The Etiquette of the Victorian Ballroom: Twenty Tips for Single Gentlemen

“Remember that a ball-room is a school of politeness, and therefore let your whole conduct be influenced by that strict regard to Etiquette such a place requires.”
Etiquette for Gentleman; or the Principles of True Politeness, 1852.

At the Ball by Albert Edelfelt, 1884.

Not every man who attended a ball during the nineteenth century did so with a lady on his arm. Some attendees were young, single gentlemen. For them, a ball was the perfect place to practice their dancing, polish their conversation skills, and meet eligible young ladies.  It was also a place which required gentlemen to obey strict rules of etiquette.  These rules are far too numerous to cover in a single article. Instead, I’ve gathered twenty tips from various Victorian etiquette books addressing the basics of ballroom etiquette for single gentlemen.  I present them to you below.

1) Respond to Invitations Promptly.

“When you receive an invitation to a ball, answer it immediately.”

The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1876.

2) Dress the Part.

“A dress coat, dress boots, full suit of black, and white or very light kid gloves must be worn in a ball room.  A white waistcoat and cravat are sometimes worn, but this is a matter of taste.”

The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1876.

3) Once Dressed, Get a Second Opinion.

“Before going to a ball or party it is not sufficient that you consult your mirror twenty times. You must be personally inspected by your servant or a friend.”

Etiquette for Gentlemen; or Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society, 1847.

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1847.

4) When You Arrive, Pay Your Respects to the Ladies.

“If there are several ladies in the house, take the earliest opportunity of paying your respects to each of them, and invite one of them to dance with you the first dance.”

The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politenes, 1876.

5) If the Ball is Given by a Relative, Be Prepared to Do Your Duty.

“If the ball is given in your own house, or at that of a near relative, it becomes your duty to see that every lady, young or old, handsome or ugly, is provided with a partner, though the oldest and ugliest may fall to your own share.”

The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1876.

6) Don’t Dance Unless You Know the Steps.

“No man should attempt to dance without being well acquainted with the figures; for his blunders place the woman who does him the honour to dance with him, in an embarrassing situation, and he will make quite a different figure from what he intends.”

Etiquette for Gentlemen; or Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society, 1847.

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1847.
(Accessible Archives)

7) When Dancing, Pay Attention to Your Partner.

“A gentleman, while dancing with a lady, should pay almost exclusive attention to her; and at the close of a dance ask her to take refreshments.”

Etiquette for Gentlemen, 1857.

8) Don’t Whisper to the Ladies.

“To affect an air of secrecy or mystery when conversing in a ballroom is a piece of impertinence for which no lady of delicacy will thank you.”

The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1876.

9) Don’t Kick and Caper About.

“Dance quietly; do not kick and caper about, nor sway your body to and fro; dance only from the hips downwards; and lead the lady as lightly as you would tread a measure with a spirit of gossamer.”

Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society with a Glance at Bad Habits, 1844.

10) Don’t Tread on a Lady’s Skirts.

“If a crowd is present, and a gentleman has occasion to make his way through a press of crinoline and drapery, he should proceed most carefully—haste would be very rude and inexcusable; the danger of soiling, or tearing, or disarranging a lady’s costume forbids any gentleman making a careless step.”

Beadle’s Dime Book of Practical Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, 1859.

A Hunt Ball by Julius LeBlanc Stewart, 1885.

11) When Dancing the Waltz, Mind Your Hands.

“If a lady waltz with you, beware not to press her waist; you must only lightly touch it with the open palm of your hand, lest you leave a disagreeable impression not only on her ceinture, but on her mind.”

The Perfect Gentleman, 1860.

12) When Dancing the Quadrille, Don’t Be a Boor.

“Lead the lady through the quadrille; do not drag her, nor clasp her hand as if it were made of wood, lest she, not unjustly, think you a boor.”

Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society with a Glance at Bad Habits, 1844.

13) Don’t Dance Too Frequently with the Same Woman.

“A gentleman should not ask a lady to dance too frequently with him, as he may be excluding others from the same pleasure.”

The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, 1877.

14) Don’t Forget the Wallflowers.

“A gentleman of genuine politeness will not give all his time and attention to the belles of the evening, but will at least devote a little thought to the wall-flowers who sit forlorn and unattended, and who, but for him, might have no opportunity to dance.”

The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, 1877.

Elegant Soiree by Jean-Georges Béraud (1848-1935).

15) Accept Rejection with Good Grace.

“When a lady politely declines to dance with you, bear the declination with becoming grace; and, if you perceive her afterwards dancing with another, seem not to notice it; in these matters ladies are exempt from all explanations.”

The Illustrated Manners Book, 1855.

16) Don’t Sit Next to Strange Women.

“A gentleman will not take a vacant seat next a lady who is a stranger to him.  If she is an acquaintance, he may do so with her permission.”

The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, 1877.

17) Don’t Ridicule the Other Dancers.

“Avoid all unfriendly or ungenerous criticism, ridicule, or satire, as such can never commend you to those whom you address, and may be repeated to your own prejudice.”

The Fashionable Dancer’s Casket, 1856.

Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1847.

18) Don’t Offer to Escort a Lady Home.

“At a public ball, it is exceptional for a gentleman to offer to escort a lady home: she is pretty sure to refuse, unless ____ but we need not supply that blank!”

Etiquette for Gentlemen 1857.

19) Don’t Be the Last to Leave.

“Do not be the last to leave the ball room.  It is more elegant to leave early, as staying too late gives others the impression that you do not often have an invitation to a ball, and must ‘make the most of it.’”

The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politenes, 1876.

20) Don’t Presume on an Acquaintance.

“Any presentation to a lady in a public ball-room for the mere purpose of dancing, does not entitle you to claim her acquaintance afterwards; therefore should you meet her, at most you may lift your hat; but even that is better avoided,—unless, indeed, she first bow, —as neither she nor her friends can know who or what you are.”

The Perfect Gentleman; or, Etiquette and Eloquence, 1860.

The Ball by Charles Wilda, 1906.

I hope the above tips have given you some insight into ballroom etiquette for single Victorian gentleman.  In future (when I’m not working frantically to meet a July 1st book deadline), I will be writing on this subject in more detail. Until then, check out these articles on Victorian gentlemen from my archives!

19th Century Marriage Manuals: Advice for Young Husbands

A Century of Sartorial Style: A Visual Guide to 19th Century Menswear

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Beadle’s Dime Book of Practical Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen. New York: Irwin P. Beadle & Co., 1859.

Day, Charles. Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society with a Glance at Bad Habits.  Boston: William D. Ticknor & Co., 1844.

Duffey, Eliza Bisbee. The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1877.

Durang, Charles. The Fashionable Dancer’s Casket. Fisher & Brother, 1856.

Etiquette for Gentlemen, Being a Manual of Minor Social Ethics and Customary Observances. London: Knight and Son, 1857.

Etiquette for Gentlemen; or Short Rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society. Philadelphia: Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847.

Etiquette for Gentleman; or the Principles of True Politeness. Halifax: Milner and Sowerby, 1852.

Hartley, Cecil B. The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness Being a Complete Guide for a Gentleman’s Conduct in All His Relations. Library of Alexandria, 1876

The Illustrated Manners Book: A Manual of Good Behavior and Polite Accomplishments. New York: Leland Clay, 1855.

The Perfect Gentleman; or, Etiquette and Eloquence. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1860.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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24 thoughts on “The Etiquette of the Victorian Ballroom: Twenty Tips for Single Gentlemen

  1. Tory Ferrera says:

    Wonderful language in these original quotes! I laughed at this one: “as neither she nor her friends can know who or what you are.” So true!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. authorangelabell says:

    Number twelve is my favorite! Remember, gentlemen, a lady’s hand is not made of wood. 😉

    “Lead the lady through the quadrille; do not drag her, nor clasp her hand as if it were made of wood, lest she, not unjustly, think you a boor.” ~ Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society with a Glance at Bad Habits, 1844.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Carrie Banks says:

    I guess that #17 was written too late for Mr. Darcy! Most of these make me think of Louisa May Alvott’s Rose in Bloom when Rose gets Mac to escort her to balls. He broke quite a few of them immediately!

    Liked by 1 person

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