"The Genteel State:"
Victorian Manners and the Civil War

By Karen Rae Mehaffey

This article originally appeared in the August/September, 1994 issue of The Citizens' Companion ( Vol. I, No. 3 )1 

(Author's Note: The following article is the first of three articles on period etiquette. These articles are not meant to instruct, chastise, or lecture anyone on etiquette practices. They are a presentation of common Victorian etiquette as found in several period etiquette manuals and diaries and compiled here for the convenience of the reader. I encourage all reenactors to consider incorporating a certain amount of Victorian etiquette into their impressions in order to make them more authentic. Much of the etiquette presented here would have been practiced by the middle class and upper middle class, though the lower classes, particularly those attempting to "better themselves" would have attempted to imitate some of the etiquette rules suggested here. Etiquette manuals were aimed at the middle-class, as it would be assumed that the rich would not need instruction from a book [etiquette would be taught in the classroom and the nursery]. Manuals were also available for those not fortunate enough to have an advanced education or a parent to instruct them on proper form in social situations. The information supplied here is specifically in regard to street and travel etiquette [which can be directly applied to military camp etiquette], table manners, ballroom or dance etiquette, and social situations that can present themselves at reenactment events.)

Etiquette is a topic that has always intrigued me. The way one handles one-self in a social situation, on the street, or at the table can make the difference between being mistaken for a pauper or a king. At the very least, it can make the difference between being known as a gentleperson or a ruffian. Now, to our late-twentieth century palates, formal etiquette has become distasteful and the terms "casual" and "fast" have invaded the way we dress, the way we eat, the way we socialize, and the way we treat one another. The way we address one another is particular evidence of the breakdown in American manners. We refer to one another by first names, even with new acquaintances, and we often fail to use even the simplest of courtesies such as "thank you," or "good morning,'' or "you're welcome." The breakdown is particularly evident between men and women. Holding doors and giving up seats should be common niceties, but the women's movement and the fight for the ERA in the '70s effectively pummeled to death the last throes of chivalry attempting to survive in a unisex society. Society be damned - I for one long for the beauty that comes from social courtesy as upheld by our Victorian ancestors.

The Victorians made etiquette practices into a fine art. Certainly in Europe the upper classes and the nobility had always followed a variety of strict etiquette practices in regard to fashions, table manners, visitation etiquette, and court manners, among others. Many of these manners were brought to the United States by the gentry in the colonies, and many eventually faded away. As a pioneering nation of farmers and laborers, the need for stoic, formal manners was lost. Etiquette as a social phenomena reached its peak in the mid- to late-Victorian era, which encompasses the American Civil War. As we fought for state and human rights, we were also fighting a social class war that began in the 1830s. It was during this decade that the American middle class first emerged as a financial and social force. The American dream of being a self-made man lent itself to anyone who worked hard enough to attain it, and in turn, Americans who achieved this dream wanted to reflect it in the way that they dressed, socialized, decorated their homes, and lived. The middle class realized a need for formal education, and a desire to imitate the manners and fashions of the upper classes. They craved the instruction that would make them gentlefolk, and the publishing industry responded to this demand with a glut of etiquette manuals on the publishing market. Some of these were cheap reprints of European manuals (such as Chesterfield's) but most were written by American authors for an American market. The manners "experts" (often housewives or ministers) plagiarized one another's works ruthlessly, and the "rules" offered in the books often contradicted one another. Nevertheless, certain rules became the norms for American society, and were followed by everyone who attempted to be considered "polite" or "genteel." Nowhere was this better seen than in the South with the upholding of Southern chivalry and the inculcation of English manners in the American gentry. Strangely enough, the majority of etiquette manuals were published in the North, by Northern writers. Etiquette was indeed important in the Northern household, but the strict manners associated with the Victorians were primarily practiced in the larger urban regions of the North, and the large plantation communities of the South.


The etiquette rules for gentlemen in Victorian America can in many cases be applied to military as well as civilian life. A man did not stop being a gentleman just because he wore a uniform, particularly those men from educated and/or wealthy backgrounds. Certainly, a private might not have the refined manners of an officer, but he would show a certain amount of gentility to a lady in camp or civilian officials visiting on a company street. The following rules are a compilation of those offered in some of the major etiquette manuals of the mid-century.


The essentials of a gentleman's dress should include a well-fitting coat in a dark color, dark pants (white is appropriate for hot weather), fine linen undergarments in white only, a cravat and vest in a dark or neutral hue, a black hat, modish boots, light colored gloves, and a white handkerchief. Black, brown, olive, and navy are the best colors for coats and trousers; avoid stripes, plaids, and bold colors. Pale gray and pale blue are best for accessories and wedding ensembles. A gentleman should always wear a white shirt as part of his linen, and never a colored or printed shirt. (The exceptions to this rule are the military and men at labor.) In speaking of labor, if a man should do physical labor, he should wear a dark sack coat and pants, a colored shirt, a bandanna, and a simple wool hat. Never remove your shirt while working. A gentleman's accessories should include a leather or cloth purse, a pencil, and a watch. Simple cuff links, lapel pins, and signet rings are appropriate if made well and not gaudy.

Outer garments should include a long slender overcoat (greatcoat} in a dark wool, or a talma (full, wool cape), or a large woolen shawl. (Shawls were very popular in the 1850s-1860s for men and President Lincoln was particularly fond of them. They were known in slang as "M'cGregors." They could be worn in the parlor, or while driving, at the opera, or to a party, instead of a coat, or worn over it.)


Street etiquette is a term that applies to the rules one should follow when in public, particularly in a public building, walking on the street, or addressing someone that you run into while in public. Street etiquette includes personal habits, and the reader will note that some of the rules are very specific, as the "experts" believed it was necessary to point out certain toiletry habits that were not designed for "public viewing." The major rules suggested are in random order as such:

1) Avoid spitting.

2) Smoking in public suggests low breeding in England; it is accepted in the streets of America, but should never be done while with a lady.

3) Do not loaf around corners and gaze impertinently at passersby, for fear of being labeled "a loafer."

4) Do not pick your teeth or your nose in public. (It would seem that this is self-evident, but this rule can be found in most manuals. Then again, anyone ever driving in rush-hour traffic will know that this rule still needs enforcing today...)

5) When walking with a lady, place her on your side away from the street and danger. Always offer your arm.

6) If a strange lady stops you for directions, tip your hat or touch its brim while answering.

7) When walking with a lady and a stranger greets her, respond for her, even if you do not know the gentleman.

8) If you see a lady on the street that you know, offer a tip of your hat and a greeting to her. If you have not been formally introduced, this is impertinent and should be refrained from.

9) Never "button-hole" a man while speaking with him (grab his jacket by the lapel or button hole).

10) If a lady is walking with you and carrying a parcel, insist on carrying it for her.

11) Never step in front of a lady without first saying, "pardon me" or "with your permission."

12) Always take your glove off to shake a man's hand. Never shake a lady's hand in public.

13) Never walk away from someone or a conversation without first saying "excuse me," or "I beg your pardon," etc.


Victorians were very specific in the rules of civility that were followed while traveling. Most rules of behavior involved conduct toward ladies and their comfort. The key words when considering manners are "restraint" and "elegance".

Travel etiquette is particularly applicable to military situations because the bulk of women that a soldier would come into contact with would be in a traveling situation. (e.g., while on a train, ladies visiting a camp, nurses working in a military hospital or traveling to and from camps, etc.)

1) Always give way to your elders and to ladies when traveling. Offer your seat, if others are not available, and help others with their luggage or parcels if they are struggling (particularly when boarding a train or boat).

2) When taking a flight of stairs, always step in front of a lady and say "pardon me," or, "may I." In walking in front of her, you will break her fall if she loses her footing and there is little chance of stepping on her gown.

3) Always excuse yourself if your boots or outerwear are soiled from travel before you enter a conversation with a lady.

4) Walk in front of a lady in an eating hall (restaurant, mess, etc.) in order to clear chairs and obstacles out of her way and offer her a chair upon finding a table.

5) It is always appropriate to help a lady or group of ladies who are in need of assistance (e.g., directions, carrying items, finding a blanket for them, delivering a message, etc.). But never assume that you have the right to carry on an acquaintance with someone after helping them. It is up to the lady if she wishes to speak with you again. If she offers her calling card to you, you may attempt an acquaintance.

6) If you are traveling by coach, always step out first and "hand down" any lady on board, particularly if she is unescorted.

7) When traveling, carry a carpet bag or satchel with a cloth, towel, soap, shaving goods, change of linen, and a shawl. A flask of brandy is good for travel sickness.

8) When traveling in a train, on a boat, or in a coach, remove your hat indoors, and do not chew, spit or smoke in front of mixed company.

9) If a lady is unattended and traveling, offer your services to conduct her through a street, onto a boat or train, or attend her in purchasing tickets or refreshments. As the world is filled with loafers, Jonahs, and carpetbaggers, it is a gentleman's duty to protect the fairer sex.

It might be noted that accommodations were often made for ladies while traveling. Particularly in the South, Ladies Only cars were often provided on trains to protect the unescorted. Also, Ladies Only rooms in hotels and boats were designed as parlors for unprotected ladies to rest in and to receive callers in a chaperoned situation.

One common occurrence that is uncommon at reenactments are ladies wearing "traveling veils." These were lightweight veils of tulle or silk that covered the face and were worn attached to a bonnet or hat. They not only protected a lady from the dirt and ash associated with trains and boats, but they allowed her privacy from peering male eyes. If a lady had her veil drawn down, she was not interested in chitchat or inquiries.

Karen Rae Mehaffey is Head Librarian of the Cardinal Szoka Theological Library at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. She is a member of the National Women's History network, and is a participant in that organization's speakers' bureau. She has served as a volunteer at several historic sites, including Historic Fort Wayne and Greenmead Historic Village. She is a member of the 17th Michigan Infantry and of the Ladies' Soldiers' Friend Society.

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