No Chignons in the Ice Cream, Please

NYPL Summer Ball Dress 1872
Ball dress, 1872 NYPL Digital Gallery

May I introduce Miss Florence Hartley? She is the author of The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness which was published in 1876. But her – well, Miss Hartley, I must be honest, though polite of course – her very saucy way of admonishing and telling us what to do is really amusing. On another occasion, I will have to tell you what she says about how to dress to go out walking, it is quite rude!  In general, really, her advice is sometimes rather…well – and I mean this very respectfully, Miss Hartley -  challenging.

Take, for instance, some of her rules for how to behave at a ball (we are watching Pride and Prejudice again just now and so ballrooms are much in my mind). Miss Hartley’s admonishments are in italics:

Avoid confidential conversation in a ball room. It is out of season, and in excessively bad taste.

But don’t be too loud either, that’s just vulgar…

Dance as others do. It has a very absurd look to take every step with dancing school accuracy, and your partner will be the first one to notice it. 

In other words, don’t be too good at dancing. On the other hand, you’re not supposed to be bad at it either. Right?

Once you stop dancing and think about refreshments (yum, refreshments!) things can take a decided turn for the (even) worse:

Never go into the supper-room with the same gentleman twice. You may go more than once, if you wish for an ice or glass of water (surely no lady wants two or three suppers), but do not tax the same gentleman more than once, even if he invites you after each dance.

I suspect that he may want two suppers, and is thinking that you are all kinds of rude for not just coming along. And what if you really did want seconds? I guess you could go hunting for snacks with some other guy. But then the servants in the supper room would all be like: oh, her again. And that would not do. I guess the most polite thing to do is to make sure you pack a few horehound drops in your reticule.

Snack time is not the trickiest part of a ball, though. Badly placed hairpins are:

Be very careful, when dressing for a ball, that the hair is firmly fastened, and the coiffure properly adjusted. Nothing is more annoying than to have the hair loosen or the head-dress fall off in a crowded ball room.

Well, isn’t that the truth? Especially if you’re trying to get back into the supper room for a little dessert. I think that the very definition of annoying is having your chignon fall off and land in the middle of the ice cream.

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10 thoughts on “No Chignons in the Ice Cream, Please

  1. I love these rules. Can't help but wonder what today's rules of etiquette look like. THe bus, for example. I would love to see ad admonition re: leaving one's greasy headprint on the windows. You'd think that would be common sense, but no.Pearl

  2. Oh, now you've got us all curious about those saucy "going walking" tips…. let's hear some of those! The ballroom tips were so very important, surely we cannot survive without knowing how to properly go out for a stroll! Maybe there are instructions on how not to wiggle one's bustle when walking past construction sites?

  3. Excellent, excellent! I read one of those when I was a teenager; my aunt lent me the Austrian Etiquette Book. I stopped in the middle of the greetings rules because my head was fuming from exhaustion. You had to take into account gender (woman before man, it goes without saying), then age (older before younger people). So far so good, and fairly easy, you might observe. But then they started with professions, and I gave up. Thus, I never fully understood if I had to greet a sixtyish General of the Austrian Sea Forces (not as if we had any access to any sea anymore) before the 90-year old widow of the Duke Whatshisnameorother and after the young Archbishop. Your pieces of advice are so much more handy for the everyday ball-goer, like I am… Excellent, indeed.

  4. Well, who knew? I'd have thought two or three trips to the supper-room would have been a requirement if one hoped to lug one of those ponderous ball gowns around all evening.

  5. Pearl – Actually, there is a great section on omnibus etiquette in this book, which will make another post :)Stephanie Barr – Oh, it is. Words to live by!Richard – I don't think so, it was published in Boston…we Americans (and Canadians) have our sources of organized misery (see: omnibus/public transport in general)…Kath – Yeah, the supper room was the place to be. Also, you were supposed to provide a tea room next to the supper room – very civilized, and a great place to hide out and eat cookies if there are too many people eating up all the supper.Jaya – Yes, it does become such a bore, doesn't it! And getting supper out of white tarleton is also a drag ;)Marcheline – Oh yes, the walking tips are coming soon! Dieter – Luckily my Austro-Hungarian ancestors did not know any Generals or Archbishops, because it does indeed sound very confusing – and luckily there weren't any on the Lower East Side, either (where they ended up) ;)Bill – It does seem only fair, after lugging around all that crinoline. In Pride and Prejudice, of course, the dresses look fairly manageable – lucky them!

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