Victorian Etiquette Rules That Are Now Completely Outdated

The way people behave and what we consider to be polite changes across time. What was considered rude a hundred years ago is now considered to be completely nice and normal. Also, what was considered good and polite all those years ago might be considered rude or improper now.

A lot has changed since the Victorian Era: Women are in the workforce, children are valued more, and people aren’t as conservative as they used to be. Keep reading to find out more about the crazy things people used to do out of politeness.

It Was Considered Impolite For A Woman To Raise Her Voice

ceramic figurines of victorian women
Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

In the Victorian era, women were supposed to be meek and quiet. If a woman spoke too loudly or too coarsely, it would be difficult for her to find a husband. Any time a woman raised her voice, it was considered rude and unladylike.

While yelling still isn’t the most polite way of speaking, women are now allowed to speak in whatever tone of voice they’d like. Women who stand up for themselves still receive a lot of hate both online and in person, so maybe not that much has changed…

Men Weren’t Allowed To Curse Infront Of Women

old victorian photo of man kissing a woman sitting down
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Women are the fairer sex, which means that men had to watch their mouths around them. You don’t want a lady to hear you swearing like a sailor. Men were not allowed to use curse words or discuss “impolite subjects” when ladies were around.

Nowadays, women swear just as much as men do. Cursing doesn’t really have anything to do with gender at all. While cursing is still considered impolite, it happens much more than it used to.

Your Physicality Said A Lot About Who You Were And Who You Should Marry

Gallant scene from Madame Favart, comic opera by Chivot and Durut, music by Offenbach, Theatre des Folies-Dramatiques, Paris, France
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Back in the 1800s, people who had red hair and people who had reddish skin were considered to be hot-tempered. They were supposed to marry someone with a cooler, more laid back temperament. Those people generally have dark brown or black hair (or at least, that’s what people believed).

If you had a thin, long face, you were supposed to marry someone with a round face. A talkative person was supposed to marry a quiet person, and for goodness sake, never marry somebody with the same eye color as you.

Read on to find out what a proper handshake entails in Victorian England.

Laughing Was No Laughing Matter

The ship's belle, a young woman courted by some men on board a transatlantic steamer, illustration from the magazine The Graphic,
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Nowadays, it’s considered a compliment to laugh loudly at somebody else’s joke. It’s a sign that you think someone is funny. Back in the Victorian era, laughing loudly, by either men or women, was considered inappropriate and rude. Basically, it was impolite to show emotions of any sort. People didn’t like to make spectacles out of themselves.

Pointing and whispering were also considered rude, but I’m pretty sure that’s still considered rude today.

Husbands And Wives Called Each Other By Their Last Name In Public

Past and present, gallant scene, engraving from a watercolour by Theodore Blake Wirgman (1848-1925), illustration from the magazine The Graphic, volume XXIX, n 748, March 29, 1884.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

When a husband and wife were together in their home, they could call each other by their first names, but when they were out in public, they had to call each other by Mr. or Mrs. followed by their last name. This was considered to be a sign of respect.

Husbands were never to use their wives’ first names in public and wives were never to use their husbands’ first names in public.

Handshakes Meant A Lot More Than They Do Today

Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Caption reads: 'Peepy was sufficiently decorated to walk hand in hand with the professor of deportment'.
Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images

Men in the Victorian era shook hands with their right hands only. If a man’s right hand was injured, he had to apologize while offering his left hand by saying something like, “excuse my left hand.” Men had to give a firm handshake. Anything too limp or too short was considered impolite.

A handshake was supposed to be two or three seconds long. Any longer, and things just get awkward.

Keep reading to find out exactly how a lady should enter a room.

The Party Didn’t End Until The Guest Of Honor Left

Powder and pug, gallant scene at the ball, illustration from the magazine The Illustrated London News, volume XLI, December 20, 1862.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Guests were expected to stay at a party until the guest of honor left. If you left before the guest of honor, you would be considered very rude. Once the guest of honor left, you were supposed to take the hint and start getting ready to leave yourself.

Now, people show up to parties whenever they feel like it and they leave parties whenever they feel like it. Times have certainly changed.

Mind How Long You’re Speaking

Holidays over: couple by the sea, gallant scene, illustration from Fliegende Blaetter, humour and satire magazine, No 2154, 1886.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

In the Victorian era, the length of a conversation totally depended on where that conversation was taking place. For example, In the streets, conversations were supposed to be short. The streets are a place of business and people use them to get from place to place. They are no place for a lengthy conversation.

If you were taking a walk through the garden, then a conversation would be permitted to last a bit longer.

How A Lady Should Enter A Room

The gallant conversation, painting by Juan Pablo Salinas (1871-1946), woodcut by P Fruehauf from Moderne Kunst (Modern Art), illustrated magazine published by Richard Bong, 1892-1893, Year VII, No 4, Christmas Issue, Berlin.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen clearly states that there are rules for the way a lady should enter a drawing room: “Her face should wear a smile; she should not rush in head-foremost; a graceful bearing; a light step, an elegant bend to common acquaintance are all requisite to a lady.”

If a woman didn’t enter a room gracefully and in good spirits, that would be poor etiquette.

To wear gloves or not to wear gloves? That is the question. Keep reading to find out the answer.

You Invite Your Guests For One O’Clock, They Arrive At Two

Black Monday or the departure for school, a crying baby, painting by William Redmore Bigg (1755-1828), engraving by John Jones, published December the 1st, 1790; dress, manners and art in the 18th century, United Kingdom,
Photo Credit: Getty Images

This is another rule that comes from The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook of Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen. Arriving on time was considered to be in bad form back in the Victorian era.

This rule only applies to country affairs, though. If the invitation is for an event in town, it’s considered rude not to arrive on time. Arriving a whole hour late would be unheard of in the city. It’s all very confusing.

Your Bridesmaids Are How Old?

'A Sweet Delusion', 1878 (1891). A print from Society Pictures, drawn by George du Maurier, selected from Punch.
Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Contrary to what you might have thought, this handbook about etiquette in the Victorian era says that it’s perfectly acceptable for a bride to have married bridesmaids. What is not acceptable, however, is for a bridesmaid to be older than the bride. The handbook says that it would be “absurd” for a single and aged lady to be a bridesmaid.

Now, pretty much anyone can be a bridesmaid. Sometimes maids of honor who are married are called matrons of honor.

The Women Always Sit First

Prologue, gallant scene, engraving by Francesco Cantagalli from a painting by Angelo dall'Oca Bianca, from L'Illustrazione Italiana, No 35, August 31, 1890.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

There were strict rules when it came to sitting down to have a meal at a dining table. The ladies would always sit down before the man. It would be very rude for a man to sit down before all of the ladies were seated.

Also, men who wore gloves had to take off their gloves before they sat down. Women, however, would keep their gloves on while sitting and take them off after they were seated.

Read on to find out what gifts a man was allowed to give a lady.

There Are A Lot Of Rules About Bowing From A Window

Cartoon commenting on the Victorian enthusiasm for natural history. Illustrated by John Leech (181-1864) an English caricaturist and illustrator. Dated 19th century.
Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

A gentleman should not bow from a window to a lady on the street. Although, if the man is on the street and a lady is in an upper window, and she recognizes the man and acknowledges him, then the man is allowed to bow slightly from the street to the lady in the window. Confused yet?

Perhaps we’re lucky that we don’t have to follow quite so many etiquette rules because honestly, how do you keep them straight?

How To Sit In A Carriage

1857: One man holds the horse's head while another helps a Victorian lady onto its back. Original Publication: From 'The Ladies Equestrian Guide' by Mrs Stirling Clarke.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When a man and a woman would go on a carriage ride together, the man would always sit with his back to the horses so the lady could sit opposite him, facing the horses. The lady always gets to look where she’s going.

When ladies rode horses, they would always ride sidesaddle so that they could ride in a dress. You can’t really put one leg on either side of a horse when you’re wearing a dress.

Rules About Gift Giving

omeward bound from China, on a British troop-ship: 1 great guns, 64-pounder and 6-inch hotwitzer, 2 our sky pilot, a minor canon, 3 infantry supports, foreign service, 4 children with a drum, 5 urgent private affairs, gallant scene, 6 the understandings of the British soldiers, 7 forced marching, training an appetite (5:30 PM), illustration from the magazine The Graphic, volume XXX, no 771, September 6, 1884.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

There were strict rules about giving and receiving gifts in Victorian society. A woman wasn’t permitted to give a man a gift unless he gave her one first. When it came to the kinds of gifts men could give women, the options were pretty limited. Flowers were allowed. So were books and candy.

Once a woman received a gift, she could give one back, but it had to be very inexpensive or handmade.

Did you know that men and women had different kinds of chairs? Read on to find out why.

Watch The Way You Walk

ulce Domum or the return from school, painting by William Redmore Bigg (1755-1828), engraving by John Jones, published December the 1st, 1790; dress, manners and art in the 18th century, United Kingdom, illustration from the magazine The Graphic, volume XXX, no 774, September 27, 1884.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

In the 19th century, Emily Thornwell, a prestigious social advisor for young women, wrote some instructions about the way women were supposed to walk in public:

“A lady ought to adopt a modest and measured gait; too great hurry injures the grace which ought to characterize her.” Basically, women were never supposed to run or walk too quickly. You wouldn’t want to be characterized by a quick gait. People might think that you have places to be.

Never Smoke In Front Of A Lady

Gentlemen and ladies, scene in St James Park, London, United Kingdom, illustration from the magazine The Graphic, volume XXIII, n 580, January 8, 1881.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Men in Victorian society often smoked, but they would do so amongst themselves— never in the presence of ladies. During a dinner party, the men would retire to another room to smoke and drink in private.

In fact, it was even considered impolite for a man to return to his wife smelling like smoke. That’s where smoking jackets come from. Men would wear different coats while smoking so that they could take them off when they reunited with their wives.

Different Chairs For Different… Genders

Table Manners, documentary about a treatise manners at table, 1645, Tischzucht, Dokumentation zu einer Lehrschrift ueber Manieren bei Tisch, 1645, woodcut from 1885, digital improved
Photo by: Bildagentur-online/UIG via Getty Images

Men and women had different kinds of chairs in the Victorian era. Men’s chairs had arms and were more comfortable. Women’s chairs had no arms and were straight backed because women always had to sit up straight. You can’t really do anything but sit up straight while wearing a super tight corset.

To this day, we still associate armchairs with men. It’s a very masculine thing to have a sturdy, comfortable armchair.

The Etiquette Of Calling Cards

The rejected instigator: gallant scene in a park, a man tries to read his beloved's hand, illustration from Fliegende Blaetter, humour and satire magazine, No 2090, 1885. Digitally colorized image.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Calling or visiting cards were an essential part of Victorian life— for people who were upper class, at least. Basically, if you were going on a trip, you would take calling cards with you and deliver them to friends at the beginning of your trip to let them know that you were in town.

Once your friends received a calling card, they would know where to find you and that you were ready for visitors. Some friends would send their own calling card as a sort of RSVP, and some would just show up unannounced, which was perfectly polite at the time because you couldn’t exactly call someone on the phone to let them know you were coming.

Post-Mortem Photography Was A Thing

The word, a charade, gallant scene in a house, drawing by A Hunt, illustration from the magazine The Illustrated London News, volume XLIX, December 22, 1866.
Photo Credit: Getty Images

It was pretty difficult to get a portrait taken in the Victorian era. You had to stay still for a long time while the camera worked its magic. Sometimes, families would choose to have photos taken of their loved ones after they had died.

Sometimes it was because this would be the only photo ever taken of this person and the families wanted something to remember their loved ones by. Creepy, yes, but not rude or indecent by Victorian standards.