Old World Etiquette

A Crash Course in 19th Century Etiquette

As an avid reader I’ve covered the 19th century novels in such depth that I feel as if, were I transported, I would be floundering in a society which is so full of form and rote, I would immediately be spotted as an uncouth time traveler from another world. The layers upon layers of social rules and etiquette run so deep that no matter how much study, one such as myself could never hope to pass for a native. However, given a nice home and a good guest list, there’s no doubt I could throw one riotous party.

Joseph de Maistre, a French-speaking philosopher, writer, lawyer and diplomat, inscribed in 1896’s Gastronomic Year Book: “It was, it seems to me, a bright idea to place Bacchus and Minerva together at a table, to prevent the one from turning libertine, and the other from airing herself as pedant.” It doesn’t take a social psychologist to plan a dinner party, but it’s an incredible help to know your guests, and to know who will temper whom, and who will set that loose cannon cousin of yours on a rampage. Modern etiquette guides are certainly helpful, but not nearly as fun as reading through the methodologies of our hard party ancestors.


Eliza Bisbee Duffey’s 1877 book titled mouthfulled: The Ladies’ and Gentleman’s Guide to Etiquette: A Complete Manual of the Manners and Dress of American Society presents a no-nonsense step by step for forming your perfect dinner party.

Under Consideration

“The first consideration, when one has resolved to give a dinner-party, is who shall be invited; the second how many. The utmost care should be taken that all the company will be congenial to one another, and with a similarity of tastes and acquirements, so that there shall be a common ground upon which they may meet.”

Think about choosing a selection of close friends and certain acquaintances or co-workers who will broaden the dynamic and who could, potentially become a better friend. Branching out is not only fun and exciting, it can add an unexpected flavor or flair to a party.

Number of Guests

“The number of guests should not be too large. From six to then form the best number, being neither too large nor too small. By no means let the number at table count thirteen, for certain people have a superstition about this number; and though it is a very foolish and absurd one, it is courteous to respect it.”

…need I say more?

Time of Sending Invitations

“The invitations should be sent out some little time in advance of the proposed dinner-party, though the exact length of time depends much upon the locality where the persons concerned reside. If in a country place where entertainments are rare, a week before-hand, even less, would suffice. In a large town or city two or three weeks is not too long, so that the persons who are invited may have ample time to arrange their engagements accordingly.”

If you’ve ever been subjected to the sudden facebook invite or email blast, or if you’ve (gasp) sent one out yourself, you know how disappointing it is to see that number of “rsvp” guests stutter and stop before it really gets anywhere. Time, though perhaps moving at a faster rate in our century, is still an issue where invitations are concerned. Next time, instead of the week before your birthday, make a solid plan and send an invitation out two or three weeks ahead of time. Make the commitment! You’ll not only have more time to plan, but you can count on your number of rsvp’s more than that “300 attending, 6 attended” facebook invite failure.

Manner of Writing Invitations

To the Grand Ball

“The invitations should be written on small note-paper, which may have the initial letter or monogram stamped upon it, but good taste forbids anything more. The form of the invitation should be as follows:

“Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer request the pleasure [or favor] of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold’s company at dinner on Thursday, the 13th of December, at 5 o’clock”

Put this way, who could refuse? You’re not invited, your dear friends are requesting the pleasure of having you attend. Give the guest a compliment about their presence and they’re more likely to want to come than a simple “You’re invited” which can seem impersonal.

Proper Hour for Dinner Party

“The dinner-hour varies with different localities, therefore no exact directions can be given in this matter, but that hour must be selected which most nearly corresponds with the known habits of the guests. The hostess should perfect all her arrangements for her dinner, so that as soon as her guests begin to assemble she may devote her whole attention to them without any disturbing thoughts.”

Think about the folks you’ve invited. Do they have a standard work day where six or seven o’clock will give them ample time to go home, change, and come over. Will an eight o’clock start time be best? Can you imagine people staying until late at night? For a meal with courses, aperitifs, and after dinner drinks, give yourself a good five hours of fun, plus clean up!


“Punctuality is rigorously enjoined upon guests at a dinner party. No one has a right to keep an assembled company waiting, and perhaps cause the dinner to spoil, on his account. Guests should not arrive too early, or they may surprise their hostess before all her arrangements are completed. Dinner should be announced soon after the last guest has arrived.”

Notoriously locked in to being “fashionably late,” our culture has a hard time knowing what is the right time. If it’s a formal dinner, of course, punctuality is the way to go. For a casual party among friends thirty minutes to an hour is expected. What are your thoughts on “perfect party timing?”

Introductions of Guests

“Allow myself to introduce….myself.”

“If there are strangers in the company, it is best to introduce them to all present, that they may fee no embarrassment.”

…and takes care of shyness too!

Arrangement at the Dining Table

“The hostess seats herself at the head of the table, her escort upon her right and another gentleman at her left. The host sits opposite her, with the lady whom he has escorted at his right and another lady upon his left. The rest of the company are disposed a lady and gentleman alternately.”

You can think of arranging by gender, interest, relationship, and other characteristic features. Just aim for people to get along and get talking. Place an outgoing person next to a shy person; and generally keep couples together, or across from each other unless it would be (really) interesting to not do so.

General Rules Regarding Dinner

“After soup and fish come side-dishes, which must be eaten with a fork only, though the knife may be used in cutting anything too hard for a fork.

If you do not desire a dish you simply refuse it; do not add that you do not care for it or it does not agree with you.

A guest should never find fault with the dinner or with any part of it. When you are helped, begin to eat without waiting for others to be served.

Never take up a piece of asparagus or the bones of fowl or bird with your fingers to suck them, possibly making the remark that “fingers were made before forks.”

Bread should be broken, not bitten.

A knife should never, on any account, be put into the mouth.

Retiring from the Table

Photo by Larry Lefever

“Ladies and gentlemen retire together from the dining-table, instead of the one sex remaining to pander to their baser appetites. After retiring to the drawing room the guests should intermingle in a social manner, and the time until the hour taking leave may be spent either in conversation or in various entertaining games. It is expected the guests will remain two or three hours after the dinner.

During the week following a dinner-party each guest must call upon the hostess.”

Throwing such a party certainly will bring a level of closeness to an acquaintance group and even enhance deep friendships. I highly suggest you give it a try, letting your guests pick up on the protocol from your directions.


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