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Social Etiquette in the Victorian Era


Do you ever run into this problem when researching? You begin researching one specific thing, which leads to something else that intrigues you, so you decide to learn more about that—and so on and so on until you’ve spent so much time reading and researching, you haven’t had time to write!(That’s my excuse, anyway, and I’m sticking to it. *G*)

But that’s exactly what happened to me when I began to research social etiquette in the Victorian era. Now, mind you, my fellow Victorians know this stuff like the backs of their hands and will probably snicker when they read this post—they undoubtedly already knew all of this. I didn’t. When writing historical, my heroes (Cowboys. Ranchers. Lawmen. Gunslingers.) usually eschew society and customs. So it’s all new to me to be writing about a character who makes it his business to know these things. And kind of fun!

Here’s a sampling of what I’ve learned.

Here’s my card.

Today, we think nothing of handing someone our business card with contact information on it. If you’ve ever been to an RWA conference, you’ve seen this exchange many times over. But did you know that it was once considered bad manners to hand a social acquaintance a card with your personal business information on it? Like with everything else, there were rules to be followed!

Every gentleman and lady had engraved calling cards. Some were made of thick paperboard, some were even made of copper. The cards served as an introduction and there were many rules regarding their custom and use.

  • A married woman’s card was larger than her husband’s; his had to fit in a breast pocket.
  • A young girl could only have calling cards after she had been properly presented to society.
  • Cards were always presented by a servant to the mistress of the house. If the mistress wasn’t home, the caller was not welcome.
  • Servants collected the cards on silver trays or glass bowls and present the cards to the lady of the house with the most important caller on top.
  • After moving to a new neighborhood, it was polite to wait until your new neighbors left you their card before attempting to meet them.
  • A proper lady (or gentleman) never wrote regrets or accepts on a card as a reply to an invitation. These required a hand-written note.

There was an elaborate system of “card protocol” to be remembered, as well, and an even more elaborate system of turning corners up or down to show whether you were leaving on a short trip, a long trip or moving away permanently.

Hat’s Off!

Did you know hat etiquette was practiced mostly by cowboys? The practice dates back to the days of chivalry when knights would raise their helmet shields as a sign of respect. But it was the American cowboy who popularized the custom. According to the John B. Stetson Hat Company (founded in 1868) there are very specific rules to dictate when a man should tip his hat and when to remove it.

Tip your hat…

*If a lady thanks you

*After receiving directions from a stranger

*If you excuse yourself to a lady

*When walking with another man and he greets a woman you don’t know

Remove your hat…

*During the playing of the national anthem

*Upon entering a building

*During an introduction

*When attending a funeral

*When initiating a conversation.


  1. Paty Jager says:

    good info! I”m so glad you spent all that time up this information and I can just glean it from you! LOL Love the cowboy hat info!

  2. ISabel says:

    It’s always good to remember these things! I wonder how often these rules were broken, since I can’t imagine everyone following them all the time!

    And this may be showing my historical-ness but I really hate it when people don’t remove their hats or stop talking during the National Anthem. Any National Anthem. No respect these days.

  3. The calling card info is just so funny. Imagine having to remember all those rules! But it’s stuff like that that makes writing historical fiction fun.

  4. Paisley Kirkpatrick says:

    Great information, Nic. I guess they didn’t have so many things to remember in those days so these kind of nice acts were important. I think today we don’t have enough protcol and manners never get out the door when people leave home. It’s a shame really. When I was a child, I had to stand when an adult came into the room, give up my chair for an older person and ask to be excused from the table. Yes, I am old….. 🙂

  5. Anonymous says:

    Calling card rules were evolving rapidly. Each social circle held to its unique rules that defined that social class. Some actually did write on the cards and others used them in a manner that required a cipher to preserve the integrity of their social circle. Nice blog, though, in pointing out how integral the calling card was in an era when not everyone could properly receive an introduction into a society, and when women were allowed out and about alone in many instances.

  6. Victoria says:

    Yeah it is nice to follow some of the rules they had in those days, but some of them were completely ridiculous!!

    I was cleaning through my attic when I was moving house, and came across some of my Granda’s books on Victorian ettiquette. There was a whole like 80 page book on teh ettiquette of getting in and out of a boat, another one on what to wear on which occasion – even one on what to wear, what was acceptablke to say etc when playing croquet and other similar games!!


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  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the information! And like you said, that bit of research leading to more and more interesting topics is what led me here. Great stuff!

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