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Have Our Manners Gone To Hell?
A controversial recent book suggests that what we think of as good manners is a relatively new thing, a commodity manufactured to meet the needs of an industrial age. But now that the Industrial Revolution is over, we may need them more than ever—for very different reasons.
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
Despite the lavish spread, Kasson writes, “appetites were no longer to be freely satisfied, but to be disciplined in accordance with sanctioned notions of taste and ceremonial forms and rhythms. In dining à la Russe the meal assumed a dignified and stately progression [during which] diners sought to cloak their bodily needs and invest the occasion with dignity by distancing themselves from organic processes.” Proper guests never indicated dishes they desired but only declined those they did not; indeed, throughout the meal they made no comment about the food whatever, even in praise. Polite dining “meant that one’s food was touched as little as possible.” The habit of cutting food into bite-size portions developed, so that the food on one’s plate never revealed distasteful teeth marks. One used one’s fork as much as possible for this and, of course, never used the lowly knife to raise the food to one’s mouth. Sneezing, scratching, coughing, and laughing or talking too loudly at table were sure signs of ill breeding. Minor disruptions, such as a dropped fork, were politely ignored by all.
And there were many forks to drop: pastry fork, terrapin fork, berry fork, fish fork, pie fork, ramekin fork, and oyster fork-spoon.
There was a reason for such stylized “rituals of refinement,” Kasson says. Their mastery “certified the diners’ own place in the larger social hierarchy” as members of the urban middle class. Etiquette set “standards of social distinction” by which its adherents not only distinguished themselves from the lower classes but even criticized the truly wealthy elite whose conduct fell below these rigid standards—the ostentatious host with his hundred-dollar cigars, for instance.
The somber “straitlaced” costumes we instantly recognize as Victorian were thought to impose sober, moderate behavior and character on the wearer.
The elaborate rituals of Victorian etiquette extended beyond the formal dinner to encompass every aspect of daily life. On the city streets there were rules for how high to tip your hat, how low to bow, and a system of appropriate greetings depending on the other person’s station relative to yours. When you visited acquaintances and found them not at home, you not only left your calling card but crimped the corners according to a complicated code. Folding the upper right corner meant you’d made a personal visit, the upper left meant congratulations, the lower left signified condolences, the lower right signaled a formal leave-taking when you were departing the city for some time.
The Victorians also carried Franklin’s interest in outward appearances to extremes. The somber, all-black, “straitlaced” costumes we instantly recognize as Victorian were thought by many advisers to actually impose on the wearers sober, moderate behavior and character that distinguished them from the hot-tempered, lustful working classes. The great Victorian intellectuals Charles Darwin and William James both were convinced that people could control their moods and emotions by controlling their facial expressions. Etiquette advisers took this notion further, declaring that people could mold themselves into desirable personalities and characters by dressing and acting in the proper way.
The reality, of course, fell short of the ideals. One ironic outcome of the Victorian mania for outward appearances, Kasson notes, was the wide avenue it opened up for criminal impostors. The confidence men, pickpockets, shoplifters, holdup men, and prostitutes who prowled Victorian streets found it very easy to prey on the middle classes once they succeeded in aping their clothing and manners. Crime stories of the era are replete with otherwise intelligent bankers who lent their gold pocket watches to polite con men on the street and with upstanding churchmen who followed distressed maidens into dens of iniquity where they were robbed.
Despite its imperfect facility for regulating behavior, it is to this “golden age” of lavish manners, Kasson believes, that today’s etiquette advisers hearken when they bemoan the modern erosion of good behavior. It is no accident, he says, that as Miss Manners Judith Martin affects the clothes and hairstyle of a Victorian matron. But the society that created this elaborate code had reached its zenith by the turn of the century. The twentieth century brought with it a new social matrix, new immigrants, new postindustrial economies, new role models—and new standards of behavior, which we generally perceive to be more “relaxed,” more “casual” than the stiff formalities of the Victorians.
Not surprisingly, Kasson says, there have been people throughout this century who have complained of the changes—often deplored as a “lowering of standards” in manners—and sought explanations.
“Early in the century, they suggested that it was due to the increase of working women among the middle classes. That it was the rising divorce rate. That it was the First World War, that it was Prohibition after the First World War. That it was the Depression, or automobiles. It’s the Second World War, then it’s the soldiers coming home from the Second World War, then it’s television in the 1950s, the women’s movement in the 1960s, fast food in the 1970s, the Pill. Judith Martin likes to argue that it was the student movement and hippies. And through the years, each new wave of immigrants has gotten the blame.