Manners, Culture and Dress of the Best American Society

Manuals of etiquette and behavior were incredibly popular during the 19th Century and covered every aspect of life from infancy to mourning. In this excerpt, some of the highly gendered expectations placed on a well-bred traveler on the railroad or on a steamboat are explained in detail.


BEHAVIOR while traveling is a certain indication of a person's breeding. Travelers seldom pay little attention either to the comforts or distresses of their fellow travelers; and the commonest observances of politeness are often sadly neglected by them. In the scramble for tickets, for seats, for state-rooms, or for places at a public table, the courtesies of life seem to be trampled under foot. Even the ladies are sometimes rudely treated and shamefully neglected in the headlong rush for desirable seats in the railway cars. To see the behavior of American people on their travels, one would suppose that we were anything but a refined nation; and I have often wondered whether a majority of our travelers could really make a decent appearance in social society.

A lady accustomed to traveling, if she pays proper attention to the rules of etiquette, may travel alone anywhere in the United States with perfect safety and propriety.

But there are many ladies to whom all the ways of travel are unknown, and to such, an escort is very acceptable. When a gentleman has a lady put in his charge for a journey, he should he at the depot in ample time to procure her ticket and see that her baggage is properly checked.

On the arrival of the train, he should attend her to the car and secure the best possible seat for her. He should give her the choice of taking the outside or window seat, should stow away her packages in the proper receptacle, and then do all he can to make her journey a pleasant one.

Arrived at their destination, he should see her safely in a car or carriage, or at least conduct her to the ladies' room of the station, before he goes to see about the baggage. He should attend her to the door or deliver her into the charge of friends before he relaxes his care. He should call upon her the following day to see how she has withstood the fatigues of her journey. It is optional with her at this time whether she will receive him, and thus prolong the acquaintance, or not. However it is scarcely supposed that a lady of really good breeding would refuse further recognition to one from whom she had accepted such services. If the gentleman is really unworthy of her regard, it would have been in better taste to have recognized the fact at first by declining his escort.

When you are traveling, it is no excuse that because others outrage decency and propriety you should follow their example, and fight them with their own weapons. A rush and scramble at the railway ticket office is always unnecessary. The cars will not leave until every passenger is aboard, and if you have ladies with you, you can easily secure your seats and afterward procure the tickets at leisure. But suppose you do lose a favorite seat by your moderation ! Is it not better to suffer a little inconvenience than to show yourself decidedly vulgar? Go to the cars half an hour before they start, and you will avoid all trouble of this kind.

When seated, or about to seat yourself in the cars never allow considerations of personal comfort or convenience to cause you to disregard the rights of fellow-travelers, or forget the respectful courtesy due to woman. The pleasantest or most comfortable Beats belong to the ladies, and you should never refuse to resign such seats to them with a cheerful politeness. Sometimes a gentleman will go through a car and choose his seat, and afterward vacate it to procure his ticket, leaving his overcoat or carpet bag to show that the seat is taken. Always respect this token, and never seize upon a seat thus secured, without leave, even though you may want it for a lady.

A lady, in traveling alone, may accept services from her fellow-travelers, which she should always acknowledge graciously. Indeed, it is the business of a gentleman to see that the wants of an unescorted lady are attended to. He should offer to raise or lower her window if she seems to have any difficulty in doing it for herself. He may offer his assistance in carrying her packages upon leaving the car, or in engaging a carriage or obtaining a trunk.

Still, women should learn to be as self-reliant as possible; and young women particularly should accept proffered assistance from strangers, in all but the slightest offices, very rarely.

In steamers do not make a rush for the supper table, or make a glutton of yourself when you get there. Never fail to offer your seat on deck to a lady, if the seats all appear to be occupied, and always meet half way any fellow-passenger who wishes to enter into conversation with you. Some travelers are so exclusive that they consider it a presumption on the part of a stranger to address them; but such people are generally foolish, and of no account.

Sociable intercourse while traveling is one of its main attractions. Who would care about sitting and moping for a dozen of hours on board a steamer without exchanging a word with anybody? and this must be the fate of the exclusives when they travel alone. Even ladies who run greater risks in forming steamboat acquaintances than the men, are allowed the greatest privileges in that respect. It might not be exactly correct for a lady to make a speaking acquaintance of a gentleman; but she may address or question him for the time being without impropriety.

No lady of genuine breeding will retain possession of more than her rightful seat in a crowded car. When others are looking for accommodations, she should at once and with all cheerfulness so dispose of her baggage that the seat beside her will be at liberty for any one who desires it, no matter how agreeable it might be to retain possession of it.

There is no truer sign of want of proper manners than to see two ladies turn over the seat in front of them and fill it with their wraps and bundles, retaining it in spite of the entreating or remonstrating looks of fellow-passengers. In such a case as this any person who needs a seat is justified in reversing the back, removing the baggage and taking possession of the unused place.

A gentleman in traveling may take possession of a seat and then go to purchase tickets or look after baggage, leaving the seat in charge of a ompanion or depositing traveling-bag or overcoat upon it to show that it is engaged. A gentleman cannot, however, in justice, vacate his seat to take another in the smoking-car and at the same time reserve his rights to the first seat. He pays for but one seat, and by taking another he forfeits the first.

It is not required of a gentleman in a railway car to relinquish his seat in favor of a lady, though a gentleman of genuine breeding will do so rather than allow the lady to stand or to suffer inconvenience from poor case is different. No woman should be permitted to stand while there is a seat occupied by a man. The inconvenience to the man will be temporary and trifling at the most, and he can well afford to suffer it rather than do an uncourteous act.

There is a place where the good manners of men seem sometimes to forsake them in the ladies' saloon of ferry-boats. The men reign paramount in their own saloon. No woman dares intrude there, still less deprive its rightful occupants of their seats. Yet many men, without even the excuse of being escorts of women, prefering the purer natural and moral atmosphere of the ladies' saloon, take possession and seat themselves, notwithstanding, women have to stand in consequence. This is not a matter of politeness alone; it is one of simple justice. The ladies' saloon is for the accommodation of ladies, and no gentleman has the right to occupy a seat so long as a lady is unprovided.

It is impossible to dwell too strongly upon the importance of reserve and discretion on the part of ladies traveling alone. They may, as has been already said, accept slight services courteously proffered by strangers, but any attempt at familiarity must be checked, and this with all the less hesitation that no gentleman will be guilty of such familiarity; and a lady wants only gentlemen for her acquaintances.

Once, when traveling from Chicago to Toledo, there were upon the same train with ourselves a young lady and gentleman who were soon the observed of all observers. He was a commercial traveler of some sort, and she probably just from boarding-school. They were total strangers to each other as they both entered the car at Chicago. The acquaintance begun soon after starting. By the time La Porte was reached he had taken his seat beside her. At Elkhart the personal history of each was known to the other. The gentleman here invited the lady to supper and paid her bill. Shortly afterward photographs were exchanged, they had written confidentially in each other's note-books, and had promised to correspond. All this passed between them in tones so loud and with actions so obtrusive that they attracted the notice of every one in the car, and many were the comments upon them. As daylight waned she sunk upon his shoulder to sleep while he threw his arm around her to support her.

If they had announced their engagement and inquired for a clergyman upon the train to marry them upon their arrival at Toledo, no one would have been really surprised. She was a foolish girl, yet old enough to have known better. He must have been a villain thus to take advantage of her silliness.

Still, if the journey is long, and especially if it be by steamboat, a certain sociability is in order, and a married lady or lady of middle age should make good use of her privileges in this respect.

It is especially the duty of ladies to look after other ladies younger or less experienced than themselves who may be traveling without escort, To watch these and see that they are not made dupes of villains, and to pass a pleasant word with others who may possibly feel the loneliness of their situation, should be the especial charge of every lady of experience. Such a one may often have the privilege of rendering another lady an important service in giving her information or advice, or even assistance. Every lady of experience and self-possession should feel her duties to be only less than those of a gentleman in showing favors to the more helpless and less experienced of her own sex.

The friendship which has subsisted between travelers terminates with the journey. When you get out, a word, a bow, and the acquaintance formed is finished and forgotten.

In the cars you have no right to keep a window open for your accommodation, if the current of air thus produced annoys or endangers the health of another. There are a sufficient number of discomforts in traveling, at best, and it should be the aim of each passenger to lessen them as much as possible, and to cheerfully bear his own part. Life is a journey, and we are all fellow-travelers.

See everywhere and at all times that ladies and elderly people have their wants supplied before you think of your own. Nor is there need for unmanly haste and pushing in entering or leaving cars or boats. There is always time enough allowed for each passenger to enter in a gentlemanly manner and with a due regard to the rights of others


If, in riding in the street cars or crossing a ferry, your friend insists upon paying for you, permit him to do so without serious remonstrance. You can return the favor at some other time.

Ladies in traveling should scrupulously avoid monopolizing, to the exclusion of others, whatever conveniences are provided for their use. Mr. Pullman, the inventor of the palace car, was asked why there were not locks or bolts upon the ladies 7 dressing-rooms. He replied that "if these were furnished, but two or three ladies in a sleeping car would be able to avail themselves of the conveniences, for these would lock themselves in and perform their toiletts at their leisure.

This sounds like satire upon our American ladies, but we fear it is true.

About this Document

  • Source: Manual of Etiquette
  • Author: Richard A. Wells
  • Publisher: King, Richardson, and Company
  • Citation: pages 146-156
  • Date: 1890