"He swirled his brandy counter-clockwise?! Bah!"
June 19, 2013 2:59 PM   Subscribe

Imagine you are in 19th century Britain and sharing a cocktail and a cigar with some upper crust gentlemen. What are some subtle actions that, while not essentially rude in nature, would still come across as a huge faux pas or violation of etiquette in that time period, specifically among the wealthy? I'm more interested in actions performed incorrectly, rather than spoken statements which are unintentionally offensive.
posted by egeanin to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
While drinking tea, one could choose to extend the little finger, or to curl it like the others. One of those is the done thing, the other marks you as an outsider. But I can never remember which is which.
posted by phliar at 3:16 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: In the second half of the century, it would be bad show to have fastened the bottom button of your waistcoat.
posted by hydatius at 3:26 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Whatever you do, don't pass the port to the right.
posted by Specklet at 3:27 PM on June 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Not being properly dressed. In Downton Abbey one of the men has to show up in a white suit instead of a black one (when the black one is damaged) and everyone looks at him like he's wearing shorts and flip-flops. Wearing the wrong suit to dinner... man. Not on.

From here: "Formal evening dress was defined as a black tailcoat and trousers, black or white waistcoat, white bow tie, white dress shirt, white dress gloves and black patent leather shoes. In both Britain and America this was the only evening kit that now qualified as full dress. Informal evening dress differed from formal "in the wearing of the Tuxedo or dinner coat in place of the ‘swallowtail’", explained The Complete Bachelor, "and the substitution of a black silk for a white lawn tie." In addition, "White evening waistcoats and Tuxedo coats do not agree; black is only allowable.” "

But I doubt anyone of the time would make this mistake unless forced to do so as in the situation in the show.
posted by GuyZero at 3:27 PM on June 19, 2013

A man should always rise to his feet upon the entrance of a lady, an older person, or a person of a higher social standing.

And the reverse is true -- stand up when the person leaves the room.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:28 PM on June 19, 2013

Oh, don't prink your pinkie; it's perceived as putting on airs. (Comes from the Roman tradition of avoiding using the pinkie whilst eating, as only peasants ate with all five fingers.)
posted by Specklet at 3:30 PM on June 19, 2013

Best answer: Oh, and touching anything under a lady's control. Her chair, her drink, a personal item, etc. These are invasions of personal, dignified spaces.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:30 PM on June 19, 2013 [5 favorites]

And off the off chance you haven't see Downton Abbey it's a good series for this, especially in the second and third series when there's some class-mixing going on.

Discussing money was a very forbidden topic which turned out badly as many of the landed aristocrats all went bankrupt for the same reasons, many of which were easily prevented. Arguably it's still not considered a polite topic to discuss today.
posted by GuyZero at 3:33 PM on June 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Google Books has lots of 19th-century etiquette books. That's how I learned that offering a cigar to the vicar is just not done.
posted by Knappster at 4:16 PM on June 19, 2013 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I think there's a whole scene about this in a Powell & Pressburger movie. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, maybe? There's a large dinner party heavily attended by military officers where all the conventions and potential faux-pas are laid bare for exactly how ridiculous they are. Possibly even within the "after-dinner brandy and cigar" part of a dinner party specifically. The only thing I remember is the complicated rules for who pours whose drink, and what one is obligated to do when the person to one's left takes a drink, or the host offers one a drink, or someone lights your cigar, or the like.
posted by Sara C. at 4:21 PM on June 19, 2013

First, you would not have a cocktail or any mixed drink. You would most likely have brandy. Fortunately, tea would not be served after dinner so you could not commit the heinous offense of the upright little finger.
posted by Cranberry at 4:41 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You never, ever leave the band on your cigar.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 4:58 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've heard various things about putting milk into your tea. On the one hand, I've heard it was proper to add the milk first, because British houses were drafty and cold. If you pour the boiling hot tea in first, the delicate (cold) china might crack from the temperature shift. So refined people know to pour milk in first to temper the heat of the tea and more gently warm the cup.

On the other hand, I've heard that if you were in a truly fancy house, you would never add the milk first, because it implied you didn't think your hostess knew enough to warm the cups up first. So you always added tea first.

I'm not sure how credible either of these is, so definitely check up on it if this is for something important.
posted by pompelmo at 5:13 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

The McCord Museum did a game a number of years back about etiquette in the Victorian era. It was pretty funny, and easy to get the answers right (well, the multiple choice ones anyway) but still gives you an idea of the things that were important etiquette-wise.

The Flash plugin does seem to crash periodically now though; v annoying.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:23 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A lady does not wear a hat in her own home.
A lady wears gloves in public - including other people's homes - unless she is eating or drinking.
A gentleman never offers his hand to a lady in a gesture of greeting (handshake). He only shakes after the lady decides to extend her hand.
Diamonds were only properly worn for evening engagements (diamond engagement rings are a new fad)
posted by jaimystery at 5:32 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

> And off the off chance you haven't see Downton Abbey it's a good series for this, especially in the second and third series when there's some class-mixing going on.

I disagree. They research all kinds of fiddly little stuff but ignore important stuff when it suits them. One basic rule: gentlemen and ladies ignore the existence of servants except in certain situations when the servants are expected to provide assistance. You do not just have a chat with the staff. Downton Abbey is constantly violating this. For obvious reasons, but still. Do not take that show as gospel.
posted by languagehat at 5:39 PM on June 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

In the horse era there was a huge amount of etiquette about the kerb-side and the building-side of footpaths, especially on semi-paved or unpaved roads (ie. getting to walk on the side farthest from the gutter full of animal urine and the muddy street with piles of shit). You'd be expected to give people the building-side as a mark of respect, or expect to displace other people towards the street to show your superiority.

I've read that in the 19th and early 20thC United States this was often a matter of violence, especially where black people made a point of equality.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:08 PM on June 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It would be considered extremely rude to make any sort of personal remark about a female member of another gentleman's family, unless (for example) you and Lady Edith "grew up together," and even then the remark would have to be pretty innocuous ("I suppose Edith is riding in a lot in this fine weather, sir?")

Now, something non-verbal. Sitting down before an elderly gentleman was comfortably settled into the room's best chair would look thoughtless and common. Helping yourself to any sort of refreshment before it is offered (unless, again, you are so old and familiar a friend that you are practically one of the family) would never be done. If the older gentlemen in the room are not smoking, you would at least ask, "May I smoke, sir?" of your host, or, even better, just skip it.

Oh, and of course you would not be having a cocktail: you might have port or brandy after the evening meal, a whiskey and soda at tea, straight spirits at a casual, all-male daytime meeting, or punch or Champagne at a ball, or a toddy just before going to bed, especially in the winter. Asking for a cocktail, even something so seemingly straightforward as an "Old Fashioned," would earn you from your host either a blank stare or at best a chilly "I'm afraid we haven't the makings for that sort of thing here, old man, but I'm sure if I ring the kitchen they can turn up bitters somewhere or other."
posted by La Cieca at 8:33 PM on June 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer:
The paying of compliments is a middle-class convention, for this class needs the assurance compliments provide. In the upper class there's never any doubt of one's value, and it all goes without saying. A British peer of a very old family was once visited by an artistic young man who, entering the dining room, declared that he'd never seen a finer set of Hepplewhite chairs. His host had him ejected instantly, explaining, "Fellow praised my chairs! Damned cheek!" Dining among the uppers, one does not normally praise the food, because it goes without saying that the hostess would put forth nothing short of excellent. Besides, she's not cooked it.
-- Paul Fussell, Class
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:26 PM on June 19, 2013 [11 favorites]

When someone offers you a plate or tray of drinks or food (or presumably cigars) you always take the one nearest you without hesitation. You do not hover your hand our and hunt around for the best looking or biggest thing on the plate.
posted by fshgrl at 10:48 PM on June 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

Don't ever be rude to the help. It's like shouting at the fireplace for not being burny enough. Very declasse. It also implies that you doubt the effectiveness of the mistress of the house in her role as the hirer and firer of the staff.

And speaking of tea, what gentleman pours his own? Honestly people. You either have a maid do it or one of the young ladies visiting. It's terribly rude to get all domestic at someone else's home.
posted by Jilder at 11:40 PM on June 19, 2013

Contrary to what you may have seen on Downton Abbey, one does not wear gloves while dining.
posted by Dolley at 6:23 AM on June 20, 2013

Best answer: If you're interested in reading about this further, I recommend the book What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. As the subtitle declares ("From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England"), it's full of interesting factoids about the social mores and rules for life during that time period. It's a little bit all over the place, but I thought it was a fun read.
posted by alleycat01 at 7:40 AM on June 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Specklet: Oh, don't prink your pinkie; it's perceived as putting on airs. (Comes from the Roman tradition of avoiding using the pinkie whilst eating, as only peasants ate with all five fingers.)
Smells like urban myth BS. A google search revealed other "just-so" stories, and conflicting advice about whether or not to lift the pinky, but not a single shred of proof anywhere - which would exist if we actually knew the origin.

I suspect the answer (as always) is simpler and more boring: it's rather easy for many people to leave the pinky jutting outwards, as curling it in without grabbing anything (on a small teacup handle) requires a tiny amount of attention.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:12 AM on June 20, 2013

On the pinky thing- you don't stick your fingers through the handle on a china tea cup you hold it like you would a wine glass stem. And they are small and the cup part of a fine china tea cup is bloody hot so you you put your two small fingers wherever you can to avoid burning them. The exaggerated pinky thing I always thought was a theatrical device to connotate "fanciness".
posted by fshgrl at 9:49 AM on June 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

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