These excerpts from an 1855 etiquette manual offer an example of the detailed social proscriptions and rituals that guided middle-class life in the antebellum city. Most of the era’s etiquette advice emphasized the importance of emotional and physical self-control, displays of restraint that would separate the respectable from the uncouth. These selections also reflect the difficulty of maintaining privacy and decorum in crowded city spaces.
Carefully avoid performing certain necessities of the toilet in company. I have known a man, who thought very well of his agreeable qualities, to go into a lady’s room, and while conversing with her, deliberately take off his shoes and stockings, and begin to cut his toe nails! Scraping and cleaning the finger nails is bad enough; but digging out the ears, putting the fingers in the nostrils or to the nose, picking the teeth, scratching the head, or any part of the person, are acts that require the strictest privacy. By all means, avoid the habit of any such unmannerliness; and resolutely break such a habit, if you have been so unfortunate as to contract it.
No lady is ever seen to spit. A gentleman should avoid it, as far as possible. The saliva was intended to be swallowed. . . . It is an excrement of the body, and should be disposed of as privately as any other. . . .
The use of tobacco has made us a nation of spitters, and no delicate minded person can pass along the streets, enter into a public conveyance, stop at a hotel, or even go to church without being brought into contact with this nuisance of expectoration.
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Each man—each woman, is sovereign. They belong to themselves first of all: and then to those upon whom they please to bestow themselves. Around every person there is a certain sphere of repulsion, into which no one ought to intrude. It is an impoliteness, a rudeness; it is even an affront and an outrage to come within a certain distance of any person without permission, expressed or implied. Every body must keep their distance, and endeavor to know that their distance is. To run against a man, is an act which demands apology—when purposely done, it is a gross affront. To slap a man on the back is a rudeness. To put yourself in personal contact with him in any way, you should be entirely certain that such contact is desirable, and that you are acting up to the law of supply of demand. In a gentleman’s conduct towards a lady, these rules are still more imperative.
You have no right to draw near, speak to, or touch, any person unless you have the right to believe that such presence, address, or contact is desirable; and it is not to be presumed upon.
The right of individual privacy; to be alone; to have command of one’s time, thoughts and actions, is continually violated. Husbands and wives; children and parents; brothers and sisters; friends and neighbors; and even strangers, are continually intruding upon the lives and rights of each other.
Source: The Illustrated Manners Book: A Manual of Good Behavior and Polite Accomplishments. New York. Leland Clay, & Co., 1855