While working on preparing print materials for the Rubenstein Library’s upcoming move, I came across a few books on American women’s etiquette. I glanced inside and found rules, rules, and more rules! Although the publication dates range from 1873-1924, the authors seemed to agree on specific social laws of conduct. For instance, one must never shout hello to an acquaintance across the street (“a certain sign of vulgarity”), and a lady should never have a man on each arm or vice versa (apparently, this is only done in Ireland). One of the books decreed never to join in a dance unless you skillfully know the steps. Otherwise, one will “bring disorder into the midst of pleasure!”
These social rules were listed under headings describing every instance of everyday life imaginable- dressing, eating, visiting relatives or friends, attending church, weddings, traveling, even how to not hurt a person’s feelings. It was very interesting to see how vastly different American society and culture were 100 years ago. We have our rules as well (whether followed or not), but nothing like these prim guidelines.
Cullen Cornett is a Holdings Management Assistant in Rubenstein Technical Services.