The Etiquette Archive

Etiquette The early nineteenth century was a time of profound change in American society. Young people, primarily young men, poured into cities at unprecedented rates (and ever younger ages) in the first half of the nineteenth century, and a concurrent decline of the apprenticeship system eroded the customary authority of fathers and masters. In the anonymity of urban life, the traditional social controls of small communities gave way to a world where appearances often counted for more than reality. Tales of “confidence men,” abounded, warning urban residents about tricksters who used self-aggrandizement to exert influence and rise to authority. Urbanization and industrial modes of production were also accompanied by a rise in income inequality, and an increase in work that did not require manual labor. A new and growing middle class appeared in American cities, with distinctly middle-class neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and methods of child rearing. Thanks to improvements in technology and transportation, this period also witnessed the rise of large book publishers that could distribute their books more widely than ever before. According to historian Karen Halttunen, approximately 70 American etiquette manuals were published between 1830 and 1860, and many went through several editions. These etiquette manuals further helped to engender a shared middle-class identity by holding out the promise of republican society—that social respectability was not dependent on money alone but could be achieved by learning the proper manners. In an urban setting full of strangers, these manners fulfilled a vital, although not infallible, role—for how could anyone know for certain what lay behind the mask of etiquette?

There are 6 matching records. Displaying matches 1 through 6 .


“Young Ladies, Beware?” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 15, 1843
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper published this detailed account of a young woman’s surprisingly treacherous visit to the American Museum in December, 1843. According to historian Karen Halttunen, such tales of the “confidence man” who seduces an unwitting young man or woman in the city into a life of vice were a staple of antebellum advice literature. In an era when thousands of young people were leaving the familial and religious supervision of small communities for burgeoning, anonymous cities like New York, such cautionary tales functioned both as a pragmatic warning about specific behavior and, in a larger sense, as an expression of fear about the decline of American republican ideals and the future of American society.
Exhibit: Etiquette.
Museum Room: Lecture Room.
Document Type: Text.


Barnum Defends the American Museum, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 18, 1843
In December, 1843, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported the story of a young female visitor to the American Museum who was approached by a strange man there, a man who subsequently followed her home. New proprietor P. T. Barnum—intent on enlarging the audience for his museum by making it an acceptable place of public amusement for middle-class women—was quick to respond. In this letter to the newspaper, Barnum expressed his outrage at the incident and detailed for readers the many ways that the Museum safeguarded its visitors from such “scoundrels.” Barnum took personal responsibility for maintaining “rigid decorum and propriety” at the Museum, keeping it safe for “daughters and wives” to visit often.
Exhibit: Etiquette.
Museum Room: Lecture Room.
Document Type: Text.


"The distinction of classes," 1836
In the antebellum era, creating and policing middle-class society was a collective endeavor, requiring both the performance of good manners and the recognition of that performance by the like-minded. This introduction to an 1836 etiquette manual captures the paradoxical nature of middle-class American attitudes toward manners. While an acknowledged method of distinguishing among social classes by excluding some and including others, Americans also saw good manners as an essentially democratic route to social acceptance. This author, identified only as “a gentleman,” argues that the American social system is both more democratic and more exclusive than its European counterparts.
Exhibit: Etiquette.
Museum Room: Lecture Room.
Document Type: Text.


Rules of public conduct, 1836
For antebellum-era middle-class urbanites, the rules of conduct for public and private social encounters were complex and precise. This 1836 etiquette manual lays out detailed instructions for managing social interactions in public, describing the intricacies of actions and responses based on gender, social status, and past communication.
Exhibit: Etiquette.
Museum Room: Lecture Room.
Document Type: Text.


"No lady is ever seen to spit," 1855
These excerpts from an 1855 etiquette manual offer an example of the detailed social proscriptions and rituals that guided middle-class life in the antebellum city. Most of the era’s etiquette advice emphasized the importance of emotional and physical self-control, displays of restraint that would separate the respectable from the uncouth. These selections also reflect the difficulty of maintaining privacy and decorum in crowded city spaces.
Exhibit: Etiquette.
Museum Room: Lecture Room.
Document Type: Text.


"Arrest of the Confidence Man," New-York Herald, 1849
This brief article from the “Police Intelligence” section of the New York Herald describes the arrest of William Thompson, whose brazen deceptions ushered the term “confidence man” into the American vocabulary. Historian Karen Halttunen notes that New York City in the antebellum decades was a growing urban society marked by anonymity, confusion, and an increase in movable wealth (such as paper currency). These conditions made possible all manner of frauds, forgeries, and “confidence” schemes like that pioneered by Thompson. According to Haltunnen, police estimated that during the 1860s one out of ten professional criminals in New York was a confidence man.
Exhibit: Etiquette.
Museum Room: Lecture Room.
Document Type: Text.