Featured Image: Magasin des Demoiselles Fashion Plate (1846)

The Nineteenth Century Wedding Etiquette tells the story of times gone by and the rules polite society lived by. Here is an example of these rules that were followed.

It is impossible to lay down any rules in regard to proposals of marriage. Modes are and should be as different as people. The best way certainly is to apply in person to the lady and receive the answer from her own lips. Failing in courage for that, one can resort to writing. A spoken declaration should be bold, manly and earnest. It should be, moreover, plain in its meaning, so there may be no misunderstanding. But as to the exact words there is no set formula, unless we accept those laid down in Dickens’ novel of David Copperfield— “ Barkis is willin .”

Trollope says on this subject: “ We are inclined to think that these matters are not always discussed by mortal lovers in the poetically passionate phraseology which is generally thought to be appropriate for this description. A man cannot well describe that which he has never seen or heard, but the absolute words and acts of one such scene did once come to the author’s knowledge. The couple were by no means plebeian or below the proper standard of high bearing and high breeding ; they were a handsome pair, living among educated people, sufficiently given to mental pursuits , and in every way what a pair of polite lovers ought to be. The all- important conversation passed in this wise. The site of the passionate scene was the sea -shore, on which they were walking, in autumn.

“Gentleman.– ‘Well, miss, the long and the short of it is this : here I am ; you can take me or leave me. ‘
“Lady (scratching a gutter on the sand with her parasol, so as to allow a little salt water to run out of one hole into another). Of course I know that’s all nonsense. ‘
“Gentleman.- Nonsense ! By Jove, it isn’t nonsense at all! Come, Jane, here I am; come, at any rate you can say something. ‘
“Lady. – ‘Yes, I suppose I can say something. ‘
“Gentleman.- ‘ Well, which is it to be — take me or leave me ?’
“Lady (very slowly, and with a voice perhaps hardly articulate, carrying on, at the same time, her engineering works on a wider scale) .—’ Well, I don’t exactly want to leave you. ‘
“And so the matter was settled-settled with much propriety and satisfaction; and both the lady and gentleman would have thought, had they ever thought about the matter at all , that this, the sweetest moment of their lives , had been graced by all the poetry by which such moments ought to be hallowed.”

In novels of the old school the lover used to get down upon his knees. He is excused from doing that nowadays. Whatever his words or his position, let him evince a sincere and unselfish affection for the beloved, and try not only to act, but to feel, that her happiness must be considered before his with that view of the matter, how inconsiderate to press an unwelcome suit upon a young lady! If she has no affection for him, and does not conceive it possible ever to entertain any, it is a cruel thing to urge her to give her person without her love. The eager lover may believe for the time being that such possession would satisfy him, but the day would surely come when he would reproach his wife that she had no love for him, and he would possibly make that an excuse for all manner of unkindnesses.

A LADY’S ” No.”
It is not always necessary to take a lady’s first ” no ” as absolute. Diffidence or uncertainty as to her own feelings may sometimes influence a lady to reply in the negative, and after consideration cause her to regret that reply. Though a gentleman may repeat his suit with propriety after having been once repulsed, still it should not be repeated too often or too long, lest it should degenerate into importuning. If a lady really has no love to give, in that case she will soon learn to despise the importunate suitor, and he thus loses the possibility of retaining her friendship.

No lady worthy any gentleman’s regard will say “no” twice to a suit which she intends ultimately to receive with favor. If she is in any doubt about her own mind, she will at least temper the second “no” with an intimation that if time was granted her for consideration she might possibly change her mind, or she will ask for time for consideration before a final answer is given. A lady should always be allowed all the time she requires before making up her mind; and if the gentleman grows impatient of the delay, he is always at liberty to insist on an immediate answer and abide by the consequences of his impatience.

A lady who really means “no” should be able to so say it as to make her meaning unmistakable. For her own sake and that of her suitor, if she really desires the suit ended, her denial should be positive and of a character to let no doubt remain of its being final. And this can be done in so kind and dignified manner that she will retain her lover as her friend if his friendship is worth having. A man should never make a declaration in a jesting manner. It is most unfair to the lady. He has no right to trifle with her feelings for mere sport, nor has he a right to hide his own meaning under the guise of jest. The chances are that he will be answered after the same manner in which he speaks. If the lady be designing or malicious, she may accept his intended jest in serious earnest, and thereby give him much trouble; if she be of delicate sensibilities, she may accept his apparent jest as an actual one, and he may lose his suit accordingly.
Nothing can be more unfair or more unjustifiable than a doubtful answer given under the plea of sparing the suitor’s feelings. It raises false hopes. It renders a man restless and unsettled. It may cause him to express himself or to shape his conduct in such a manner as he would not dream of doing were his suit utterly hopeless.

As a woman is not bound to accept the first offer that is made to her, so no sensible man will think the worse of her or feel himself personally injured by a refusal. That it will give him pain is most probable. If his heart does not suffer, his vanity is sure to do so. But he is sure in time to appreciate the fact that his feelings were not trifled with or his position made ridiculous, but that his advances were met in the earnest and candid spirit which had actuated him in coming forward.
Let young ladies always remember that, charming and fascinating as they may be, the man who proposes to them pays them a high compliment the highest in his power. This merits appreciation and a generous return.

A scornful “no”. or a simpering promise to “think about it ” is the reverse of generous.
In refusing, the lady ought to convey her full sense of the honor intended her, and to add, seriously but not offensively, that it is not in accordance with her inclination, or that circumstances compel her to give an unfavorable answer.

It is only the contemptible flirt who keeps an honorable man in suspense for the purpose of glorifying herself by his attentions in the eyes of friends. Nor would any but a frivolous or vicious girl boast of the offer she had received and rejected. Such an offer is a privileged communication. The secret of it should be held sacred.

No true lady will ever divulge to any one, unless it may be to her mother, the fact of such an offer. It is the severest breach of honor to do so. A lady who has once been guilty of boasting of an offer should never have a second opportunity for boasting. No true-hearted woman can entertain any other feeling than that of commiseration for the man over whose happiness she has been compelled to throw a cloud, while the idea of triumphing in his distress or abusing his confidence must be inexpressibly painful to her.

The duty of the rejected suitor is quite clear. Etiquette demands that he shall accept the lady’s decision as final and retire from the field. He has no right to demand the reason of her refusal. If she assign it, he is bound to respect her secret, if it is one, and to hold it inviolable. To persist in urging his suit or to follow up the lady with marked attentions would be in the worst possible taste. The proper course is to withdraw as much as possible from the circles in which she moves, so that she may be spared reminiscences which cannot be other than painful.

Rejected suitors sometimes act as if they had received injuries they were bound to avenge, and so take every opportunity of annoying or slighting the helpless victims of their former attentions. Such conduct is cowardly and unmanly, to say nothing of its utter violation of good breeding.

When a gentleman is accepted by the lady of his choice the , next thing in order is to go at once to her parents for their approval. In presenting his suit to them he should remember that it is not from the sentimental but the practical side that they will regard the affair. Therefore, after describing the state of his affections in as calm a manner as possible, and perhaps hinting that their daughter is not indifferent to him, let him at once frankly, without waiting to be questioned, give an account of his pecuniary resources and his general prospects in life, in order that the parents may judge whether he can properly provide for a wife and possible family. A pertinent anecdote was recently going the rounds of the newspapers. A father asked a young man who had applied to him for his daughter’s hand how much property he had. ” None,” he replied, but he was ” chock full of days’ work.” The anecdote concluded by saying that he got the girl. And we believe all sensible fathers would sooner bestow their daughters upon industrious, energetic young men who are not afraid of days’ work than upon idle loungers with a fortune at their command.

After the engagement is made between the couple and ratified by the parents, it is customary in polite society for the young man to affix the seal of this engagement by some present to his affianced. This present is usually a ring, and among the wealthy it may be of diamonds — a solitaire or cluster—and as expensive as the young man’s means will justify. The ring is not necessarily a diamond one; it may be of other stones or it may be an heirloom in his family, precious more because of its associations, antiquity and quaintness than from its actual money value.

All lovers cannot afford to present their lady – loves with diamond rings, but all are able to give them some little token of their regard which will be cherished for their sakes, and which will serve as a memento of a very happy past to the end of life. The engagement ring should be worn upon the ring finger of the right hand.

The conduct of the fiancé should be tender, assiduous and unobtrusive. If he is a man of tact he will pay especial attention to his future mother-in-law; he will be kind and polite to the sisters of his betrothed and friendly with her brothers. Yet he must not be in any way unduly familiar or force himself into family confidences on the ground that he is to be regarded as a member of the family. Let the advances come rather from them to him, and let him show a due appreciation of any confidences which they may be pleased to bestow upon him.

The engagement becoming a settled thing, the family of the young man should make the first advances toward an acquaintance with his future wife. They should call upon her or write to her, and they may with perfect propriety invite her to visit them in order that they may become acquainted.

An engaged woman should eschew all flirtations, though it does not follow that she is to cut herself off from all association with the other sex because she has chosen her future husband. She may still have friends and acquaintances, she may still receive visits and calls, but she must try to conduct herself in such a manner as to give no offence.

The same rules may be laid down in regard to the other party to the contract, only that he pays visits instead of receiving them. Neither should assume a masterful or jealous attitude toward the other. They are neither of them to be shut up away from the rest of the world, but must mingle in society after marriage nearly the same as before, and take the same delight in friendship. The fact that they have confessed their love to each other ought to be deemed a sufficient guarantee of faithfulness; for the rest let there be trust and confidence.

Nevertheless, a young man has no right to put a slight upon his future bride by appearing in public with other ladies while she remains neglected at home. He is in future her legitimate escort. He should attend no other lady when she needs his services; she should accept no other escort when he is at liberty to attend her.

It may be well to hint that a lady should not be too demonstrative of her affection during the days of her engagement. There is always the chance of a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip; and overt demonstrations of love are not pleasant to remember by a young lady if the man to whom they are given by any chance fails to become her husband.

An honorable man will never tempt his future bride to any such demonstration. He will always maintain a respectful and decorous demeanor toward her.

Among certain classes of society it is quite common to allow peculiar latitude to an engaged couple. It is not many years since in the heart of Pennsylvania “bundling ” was permitted. What “bundling” was it is not here necessary to describe. In the lower classes in New Jersey, and no doubt in many other localities, the young man who is paying his suit to a girl expects to be allowed to remain with her in a dimly-lighted or perhaps completely darkened room till nearly or quite daylight. In some what more civilized society it is thought perfectly proper for love-making to encroach somewhat upon the small hours, and even among people of culture and refinement it is considered necessary to leave the young courting or engaged couple entirely by themselves during the whole evening.

This is all a relic of the grossest barbarism . No young man who would shrink from being guilty of a great impropriety, and who would not risk sinking in the esteem of his beloved and her friends, should ever prolong his visits beyond ten o’clock, unless it be the common custom of the family to remain up and to entertain visitors to a later hour, and the visit paid is a family one and not a tête-à-tête. Two hours is quite long enough for a call; and the young man will give evidence of his affection no less than his consideration by making his visits short, and if need be making them often, rather than by prolonging them to unreasonable hours. Very few young men comprehend the real pain and inconvenience they occasion to the lady of their choice when they keep her up to untoward hours, and subject her, in consequence, to the ridicule and censure of others.

It is not inappropriate to sometimes leave an engaged couple by themselves, but that they should always be so left, under all circumstances and no matter at what inconvenience to others, is as absurd as it is indelicate.

If the gentleman has means and the lady’s parents do not object, he may with propriety make presents to his affianced. If there are any scruples on this point, he can at least present her flowers, music and periodicals or books, to which no one will take exception.

Neither party should ever try to make the other jealous for the purpose of testing his or her affection. Such a course is contemptible ; and if the affections of the other are permanently lost by it, the offending party is only gaining his or her just deserts.
Neither should there be provocation to little quarrels for the foolish delight of reconciliation.
No lover will assume a domineering attitude over his future wife. If he does so, she will do well to escape from his thrall before she becomes his wife in reality.
A domineering lover will be certain to be still more domineering as a husband ; and from all such the prayer of wise women is, “Good Lord , deliver us !”

The trousseau is an important consideration to the bride-elect. It consists of a complete stock of apparel sufficient to last her during the first few years of her married life.

Bridal presents are sent from two weeks to a week previous to the day of the marriage cere mony. They are always sent to the bride, and are most commonly some article of jewelry or plate, though there is no law in regard to this matter. Handsome shawls, delicate laces, and even checks, may be included. It is considered in a measure obligatory upon all relatives and immediate friends of the happy pair to remember them on this occasion, also upon all those who have already been remembered by them in like manner.

When the wedding- day is near at hand, the bride pays, in company with her mother, her last maiden visits to all those acquaintances whom she wishes to retain after marriage. If the list is too large to pay these visits personally, a card may be made to do duty for a call, and the letters P. P. C. pour prendre congé — to take leave) are engraved on the right- hand corner. These visits should be made before the wedding cards are sent out.

The bride’s dress is always of white, and her bouquet should be of exclusively white flowers, such as gardenias, white azalias or camellias, intermixed with orange- flowers. It is the privilege of the “best man” to present this to the bride . . . The bridesmaids should each be furnished with bouquets of white and delicately – tinted flowers, presented by the parents of the bride.

The bridesmaids are usually dressed in white trimmed with some delicate color. The color of the trimming should be alike for all.

The bridegroom’s dress should differ little from his full morning costume. Black or dark- blue frock coat, light trousers and necktie, light or white vest and white gloves, with flowers in the buttonhole of his coat, is the conventional costume. The groomsmen are similarly dressed.

The bride drives to the church in the same carriage with her parents, and meets there the bride groom, who has arrived before her with his friends and relatives, and who assists her to alight.

The bridesmaids and groomsmen should be already waiting. The front seats of the body of the church should be reserved for the immediate friends of the young couple.

The spectators should be all assembled and the clergyman within the rails when the bride reaches the church.

The last bridesmaid and groomsman walk up the aisle first, followed by the others. The bride then enters, leaning upon her father’s arm, and after her the groom , escorting the bride’s mother.

This order of procession may be reversed, the bride and groom entering first, either together or with the father and mother of the bride.

The bride and bridegroom take their places immediately in front of the altar, the bride on the left. The bridesmaids either group themselves behind her or stand on one side. The groomsmen maintain a like relative position with the bridegroom.

The wedding- ring should be of eighteen -karat gold, weighing not less than eight pennyweights, and of the half round pattern. In the inside should be engraved the initials of the bridal pair, with date of their marriage.

The bride takes off the glove of her left hand and gives it to the first bridesmaid to hold in order that she may have the wedding-ring placed upon her finger. The groom removes the glove from his right hand for the purpose of bestowing the ring.

After the ceremony the parents of the bride speak to her first; next to them the parents of the groom. Upon leaving the church the newly-married pair take the precedence; after them their immediate friends, and then the company generally.

It is quite customary, after the guests are all seated, to pass a line of white ribbon down before the doors of the pews in order to prevent any confusion of taking or leaving seats while the ceremony is in progress. This ribbon is removed after the bridal-party has left the church. Or the ribbon may be passed across the aisles after the invited guests have all arrived and taken their seats.

Reference: Duffey, E. B. 1877. The Ladies’ and Gntlemen’s Etiquette: A Complete Manual of the Manners and Dress of American Society. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates.

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