August 5, 2013 11:05 am
There is a long and dignified history of manuals that tell women what to do, what to wear, and when and how to speak. And, often, they are a testament to how inconstant these supposedly unshakable rules. This manual, from 1864, is no exception. For more than 300 pages, it advise women on everything from “conduct in the street” to “deportment at a hotel” to “obligations to gentlemen” to “incorrect words.”
These last are to be avoided, as they are “too coarse a sound to be used by a lady.” They include:
- mayhap (a “positive vulgarism,” according to the manual).
Here’s how the manual’s author, “Miss Leslie,” feels about slang:
We have little tolerance for young ladies who, having in reality neither wit nor humor, set up for both, and having nothing of the right stock to go upon, substitute coarseness and impertinence, (not to say impudence,) and try to excite laughter, and attract the attention of gentlemen, by talking slang. Where do they get it? How do they pick it up? From low newspapers, or from vulgar books? Surely not from low companions?
Oh, and women should also never allow anybody to abbreviate their names. Kate, Madge and Bess are purely disrespectful versions of Catharine, Margaret and Elizabeth.
Of course, the book’s advice doesn’t stop at language. When walking in the street, women should not walk side by side. Instead, when three ladies are walking together, one is supposed to walk a bit ahead of the other two. If all three are engaged in a single conversation, that is “awkward, inconvenient, ungenteel, and should always be avoided.” And if a woman is walking with two men, she should divide her attention equally between them.
The book even has a stance on the 19th-century version of cat-calling:
When a gentleman meets a lady with whom his acquaintance is very slight, (perhaps nothing more than a few words of talk at a party,) he allows her the option of continuing the acquaintance or not, at her pleasure; therefore, he waits till she recognizes him, and till she evinces it by a bow, – he looking at her to give the opportunity.
This, like the rest of the advice in the book, appears to have been lost to time.
More from Smithsonian.com:
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.