Brev. Brig. Gen'l
- Feb 14, 2012
- Central Pennsylvania
More than delightful glimpses of a graceful past, era images of balls and dances are reflective microcosms of the society into which our ancestors were born. Rigid etiquette was adhered to at these functions but it wasn't just a backdrop for Brussels lace and paisley waistcoats. Plain, old good manners, civility at its most apparent was at the heart of rubbing elbows together through these gatherings.
" True courtesy is founded on generosity, which studies to promote the happiness and well being of others " Sarah Jane Hale, author, editor of Godey's Lady's Book . A kind of social guru ( even if well heeled readers of Godey's sniffed at the ' lower class ', it was still considered vulgar to be anything but pleasant to them ), Hale's quote is from her book on etiquette. Somewhere is a chapter on what fork goes where and please do not sniff the wine cork. She's largely speaking of the necessity of plain, old good manners. It's a perspective reflective of the ACW era. This is again Sarah, warming up to the topic of ' etiquette ';
Picking this snip as typical- it's for ladies, another several dozen books and articles devote themselves to gentlemen. While some are obviously written for a certain ' class ', ' good manners ', ' civility ' and ' etiquette ' were not exclusive concepts. It's who we were. You flinch a little during conversations about ' good breeding ' although IMO, seems to be a carrot held out in encouragement to behave well. If you did, well, you could be one.
" Politeness is goodness of the heart put into daily practice "
' Social usage ' is a phrase you don't hear much. Unless there's an article on quaint custom followed by our ancestors you don't hear the word etiquette either and when was the last time anyone pointed out some event or phrase was vulgar? We don't. Good manners, etiquette, was so much a part of our social fabric we saturated children's lives with ' How To's ' hourly. Those dancing lessons we find so picturesque 150 years later and the glittering balls? So filled with the fine points of etiquette - again, good manners - they were a lovely, moving, musical tribute to who we were. There's an 1860's book, " The Art of Dancing ". Fifty percent of the book is devoted to instructions not on steps but on being nice.
' Etiquette ' in fact evolved through time as a matter of necessity. Rubbing elbows with each other requires acknowledging how intolerable life would be, did we all succumb to base self interest. There was also sheer survival. Like it or not humans need each other and sure did from the day Eve said " No really, dear. You eat it, I've just had some of those lovely grapes. The snake seems anxious we dispose of the apple and you haven't had your lunch. " Well how polite albeit misguided. Still. Being nice to each other ensured goodwill among other things.
They were tough on people. Demanding genuine good-will-to-all-men, no punches get pulled.
" It requires a true and generous heart to make a man either a gentleman or a soldier "
You didn't pick on women. You just didn't. That over-used, over imagined and now archaic term ' chivalry ' wasn't all nonsense or a buzz word for the elite. Sometimes- but its basis lay in a code of behavior towards women unimagined today. Our struggle for equality notwithstanding, no one ever made it a rule that with the vote we were also fair game for shoving around. Chivalry. You were thoughtful, you were respectful- you were nice. It showed. Cannot tell anyone the number of nursing accounts from the war where that brutal life was made more tolerable by gestures of nice.
Why use images of dance? Because we'd been at this for awhile- this is our ACW ancestor's grandparents, because from the day children learned dance they learned the etiquette required, because these balls and dances were not really about dancing. They were about a chance to rub elbows together, elaborate civility sure. But it sure created a lot of grace.
Came across an article from just post war. The topic was an entire town's civility towards a Union doctor who had remained there after the surrender. He'd been helping. That's all, helping and a grateful town regretted his departure. The doctor himself was described as displaying endless civility towards those under his care. It was a small Southern town. The words ' civility ' and ' civil ' occur over 10 times in two paragraphs. Using those words in a search, came across hundreds of hits between 1861-1865. ' Etiquette ' pops up in most of those, the two frequently interspersed.
It's a great article, expounding from here on the civility displayed by this man and returned by the town.
Hundreds. " Military Etiquette ", " Musician Etiquette ", " Political Etiquette ", and yes, " Dinner ", " Party " , " ladies " and " Gentlemen's " etiquette. Going further, book after book published at the time devote chapters, if not the entire book to " Etiquette ". Plain old good manners. It wasn't just reserved for elites, a kind of false patina worn by those whose position on society's ladder mandated a code of behavior. Worst sin someone could commit was to be rude while vulgarity was so far beyond acceptable you stood in danger of having your name in the paper, should you commit that crime.
We can list some archaic sounding social codes, object to a few that come across as mere platitudes and bemoan our ancestors' lack of freedom in adhering to all of it. What we can't do is scoff at them. This discipline of spirit and a social code placing a heavy emphasis on ' be nice ' seems an overlooked gift in these old images. Less vulgar, more nice.