Over the past few hundred years, etiquette books have cropped up as a means of preserving the sanctity of "good" society, striving to instruct both sexes on all aspects of how to live a proper life, from getting dressed for a party to making living arrangements. Unsurprisingly, the ones for women are often the most ridiculous. Here are 18 tips for how to be a true lady, gleaned from texts published between 1856 and 2007. You might be surprised how little they've changed. (The sourcing comes after a group of quotes from each book).
1. "Make your company a rarity, and people will value it. Men despise what they can easily have."
2. "Think like the wise, but talk like ordinary people."
From 1866's The Polite Ladies' Guide to Proper Etiquette by Arthur Martine (pages 30 and 32).
3. "Eat your soup quietly. To make any noise in eating it, is simply disgusting."
4. "Depend upon it, silvery hair is better adapted..."
Depend upon it, silvery hair is better adapted to the faded cheeks of middle age, than are tresses of nut-brown or coal-black, or any of the mysterious shades produced by a dirty decoction called Hair-dye.
From 1876's The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness by Florence Hartley (pages 100 and 293).
5. "Ladies should never dine with their gloves on; unless their hands are not fit to be seen."
6. "A lady offers a chair to a gentleman, but asks a lady to sit on the sofa."
7. "Ladies should be particular not to cross their knees in sitting, nor to assume any indecorous attitude."
8. "If a gentleman approaches you with words of flattery...
If a gentleman approaches you with words of flattery and profuse attentions, especially after a short acquaintance, extend no encouraging smile or word; for a flatterer can never be otherwise than an unprofitable companion.
From 1856's The Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility by Emily Thornwell (pages 93, 100, 146).
9. "Remember your most important job..."
Remember your most important job is to build up and maintain [your husband's] ego (which gets bruised plenty in business). Morale is a woman’s business.
From 1943's Sex Today in Wedded Life by Edward Podolsky.
10. "Girls need to stop sitting, walking, and standing like the boys..."
Girls need to stop sitting, walking, and standing like the boys and do it differently, in a way that represents their femininity. Be different from the boys so that there is no confusion.
11. "Prettiness is about being like a delicate flower..."
Prettiness is about being like a delicate flower because flowers are pretty. ... Be like the flower when you are being you during your day; feel pretty when you sit, feel pretty when you walk, and feel pretty when you stand.
From 2007's The Young Lady's Guide to Charm, Style & Femininity by Keisha Clark (pages 20 and 22).
12. "It is indispensable to own a complete set of accessories..."
It is indispensable to own a complete set of accessories in black and, if possible, another in brown, plus a pair of beige shoes and a beige straw handbag for the summer.
From 2004's A Guide to Elegance by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux.
13. "No young girl may live alone..."
No young girl may live alone. Even though she has a father, unless he devotes his entire time to her, she must also have a resident chaperon who protects her reputation until she is married or old enough to protect it herself—which is not until she has reached a fairly advanced age, of perhaps thirty years or over if she is alone, or twenty-six or so if she lives in her father’s house and behaves with such irreproachable circumspection that Mrs. Grundy is given no chance to set tongues wagging.
From 1922's Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home by Emily Post.
14. "Washing your hands in milk and water, for two or three days, will make them white."
15. "A still mouth will show a wise head."
From 1877's Perfect Etiquette, Or, How to Behave in Society by James Kernan (pages 72 and 7).
16. "For an informal dinner a woman may wear a semi- evening dress of the sort suitable for afternoon while her partner wears the regular dinner jacket."
17. "Whether she is hostess or guest..."
Whether she is hostess or guest the woman at a break fast or luncheon should wear an afternoon gown of silk, crepe-de-chime, velvet, cloth or novelty material. In the summer preference may be given organdies, georgettes, etc.
From 1922's Book of Etiquette by Lillian Eichler Watson (pages 47 and 55).
Etiquette guides aren't only for women, of course. A plethora of texts for men have hit bookshelves over the years, including William Josephus Robinson's 1922 Married Life and Happiness. Here's one particular standout gem from that book, published less than 100-years-ago, that pertains to women.
Women are really beginning to find out that they are human beings, almost as good as we are, and we simply must reckon with that fact. (70)
Good to know.