10 Ridiculous Victorian Etiquette Rules

Street Etiquette
Let's hope she initiated this hand contact; otherwise, this gentleman could be considered incredibly forward. Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Strict guidelines governed social interaction on promenades and public thoroughfares, especially between the sexes. A young unmarried woman would not go out without an escort. Etiquette forbade young ladies from looking around for acquaintances or stopping to chat in a crowded thoroughfare.

According to Cassell's Household Guide, a comprehensive book on Victorian life published in 1869, if the young woman did see a gentleman friend and felt she couldn't ignore him, she would have to take the initiative and offer her hand. The gentleman had to wait for the lady to recognize him before lifting his hat (not simply touching the brim), and he had to use the hand farthest from her. If she offered her hand, the gentleman had to turn to walk with the lady instead of stopping. And above all else, the conversation itself had to be reserved: Cassell's dictates, "Strict reticence of speech and conduct should be observed in public," without "loud talking" or "animated discussions."

A gentleman never smoked in the presence of a lady. Indeed, it would be impolite for ladies to "detain gentlemen in conversation" while they were smoking, because it would force him to put out a good cigar [source: Cassell].

Only under extreme circumstances could one perform the practice of "cutting," in which you stared directly at someone you knew with no sign of recognition. Cassell's called this "the most ill-mannered act possible to commit in society."

In a carriage ride, a gentleman never sat next to a lady who was not a relative; he always sat with his back to the horses, allowing the opposite seat to the lady. A gentleman also had to take care not to step on a lady's dress, and he was to alight first to help a lady down.