Have Our Manners Gone To Hell?

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Kasson argues that while books were universally available, the increasingly elaborate codes of behavior they promoted were actually developed for and by the burgeoning middle classes in the rapidly growing cities, especially in the East. As New York, Boston, and Philadelphia centralized wealth, power, and industry, they drew together huge populations. On the crowded streets, middle-class bankers and businessmen and their ladies found themselves jostled and eyed by rough workers and other “low” types. In the bustling, confusing, dirty, and dangerous maze of the cities, the middle classes developed codes of dress and behavior that distinguished them from the anonymous masses. Elaborate rituals of politeness and “refinement” became signs by which they recognized their equals. At the same time, mastery of these rituals was one way by which the upwardly mobile proved their fitness to enter this “good society.”

In this sense, Kasson contends, manners became “a kind of mediate between the demands for a democratic polity,” a republican society of equals, “and the desires for wealth and social distinction in a commercial society,” in which the prosperous and successful are more equal than others. “These ideals are somewhat contradictory. They wanted both to achieve a universal observance of good behavior and to offer possibilities of social distinction.” In the crowded, impersonal cities, “the clues to where one fitted in this social matrix were much more subtle, much more nuanced than before. But there was still that desire to find out where people fitted and the anxiety to present oneself as ‘respectable.’ So we have to understand the nineteenth century as a time when the middle classes were establishing their authority, trying to generalize and disseminate a model of behavior. They took it out of an old tradition and literature of courtesy, but they were trying to adapt it to the terms of modern industrial life. One of the ambitions that many of the self-styled experts on manners had was to try, through a system of manners, to get everyone to behave as they ‘ought’ to—according to the urban middle class.”

At the height of the Victorian era, in the 1880s, the standards of proper behavior the middle class sought to impose had become extraordinarily complex and ornate. Kasson illustrates how enormously accepted behavior changed by contrasting a formal dinner in 1830 with one in 1880.

“Were someone raised on McDonald’s hamburgers to go back to a dinner party in the 1830s, he or she would probably be surprised—might even be shocked—by the way people ate with their knives, the way they seemed to inhale their food,” he says. He conjures a dinner of middle-class gentlemen in the 1830s, perhaps in New York or Boston. Rather than a series of courses, the entire meal would be laid out at once in the “Old English” style—soup, fish, meat, game, fowl, sweets, vegetables, relishes, pies. There would be no servers in constant attendance; throughout the meal the diners pointed to dishes they wanted and passed them around the table. Either the host or guests seated closest to the meats carved at the table. There was no elaborate silver service with specialized forks and spoons. Most likely each diner had a knife and a two-pronged fork of iron or steel. The fork, in the left hand, was primarily used to hold food down while it was being cut; the food was then speared on the knife and raised to the mouth. If a “dandy” was in attendance and affecting “European” manners, he might bring his own silver fork, with four prongs, and use it to raise the food to his mouth. But such affectation would likely prompt mockery among his fellow diners. Napkins were tucked under the chin and used to wipe the nostrils as well as the lips. There would also be a great deal of alcohol consumed—not just at dinner but at lunch and even at breakfast.

By 1880 a dinner at the home of the children of these same gentlemen had become a lavishly embellished test of one’s social graces. Guests arrived with strict punctuality; the concept of being “fashionably late” was still generations away. Gentlemen would be in tails, ladies in full dress. They gathered in the drawing room. Cocktails before dinner had not yet been invented. When the butler announced dinner, each gentleman offered his lady his arm, and they made a genteel procession to the table, where the hostess assigned the order of seating.

Dinner was served à la Russe , a style supposedly introduced by the Russian ambassador to France in 1810. The distinction between servers and diners was now strictly observed; ladling and carving took place out of sight, with the dishes formally carried to the table by the servants. The meal would be quite sumptuous, lasting as long as two hours, with numerous courses that might begin with oysters and champagne and progress through fish, a selection of vegetables, a roast, a game fowl, salad, cheeses, pastries, ices, fruits, and nuts or candies—each with its accompanying wine or sherry. It was not uncommon for the host to display his wealth and largess by cleverly distributing gifts to his guests. The display could be relatively subtle, as when guests found real pearls in their oysters, or more forthright, as when the after-dinner cigars came wrapped in one-hundred-dollar bills.