Take note, gentlemen: this might help you on your next date. Or not. Probably not.
Our guide to proper 19th-century etiquette, the eminent Cecil B. Hartley, would have been remiss to omit from his 1875 Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette advice on the art of conversation. And lucky for us, almost all of these guidelines have something to do with one’s behavior in “the society of ladies.”
This was the era of the “Cult of True Womanhood,” a pervasive (I suppose a lot of us would say pernicious) set of ideas about how women were supposed to act. We can sum it up into four cardinal virtues for women: piety, purity, submission, and domesticity.
Of course, in 1875, “ladies” wasn’t a blanket statement for all human females–more like white middle- and upper-class human females. But even so, working-class women, African-American women, and others who wouldn’t be called “ladies” or be welcomed in polite society were often held to the same standards of the Cult of True Womanhood.
The point being that these were the cultural assumptions of Hartley’s time, and the things he says about women’s brains and mental faculties (below) would have been quite common. Hey, women themselves were reading the same things in their own publications, like that money-making machine, the womanly advice manual and fashion handbook “Godey’s Lady’s Book.”
So let’s see what Mr. Hartley was teaching America’s young men about relationships between the sexes:
1. No Controversy Allowed
“One of the first rules for a guide in polite conversation is to avoid political and religious discussions in general society … [I]n the drawing room, at the dinner table, or in the society of ladies, these are topics best avoided.”
We still say today that it’s impolite to bring up politics, religion, or other contentious subjects at dinner or at any sort of gathering–even among friends and family. Of course, Hartley mentions three situations in which it’s in particularly bad taste to start a debate: all of them the domestic spheres of a woman. You get the feeling that Hartley wouldn’t take offense to a group of men drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and talking politics in the library after dinner.
2. Don’t Let a Woman Show You Up
I love this one. Hartley has just been discoursing on the importance of being knowledgeable about a broad range of topics (art, science, literature, business, music, international affairs) when he throws in this gem about a woman who chimes in with something insightful to say when the man has lost the train of the conversation for wont of a proper education:
“This facility of comprehension often startles us in some women, whose education we know to have been poor, and whose reading is limited. If they did not rapidly receive your ideas, they could not, therefore, be fit companions for intellectual men, and it is, perhaps, their consciousness of a deficiency which leads them to pay more attention to what you say.”
By jove, that must be it! It’s not that she’s a intelligent woman who has by the custom of the country been denied equal education with men (how absurd); it must be that she wants to get married and so tries really hard to prove herself to men! Well, that makes much more sense.
3. That’s What She Said
You know why I’m glad Steve Carell left The Office this season? Because I’m pretty sure that Michael Scott did more to popularize “That’s what she said” jokes than anyone else on the planet. And if puns are the lowest form of humor, than making a double entendre of an innocent person’s inadvertent sexual innuendo has to be the lowest form of pun.
“To use phrases which admit of a double meaning, is ungentlemanly, and, if addressed to a lady, they become positively insulting.”
Finally, something Cecil and I can agree on. Lord knows there’s not much.
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