Thursday, January 13, 2011

Yesteryear Etiquette: A Quiz

Did these well-dressed women, sitting pretty on a running board, follow etiquette's dictates?
Did you catch Downton Abbey last Sunday on PBS? While the soap-opera-like storyline of a wealthy family in 1912 England will keep viewers riveted, the etiquette of the residents and household staff of the stately home is equally fascinating to me. For the past 15 years, I've studied such turn-of-the-century etiquette and collected etiquette books — there are dozens — of that era. Interestingly, etiquette rules were no less taxing stateside, especially for the upper and middle classes. 
Take this mini-quiz to determine how well you might fare etiquette-wise if you woke up tomorrow as a young woman in 1912. 
1. As you walk down the street, you recognize a gentleman approaching with whom you have danced at a recent ball. You:
A. Keep your eyes focused ahead and acknowledge his presence only if he first greets you.
B. Offer a simple "Good morning."
C. Nod while offering a small smile.
2. You are a debutante and have accepted an invitation to a small garden party at your cousin's home. Suddenly, you are presented with a more enticing engagement. You:
A. Make a social call to your cousin to explain the need to change plans.
B. Keep your first engagement, no matter the more welcome invitation.
C. Ask your cousin politely if she might consider postponing her event.
3. You are visiting an art museum in the city when you come across a nude painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. You:
A. Avert your eyes from the licentious rendering and walk quickly to the adjacent gallery.
B. Sit primly on the nearby bench and sketch the masterpiece.
C. Appreciate the beauty of the painting and vow to learn more about Renoir.
4. You are seated at a formal dinner party. A young woman about your age arrives and is introduced to you. You:
A. Nod and smile.
B. Nod, smile and murmur her name.
C. Rise, nod, smile and murmur her name.
5. You are attending a matinee theater performance to which you have worn your favorite chapeau. You:
A. Leave it on — women are allowed to wear hats indoors.
B. Check it at the door when you enter the theater.
C. Remove it before the curtain rises.

1. C. When a young woman sees a man on the street with whom she has danced at a ball, "she bends her head slightly, looks directly at the person recognized, according him, at the same time, a slight smile or an amiable glance . . . though no further acquaintance may ever after exist between them." — Encyclopaedia of Etiquette, 1910
2. B. "A [d├ębutante] must be punctual at all appointments, keep her engagements, and not change after accepting when something more delightful appears, answer invitations promptly, express appreciation for any kindness, look her prettiest and be always amiable and most charming even if her gown is spoiled and she has enjoyed only a few hours of sleep." — Etiquette, 1923
3. A. "Just as a conscientious, God-fearing girl would not read one page or one line of a book she knew to be bad, even so must she be taught to turn her eyes away unhesitatingly and instinctively, from an indecent engraving, or painting, or sculpture, no matter where she happens upon it. . . so that even when alone she stumbles on such objects, she would turn her eyes and her whole mind away from the object, as she would withdraw her hand or arm from the contact of red-hot iron." — The Mirror of True Womanhood, 1903
4. C. "A nod, a smile, and a murmur of the name, constitute full recognition of an introduction. . . . A woman rises to receive an introduction to one of her own sex." — Encyclopaedia of Etiquette, 1921
5. C. "At a matinee, a really considerate woman takes off her hat before the curtain rises." — Encyclopaedia of Etiquette, 1920 

Did you get. . . ?
1 - 2 answers right: Back in the day, your mother would have hung her head in shame.
3 - 4 answers right: Good thing you live in 2011.
5 answers right: Attagirl! You're a clever one! 


  1. Interesting. I got them all right bar one (obviously watched my fair share of period drama's, that and a strict Grandma correcting me thoughtout my childhood!). I was'nt sure if woman were to stand when greeting someone, I know men do/did but all the others seem not that much different from today (apart from scurrying off at the mere sight of a painting of a nude!)

  2. I'm not so good at etiquette in any century. I managed to get 2 right. I look forward to reading more blog posts from you.