1872 – What Constitutes Good Society?

The Soiree, by Jean Beraud, 1880What constitutes good society? Well, in 1872 England the requisites of good society are listed in “The Habits of Good Society: A Handbook for Ladies and Gentlemen.”  They are:

  • Good breeding, which is acquired by being taught by nurses, parents, tutors, school fellows, and friends.
  • Education not from just finishing schools, universities or boarding schools, but education that gives you mental powers and comprehension.
  • Cultivation of taste, referring to the arts and music and being well versed in the subject.
  • Reason so that you are able to reply as well as to attend to the opinions of others.
  • The art of speech, expressing self by the written word and using proper grammar and syntax.
  • A knowledge of English literature deemed important to be well rounded so you can converse expertly on history, politics, and every other subject or current interest.
  • Moral character because without morality society will shun you. “Society itself is the court in which are judged those many offenses which the law cannot reach, and this inclemency of the world, this exile for life which is pronounced, must be regarded. There is little or no means of punishing the seducer, the cheat, the habitual drunkard and gambler, and men and women who indulge in illicit pleasures, except this one verdict of perpetual expulsion pronounced by good society.”
  • Temper that can be controlled. There is nothing to which an Englishman clings so tenaciously as his opinions, and there are a few things which rouse the temper rapidly to argument. Politics and religion are the hot points to avoid.
  • Hospitality, which the English boast of, but one must be properly introduced before you can be accepted into another’s home as a guest.
  • Good manners – The whole book is filled with good manners, which I’ll touch on in future posts.
  • Birth, of course, relating to the upper classes.
  • Wealth, which usually comes from inheritance.
  • Rank, which is a gift in life or gained by merit.
  • Distinction, which comes from one’s profession or abilities.

Bad society is classified in three buckets:

  • Manners and morals are bad (termed low society)
  • Manners are bad, but somewhat moral (termed vulgar society)
  • Manners are good, but morals are detestable (termed dangerous society)

So what kind of behavior was considered vulgar? Here is an interesting peek:

  • Familiarity on the first introduction to another is bad style and vulgar. “Familiarity arises either from an excess of friendliness or a deficiency of respect.”
  • Don’t flaunt your wealth – it is considered vulgar to do so. It’s considered ill-mannered to dress too flashy, have more servants than you need, and serve people at dinner with a gold plate if you do so just to act superior.
  • Name dropping is considered vulgar. In other words, when you make an acquaintance it’s considered bad-mannered to name someone of nobility you may know to make yourself more important in the eyes of another.
  • Vulgarity in dress can also go in the opposite direction as in 1872 it was considered vulgar for ladies to wear their dresses off their shoulders and they were guilty of immodesty.
  • Swearing is vulgar; but if you are of lower class and attempt to use words of refinement you are guilty of being vulgar trying to impress another.
  • Cleanliness can be exaggerated and is considered vulgar. Descriptions closely resemble someone who has compulsive behaviors in this area.

To sum up good society, the book calls it:

“High moral character, a polished education, a perfect command of temper, good breeding, delicate feeling, good manners, good habits, and a good bearing are indispensable.” Wit, accomplishments, and social talents are great advantages but not necessary. However, wealth, rank, and distinction must be carefully handled so you don’t come across as a snob.

Here is a list of the great topics ahead:

  • The Dressing Room
  • The Lady’s Toilet
  • Clothing for men and women
  • Accomplishments for men
  • Accomplishments for women
  • Manners, carriage and habits
  • Relations in public and private
  • Dinners and Dinner Parties
  • Morning and Evening Parties
  • Marriage

Stay tuned for more great insights!

Vicki