The Parlor


Ladies and gentlemen of the day were cautioned that the art of conversation was not to be taken lightly or acquired easily. It required “a cultivated mind, richly stored with a variety of useful information; a good taste; a delicate sense of propriety; a good use of language; and an easy and fluent expression.” To achieve this artistic effect Harvey Newcomb, the author of How to Be a Lady, published in 1863, provided eleven rules, among which were: Avoid affectation (“it will expose you to ridicule”); Avoid low expressions (”a dialect peculiar to low people”); Avoid provincialisms (“For example, in New England, many people are in the habit of interlarding their conversation with the phrase, ‘You see.’”); Avoid unmeaning exclamations (such as “O my! O mercy! &c.”). But the meat of all manners-manual advice about conversational decency was to avoid talking too much about one’s self and one’s personal problems. Late in the century the forbidden topics of polite conversation were reduced to what one elderly lady of my acquaintance used to call “The five D’s”: they were Dress, Diseases, Domiciles, Descendants, and Domestics. It is a great deal more difficult to discover what the mentors of manners thought were suitable subjects for conversation than what were not. The weather, of course, was safe. So was the opera. It was polite to enquire about a visitor’s children, though even this had to be undertaken with discretion, as Miss Leslie cautioned:

As mothers are always on the qui vive, (and very naturally,) be careful what you say of their children. Unless he is a decidedly handsome man, you may give offense by remarking, “The boy is the very image of his father.” If the mother is a vain woman, she would much rather hear that all the children are the very image of herself. Refrain from praising too much the children of another family, particularly if the two sets of children are cousins. …

It was considered dangerous in the highly mobile society of America to ask questions that might remind a woman that she came from “humble” origins. It was a cliché at the turn of the century that one should not ask a prosperous San Franciscan who his grandmother was: the odds were that she had been a madam. Similarly, in the middle of the century, it was considered risky to discuss household affairs with newly rich women because “Women who have begun the world in humble life, and have been necessitated to give most of their attention to household affairs, are generally very shy in talking of housewifery, after their husbands have become rich, and are living in style, as it is called. Therefore, do not annoy them by questions on domestic economy. But converse as if they had been ladies always.” There were also taboos against gossip, of course, but few women either ill- or well-bred paid much attention to them. “It is one of the greatest miseries of our life,” wrote a woman who called herself “Daisy Eyebright,” the author of A Manual of Etiquette, “that scandal is the standing dish in society, and calumny stalks abroad with perfect boldness and impunity.”

The ritual of the “call” was an absolutely essential part of nineteenth-century manners, its propriety taken for granted, its uses very nearly universal. Even in the back country in the 1830's, making calls was an essential part of a woman’s day. The famous British traveller Captain Frederick Marryat, visiting Detroit in 1837, when there was not “a paved street in it, or even a foot-path for a pedestrian,” found that “the muddy and impassable state of the streets has given rise to a very curious system of making morning and evening calls.” Detroit was then a town of many log cabins, but it was not without its proprieties. “A small one-horse cart,” Marryat recorded, “is backed against the door of a house; the ladies dressed get into it, and seat themselves upon a buffalo-skin at the bottom of it; they are carried to the residence of the party upon whom they wish to call; the cart is backed in again, and they are landed dry and clean.”