Written by on May 24, 2019

How to be Proper: A Turn-of-the-Century Etiquette Book

Expectations of social and societal behavior are forever in flux. While I feel so distanced from the gendered expectations that characterized the Victorian era, there are sentiments of proper etiquette that persisted through to the 20th century, and still, at times, ring true. While re-shelving material in Special Collections and Archives’ rare book collection, I stumbled across a turn-of-the-century etiquette book. It piqued my curiosity, so I pulled it off the shelf and delved into its precisely outlined expectations of the ladies and gentlemen of middle and upper-class U.S. society.

Annie Randall White’s Social Culture: A Manuel of Etiquette and Deportment, written in 1903, provides guidelines specifically for what is socially accepted and expected, and what sorts of deportment are seen as detrimental not only to the individual but to society as a whole. It offered answers to basic questions of daily life—what to wear to a masquerade ball or which utensil to eat certain types of fruits—to more internal grievances, such as how to overcome bashfulness and insecurity. And while some of the formalities seem backwards to my contemporary self, others do not seem as far from our own cultural expectations as one might think. I was spurred to think about which sentiments pervaded through time; why did some last while others diminished into obscurity?

Front cover of “Social Culture” by Annie Randall White.


Title page to “Social Culture” by Annie Randall White.


Below I’ve selected some highlights from Social Culture, including expectations that are at times similar and at other times vastly different from how people interact in the public sphere today. Are these out of the realm of contemporary application, or do they still apply to our daily life? Let us know what you think!

Chapter IV: “Little Folks’ Entertainments and Dress”

“What Girls Should Do-

Your every-day toilet is part of your character. A girl that looks like a “fury” or “sloven” in the morning, is not to be trusted, however fine she may look in the evening. No matter how humble your room may be, there are eight things it should contain, namely; A mirror, wash-stand, soap, towel, comb, hair, nail, and tooth brushes. These are just as essential as your breakfast, and before you come to the table you should make use of them. Make your toilet in your own room…A girl of fine sensibilities cannot help being embarrassed and awkward in a ragged and dirty dress, with her hair unkept, should a neighbor come in. Moreover, self-respect demands the decent appareling of your body. You should make it a point to look as well as you can, even if you know nobody will see you but yourself” (49).

Chapter VI: “Self-Conciousness–How to Overcome it”


The shy man is forever committing some blunder. He is either stepping on a lady’s dress, or spilling water on his neighbor at table, or knocking down some fragile bit of bric-a-brac with those elbows of his that are in the way on all occasions. In the smoking room he is very apt to upset the cuspidor. In the drawing room he stumbles over a footstool, or a button gets entangled in a lady’s lace. In the dining room he spills the salt or tips over a cream drug. In short, there is no end to his awkwardness. When he is presented to a lady, he colors up violently, and stammers out some inappropriate remark or unmeaning question. He is generally in a hurry, and if asked to take a lady in to supper, he drags her in as through she were a lifeless bundle, and sits during the meal as silent as a statue” (60).

Chapter IX: “Conversation”

“Puns are Vulgar-

An occasional pun can be forgiven, in good society, but the man or woman who makes one on every other work is a nuisance, and the soul will rise up in arms against the infliction. The fashion of punning dates from the times of the early Greeks, but its age does not entitle it to veneration. The objection to the pun is that it breaks in on conversation. A punster has no regard for the most sacred and dear feelings of the heart, and would as readily play upon words at a funeral as at a wedding” (87).


A man with a hobby is universally shunned. He cares for nothing save the one idea which engrosses all his time. He will not engage in conversation on any topic save one, and will adroitly lead all the company up to his train of thought. He never receives credit for the intelligence which he really possesses, for he wearies his listeners and will brook no contradiction. Beware of a hobby. The possession of one will impair your usefulness” (94).

Chapter X: “Etiquette of School Days”

“A Disagreeable Prude-

To a girl denied the pleasure of associating with her boy classmates there must always result one of two effects. She either becomes a willful and disobedient girl, seeking surreptitiously the company of oftentimes rude, undesirable companions, or becomes a disagreeable prude, who sees harm in everything. You may know the prude, no matter how young she is, by her stolid air of resistance to mankind in general. She is started out in life with a n immense conceit of her moral attributes, and becomes, as she grows older, offensive when she believes herself to be polite. It is well to avoid either extreme, and be convinced that an artless gaiety, tempered by refinement, always pleases and attracts” (103).

Ch. XI: “Misses and Unmarried Women”

“Elderly Girls-

When a lady passes the age of thirty and has not yet married, she is entitled to a matron’s freedom. This is also in a measure true when one has reached the age of twenty-five. She is now considered able to judge for herself and knows when to shun the temptations of the world. She, however, cannot do everything she might wish to without violating some rules of etiquette. In traveling she should either be accompanied by her father, brother or a lady friend, and should be especially particular regarding her dress.

So many charming women are single from choice, either because their sweetheart died young or because of the giving up of one’s life to become the matron of the father’s home, that to them should be accorded all respect due to a married woman. Many of our “bachelor girls” live together and are the happiest people imaginable. It takes a very superior woman to be an old maid” (122).

Chapter XIV: “Obligations of Bachelors”

“Do Not Be Too Attentive-

He should not be too assiduous in his attentions. Most every young girl is rather willing to accept attentions which are offered, even if she intends at some future time to check them. She means no harm, but thoughtlessly reasons that there is nothing serious in his intentions, and she can discourage them when she chooses.

Sending flowers is proper, at any time, and bears no significance in itself. A bachelor can very properly send flowers and kind inquiries to the house of a lady who has entertained him often, if she should be attacked by illness” (134).

Chapter XV: “Etiquette in the Street”

“Giggling Detestable-

A lady who desires a reputation for elegant manners does not giggle or whisper in a meaning way on the cars or in theaters or lecture rooms. She reserves those disagreeable habits for a more private place. Neither do ladies commence to laugh as soon as the door has closed upon a retiring guest. They may be laughing about something entirely foreign to the occasion, but it is not in human nature to help imagining the laugh is aimed at the one who has just left the circle, and who will feel uncomfortable in consequence. Remain perfectly quiet until you are sure your friend is out of hearing, ere you resume your conversation. Loud talking is inexcusable at all times, and gives a very vulgar air to what you say. A lady does not call to her friends across the street, or inquire after their health in a boisterous fashion or shout across to know “Where are you going, Jennie?”” (139).

Want to request this book and see what other rare books are in Special Collections and Archives? Search our collections in the library’s OneSearch catalog: https://onesearch.calpoly.edu

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