26 Apr 2023

Victorian visiting etiquette

Much of Victorian social life was conducted through the medium of morning visits. This stately ritual of calling upon acquaintances, leaving visiting cards or briefly joining them for a few minutes of formal conversation, was thought to oil the wheels of social intercourse. It ensured that the social circle was clearly delineated, reinforcing feelings of belonging and status. While the custom has disappeared from the modern world, it reveals a great deal about the rigid hierarchies and expectations of Victorian society and how much social life has changed.

We have been examining Victorian etiquette manuals for insights on this social practice:

Seating and Furniture

When anyone enters, whether announced or not, rise immediately, advance toward him, and request him to sit down. If it is a young man, offer him an armchair, or a stuffed one; if an elderly man, insist upon his accepting the armchair; if a lady, beg her to be seated upon the sofa. If the master of the house receives the visitors, he will take a chair and place himself at a little distance from them; if, on the contrary, it is the mistress of the house, and if she is intimate with the lady who visits her, she will place herself near her. If several ladies come at once, we give the most honourable place to the one who, from age or other considerations, is most entitled to respect. In winter, the most honourable places are those at the corners of the fireplace.”

Servants would, of course, meet the visitors at the front door and usher them into the drawing room. Clearly, the arrival of visitors set in motion an intricate social dance. Everyone stood to greet visitors and the spatial dynamics between the host and visitors, as well as the relentless insistence on ‘honourable’ places, close to the fireplace, being assigned according to rank and status, is intriguing.

Even the furniture played an important role in the notion of hierarchy. Chairs with arms were seen as high status and the gentleman of the house’s chair was imposing, with a high back and padded armrests, while his wife’s chair was smaller, lower, and possibly without arms, as befitted perceptions of her position. The sofa was reserved for important non-family visitors.

Contrast our own attitude to visitors. We do not of course sit in our sitting room, waiting for visitors to be announced. Instead, we go to the front door and usher them in, taking their coats first, then showing them to the sitting or dining room. When it comes to seating, we might head a visitor away from a particularly hard or uncomfortable chair, but we would scarcely be making minute judgments about whether the chair has arms or is “stuffed” (well-upholstered). As with the Victorians, good manners dictate that we pay special attention to elderly visitors, ensuring that they have a comfortable chair and are not sitting in a draught, perhaps placing them near a fire or radiator in winter.

Visiting Etiquette

Visits are of various kinds, each of which has its own forms and observances. There are visits of ceremony, visits of congratulation, visits of condolence, visits of friendship.

Visits of ceremony, though they take up a large share of the time of a fashionable lady, are very stupid affairs as a general thing, and have little to recommend them except Fashion. The best thing about them is that they may and should be short.”

Victorian ladies, and family men, conducted most of their social life in the domestic sphere – in their own or other people’s houses. As the above passage indicates, visits covered a range of social situations, from a formal ritual (for example acknowledging a new arrival in the neighbourhood), through visits of good form (which marked special occasions for celebration or commiseration), to simple visits of friendship. The latter were not subject to formal etiquette, but to the “universal principles of good manners” but all other types of visit were dictated by elaborate rituals.

Today, we socialise and communicate in a myriad of different ways. We speak on the phone, we text or email, we post on social media, and much of the time we rely on the immediacy of these methods to maintain our relationships, rather than in-person contact. We go out to socialise, in pubs, restaurants, clubs and bars in ways many of our Victorian ancestors could not. Many of our social transactions are casual, impulsive and improvisational, lacking the confined framework of custom and ritual that dictated how Victorians socialised.

A [morning] call is not less than ten nor more than twenty minutes in the city; in the country, a little longer… A morning visit should be paid between the hours of two and four p.m., in winter, and two and five in summer. ... Morning, in fashionable parlance, means any time before dinner… In a morning call or visit of ceremony, the gentleman takes his hat and cane, if he carries one, into the room. The lady does not take off her bonnet and shawl. In attending ladies who are making morning calls, a gentleman assists them up the steps, rings the bell, follows them into the room, and waits till they have finished their salutations, unless he has a part to perform in presenting them. Ladies should always be the first to rise in terminating a visit, and when they have made their adieux, their cavaliers repeat the ceremony, and follow them out.”

Although morning calls were short, there were certain rituals associated with them. Gentleman, who had obligations outside the home, were more likely to make visits with their family on Sunday afternoons. If they were accompanying ladies, the were expected to subtly oversee the proceedings, even though the actual leave-taking was initiated by the ladies. Servants would relieve visitors of rain-soaked clothing, umbrellas and parcels (items that had been purchased from the milliner, haberdasher or draper), and ensure that the sanctity of the drawing room was preserved. However, ladies retained their bonnets and shawls, presumably an indication that the visit was only to be for a short interlude.

Dogs and Children

Never take favourite dogs into a drawing-room when you make a morning call. Their feet may be dusty, or they may bark at the sight of strangers, or, being of too friendly a disposition, may take the liberty of lying on a lady's gown, or jumping on the sofas and easy chairs... Besides, many persons have a constitutional antipathy to dogs, and others never allow their own to be seen in the sitting- rooms...

Neither is it well for a mother to take young children with her when she pays morning visits; their presence, unless they are unusually well trained, can only be productive of anxiety to both yourself and your hostess. She, while striving to amuse them, or to appear interested in them, is secretly anxious for the fate of her album, or the ornaments on her étagère, while the mother is trembling lest her children should say or do something objectionable.”

These admonitions will be familiar to the 21st-century visitor. Dogs can be very divisive, and you should never assume that they will be welcome in your host’s home – always ask first and be willing to shut them in another room or leave them in the car.

Our Victorian ancestors are famous for their “children should be seen and not heard” reprimands, and it would be a brave mother who dared to take young children into a stranger’s house. Victorian drawing rooms were certainly not childproofed, and were laden with child hazards, such as delicate ornament, porcelain, glass vases and knick-knacks. Parents today will relate to the anxiety of the visiting mother and, while we are much more accepting of the presence of children than the Victorians, we all know the potential damage they can do. If you are bringing your children on a visit, ensure that they come well-equipped with their own toys and will be capable of entertaining themselves.

Visiting Cards

“If you call on a person who is ‘engaged’ or ‘not at home’, leave your card. If there are several persons you desire to see, leave a card for each, or desire a servant to present your compliments to them severally. All visits should be returned, personally or by card, just as one should speak when spoken to, or answer a respectful letter.

When you are going abroad intending to be absent for some time, you enclose your card in an envelope, having, first, written T. T. L. [to take leave], or P. P. C. [pour prendre conge] upon it …and direct it outside to the per son for whom it is intended. In taking leave of a family, you send as many cards as you would if you were paying an ordinary visit.

Should there be daughters or sisters residing with the lady upon whom you call, you may turn down a corner of your card, to signify that the visit is paid to all. It is in better taste, however, to leave cards for each.

Visiting cards should be engraved or handsomely written. A gentleman s card should be of medium size, unglazed, ungilt, and perfectly plain. A lady’s card may be larger and finer and should be carried in a card-case.”

Visiting cards were de rigueur. They were tangible evidence that a visit had been paid, and a notification of social obligation (the compliment would need to be returned). They were generally left on a large tray, which was placed prominently on a hall table. Distinguished visitors’ cards inevitably found their way to the top of the pile, as they advertised the householder’s social credentials. The ceremonial leaving of visiting cards was evidence that the conventional social gesture had been made, a demonstration of probity and correct form. They also served the practical function of apprising acquaintances of one’s presence in town or the country or notifying them of an impending absence.

Today, while we may be used to ‘pop-ins’ from neighbours or close friends, the visiting ritual has been completely transformed. In general, visitors to our homes are making what the Victorians would define as “visits of friendship”. We ask people to our homes ­– for coffee, drinks, dinner, overnight stays etc. and these invitations are usually extended with a genuine desire to socialise and involve planning and preparation. The other functions of the Victorian visit ­­ – duty, congratulations and condolence – have been taken out of our domestic sphere and are dealt with through alternative means of communication.

Quotations are taken from:

How to Behave: A Pocket Manual of Etiquette and Guide to Correct Personal Habits, by Samuel Wells, 1865

Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette by George Routledge, 1860


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