The Laws of Etiquette, by “A Gentleman”

[Readings] (02.18.09, 12:14 pm)

This is handbook of manners published in 1836, detailing appropriate social conduct in American high society. The author wishes to remain anonymous, signing himself off as simply “A Gentleman”, but the content of the book is intended to be his personal experiences. Books of manners and proper conduct were actually somewhat common in the 18th and 19th centuries, but this remains one of the more notable ones.

Setting aside for a moment the pompous tone, the book is a great indication of the etiquette, and rules of social conduct in high society. This is useful for comparison with the world of Jane Austen, but is naturally different in the sense that it was published 20 years later, and details the American gentry rather than the English. It is also significant in that it writes from a masculine perspective rather than a feminine one. Assembled, this reflects a male centric perspective on the expected order of social life.


The social hierarchy in America more strict than in other European countries. Because of class is separate from government, high society all the more exclusive. Frequently class is strongly associated with power, but this is a general trend which seems to be largely contradicted by the teachings of this book. The author goes on to actually dismiss other common assumptions, namely that wealth and blood are the primary dimensions of society, a claim that he readily dismisses. Wealth, literary talent, and heredity are not enough to define the ranks of class. Rather, “good breeding” is essential. Breeding takes on a slightly different meaning in Georgian and Victorian periods, where it indicates one’s manners, and how one is raised, rather than one’s familial line.

Amusingly, the author assumes a universality and finality to the rules of manners, that they will always be observed by high society. In this modern era it is quite remarkable to imagine that the author (seemingly earnestly) asserts that the conventions of how to use one’s napkin and whether to cut versus break the bread at dinner are permanent social institutions. Nonetheless, this is not to say that manners no longer exist, but their expressions have changed. Generaly, manners are still meant to be applied toward social pleasure and ease, and not meant to be an obstacle or impediment. This idea comes back to Goffman, where if all abide by particular social conventions, than these may be used for other forms of symbolic expressions.

Generally, my interest in this is to examine the general language of social conduct, and how variations in manners might be used to communicate. For example, the different types of greetings will say a great deal about the person executing them, and what his relationship is with the object of his greeting. There are a few general trends which gradually become apparent through the book. The first is an odd leveling quality that the term “Gentleman” has, where if both have gentlemanly conduct, a commoner and a prince are equal on the plane of society. The second trend is the purpose of gentlemanly conduct and society, which is a form and space of leisure and recreation.


Dress is important in that it forms the first impression. It should be consistent with both age and natural exterior. Rules of dress are meant to distract from physical irregularity. Good dress is not a matter of richness, but of consistency and harmony. The general trend is to try to even out one’s unusual or exceptional qualities, so that one does not stand out in a striking or unsettling way. While the intent is not to make everyone look identical, it is to make no one look too noticeable.


There are a few discussions of greetings which indicate the conduct of interactions. These forms of greetings, and the variations between them, are evident in the film adaptations of P&P, among other things.

I will cite a few of these here: (These are pulled whole cloth from the text)

  • The salutation, says a French writer, is the touchstone of good breeding. According to circumstances, it should be respectful, cordial, civil, affectionate or familiar:–an inclination of the head, a gesture with the hand, the touching or doffing of the hat.
  • If you remove your hat you need not at the same time bend the dorsal vertebr√ɬ¶ of your body, unless you wish to be very reverential, as in saluting a bishop.
  • It is a mark of high breeding not to speak to a lady in the street, until you perceive that she has noticed you by an inclination of the head.
  • Some ladies courtesy in the street, a movement not gracefully consistent with locomotion. They should always bow.
  • If an individual of the lowest rank, or without any rank at all, takes off his hat to you, you should do the same in return. A bow, says La Fontaine, is a note drawn at sight. If you acknowledge it, you must pay the full amount. The two best-bred men in England, Charles the Second and George the Fourth, never failed to take off their hats to the meanest of their subjects.
  • Avoid condescending bows to your friends and equals. If you meet a rich parvenu, whose consequence you wish to reprove, you may salute him in a very patronizing manner: or else, in acknowledging his bow, look somewhat surprised and say, “Mister–eh–eh?”
  • If you have remarkably fine teeth, you may smile affectionately upon the bowee, without speaking. In passing ladies of rank, whom you meet in society, bow, but do not speak.
  • If you have anything to say to any one in the street, especially a lady, however intimate you may be, do not stop the person, but turn round and walk in company; you can take leave at the end of the street.
  • If there is any one of your acquaintance, with whom you have a difference, do not avoid looking at him, unless from the nature of things the quarrel is necessarily for life. It is almost always better to bow with cold civility, though without speaking.
  • As a general rule never cut any one in the street. Even political and steamboat acquaintances should be noticed by the slightest movement in the world. If they presume to converse with you, or stop you to introduce their companion, it is then time to use your eye-glass, and say, “I never knew you.”
  • If you address a lady in the open air, you remain uncovered until she has desired you twice to put on your hat. In general, if you are in any place where etiquette requires you to remain uncovered or standing, and a lady, or one much your superior, requests you to be covered or to sit, you may how off the command. If it is repeated, you should comply. You thereby pay the person a marked, but delicate, compliment, by allowing their will to be superior to the general obligations of etiquette.

It is important to introduce oneself to a stranger while sharing a public place, and it is important to not discuss general and mundane topics (the accommodations, the roads, the weather), avoiding controversial subjects such as politics. This is a part of a more general trend of not being controversial or interesting, a trend that Fussell remarks on in his book about class, that upper classes simply have nothing worthwhile to talk about.

The drawing room, company, conversation

The purpose of etiquette and the object of gentlemanliness, is to “excel in company”. This does not mean being extremely socially agreeable or liked, but rather being polite and pleasant. Company is a sort of leisure activity, but is also an arena in which skill is aimed not at doing something remarkable, but at fitting in the best.

One of the other implied values is the quality of non-offense, and not offending or bothering anyone. Thus, the first thing one must do on entering the drawing room when a social event is in progress, is to introduce oneself to the lady of the house. Afterwards, the gentleman should strive to emulate or imitate the gentleman of the house (but not too much). One also should not speak to others about their professions, because society is intended as a relief from the stress of professions. The interesting thing about this is that it explains some of the general inanity of conversation in high society.

Another persistent theme in this is that of evenness, that gentlemen are in some sense all equal, and that society takes place on a plane of equals. This is part of the reason behind the avoidance of politics and work. It is considered very respectable to not strongly defer or supplicate yourself to another, even if the other is of higher rank. The key to avoiding indisgression is to carefully not annoy the other.

The object of conversation is to please others, and allow others to be pleasing. The effective way of doing this is by careful listening and flattery. Flattery must be done indirectly, allowing the receiver to infer and pleasantly experience a common value. Direct flattery can be considered aggressive and compels the flattered to exhibit some good opinion of the flatterer. This, at a distance, suggests a delicate system for playing status games, where the object is a sort of cultivation of good feelings, without directly addressing anything.

The subject of flattery also addresses the content of conversation, where it is necessary to discuss subjects of interest to one’s conversation partner. This is described in a long set of patronizing bullets specifically addressing how to speak to women.

Subsequent chapters

Remainder focuses on exact rules of conduct in further detailed situations, but these generally abide by the general rules discerned above. The details and precise metrics may be relevant for further investigation in the future, though.

Reading Info:
TitleThe Laws of Etiquette
ContextThis dated text provides a guide to social rules within a heavily structured society.
Tagsperformance, sociology, specials, settings
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you for this blog post. I’m enjoying a nostalgic read -1836- on the The Laws of Etiquette.

    Comment by Carol Bory — February 19, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

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