visits would suggest a pushy attempt at securing a dinner invite.

Morning calls remained short, only 15 or 30 minutes. Men would take calls in the business room or library, while women took them in the morning room or drawing room. Pets and children did not participate as they could end up being annoying.

Do Not Allow A Horse To Pass Wind Upon A Lady

Caroline Kennedy In 1968 horse-drawn carriage
Gil Friedberg / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Even after cars rose in popularity during the early twentieth century, many people still chose to ride in carriages. If a man and a woman rode together, they had an unspoken rule that the man would sit with his back to the horse. That way, the horse would not pass gas unto the lady’s hair.

Some even believed that a man’s larger hat would dispel the vapors back at the driver. Of course, this rule remained unspoken between the pair.

Puns? Not in my household!

Puns Were Vulgar

Traveling First Class by Abraham Solomon puns vulgar language victorian era
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In classy settings, people used to refrain from “witticisms” because they believed that they eventually spiraled into vulgarity. Walter Houghton counsels against “making puns” (he put the phrase in quotes) and bringing anecdotes into the conversation.

It was also considered rude to dominate the discussion with one topic, no matter how much that idea interested you or the group. Subjects of conversation flipped quickly in the late nineteenth century, in an attempt to include everyone.

Gifts Should Be Gendered

A Summer Rose by Francois Martin-Kavel gift giving Victorian era
© Fine Art Photographic Library / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images

Gifts used to reflect more on the person giving them than whom they were given to. If a woman offered a present, it was expected to appear “ladylike,” “dainty,” and “of a delicate nature.” The gift would demonstrate the woman’s taste in art and fashion.

If a married woman gave a gift, she would have to provide it in the name of both her and her husband, especially if the present went to another man or couple. Couple and family gift-giving is still practiced today, although the presents themselves don’t have to appear ladylike.

Ballroom settings fostered less party and more politeness. Check out how boring they would probably have been.

Ballroom Blitz (Or Lack Thereof)

Victorian ballroom painting etiquette
Twitter / @Alexandria_SZ

Ballrooms–or later just parties–came with their own set of etiquette rules. Women could never dance alone or enter the ballroom alone. They had to wear white gloves or a similar pastel shade. If a lady refused to dance with someone, she could not accept another’s invitation to dance for the rest of the song.

Men had a more active role, as they were expected to initiate the dances. Single men could only dance with a woman two times, as three times suggested lustful attraction. Even married couples would not dance much together during the same night.

Young Women Could Not Go Alone

Reading a Story Tissot, James Jacques Joseph, 1878 .
Picturenow / UIG via Getty Images

For parties, dinners, and theater engagements, single women had to be chaperoned. Usually, their mother, older brother, or another married lady would escort them into the event. If none of these figures were available, the hostess would act as a chaperone to bring the young lady in.

Etiquette permitted girls to escort themselves to luncheons or afternoon tea, even sitting alone if she wished. But evening events required young ladies to have a chaperone, and married women to enter with their husbands or with a group.

Did you know that a natural blemish on your skin used to be considered rude?

No Sightseeing

Young women along a street of Paris, France 1904
L’Illustration / Getty Images

When walking through the streets, those in the Victorian Era would prevent full-on eye contact, especially men and women. Glancing around at your surroundings was considered rude, particularly in neighborhoods where residents might think you’re peering into their home.

If a man saw an acquaintance looking out a window, he could bow to them. But not to strangers on the street. Victorian men and women were advised to look forward, in the direction they were walking. Even watching their feet was labeled bad manners.

Burn Off Your Moles, Those Unsightly Blemishes

Adam Bede by George Eliot 1880
Culture Club / Getty Images

For a long time, people removed their moles through a disturbing method. The person would moisten a stick of silver nitrate, and press it to the mole. The moles would blacken, shrivel, and eventually fall off. The method mirrors how many doctors remove warts today (except they use different chemicals).

Some moles would require several applications of this process to finally fall off. If this still didn’t work, the person would visit a surgeon. In particular, moles on the face were seen as a significant disfigurement necessary to get rid off.

You would attend to a lady always, but also not too much–learn how that system works.

Smoking Restrictions Were Worse Than An Airport

In the Railway Carriage by Pierre Carrier-Belleuse smoking cigars etiquette manners early twentieth century
Fine Art Photographic Library / Corbis via Getty Images

Smokers in the early twentieth century followed unspoken rules on where and when to smoke. Men in particular could not smoke while accompanying a woman or in a room where a lady enters. They could not smoke while bowing and always had to ask before lighting the cigar.

Both women and men could not smoke during the day–they could smoke “like a burglary, after dark, but not before.” Most public spaces did not allow smoking, so people had to find an indoor area that allowed cigars. These did not include theaters, carriages, or churches.

If Related To The Host, Dance With Every Single Lady

large ballroom 1865. By James Tissot.
Buyenlarge / Getty Images

Hosts and hostesses did not carry the sole burden on their ball in the late nineteenth century. According to The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, male relatives of the hosts would “see that every lady, young or old, handsome or ugly, is provided with a partner, though the oldest and ugliest may fall to your own share.”

Since men were counseled not to dance over three times with the same woman, that granted them plenty of time to dance with everyone. Gentlemen also paid attention to the “wall-flowers,” since only men could initiate the dance.

Don’t Escort A Girl Home

A couple pick tomatoes together, ca. 1910.
Kirn Vintage Stock / Corbis via Getty Images

Contrary to today’s etiquette, men in the Victorian Era did not escort women back to their homes. If they offered, she would likely refuse. Men also waited long enough to say farewell to all the ladies, but not long enough to be the last to leave, which was considered untoward.

As the 1857 Etiquette for Gentlemen put it, “At a public ball, it is exceptional for a gentleman to offer to escort a lady home: she is pretty sure to refuse, unless ____ but we need not supply that blank!”