News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 14, 2012

HISTORICAL TREASURE: The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette And Manual of Politeness

Patrick Newsham
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — How would a man of the 19th century behave if he had to go to a ball or attend a formal dinner? What if he had just moved across country and was trying to integrate himself into the high society of his new home, where would he turn? To relieve the anxiety of making a social faux pas an enterprising gentleman might have consulted a book such as this week’s historical treasure. The book’s full title says it all: The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness; Being a complete guide for a gentleman’s conduct in all his relations toward society. Containing rules for the etiquette to be observed in the street, at table, in the ball-room, evening party, and morning call; with full directions for polite correspondence, dress, conversation, manly exercises and accomplishments. From the best French, English, and American authorities. The book was published in Boston by DeWolfe, Fiske & Co. in 1873 and is 332 pages long. That’s quite a lot of etiquette for a gentleman to remember.

While a potential reader might have fears that the writing of this manual would be dry and rigid, the opposite is the case. The author, Cecil B. Hartley, has a lively voice and interesting insights into why the numerous rules he lays out are important. Reading the book critically with a historical perspective gives a fascinating picture of what upper class male society in mid-19th century America was like and what they cared about. It can also make for amusing reading. I’ll leave you with a bit of parting advice from Mr. Hartley, “The first step towards pleasing every one is to endeavor to offend no one.”

The book of etiquette can be found on the second floor of the Vigo County Historical Museum in the bedroom, resting on a night stand. Seeing the display, it is possible to imagine that a gentleman had just put the book and his reading glasses down to go to sleep. And if any readers wish to actually peruse the book the text can be found online at: openlibrary.org, once on the website, search for the book’s title.