Defining Etiquette

In the nineteenth century as capitalism was established in many developing countries around the world, the middle class grew significantly. People began to have more money and high society and socializing became something that was not just for the aristocracy. Thorstein Veblen discussed this phenomenon in his Theory of the Leisure Class where he wrote that this upper class consumes just for show and as a performance to solidify their social standing. He also briefly mentioned that women were responsible for consuming and demonstrating on their own behalf, but also to show the wealth and stature of their husbands.1 While Veblen wrote in 1899, he was clearly observing a phenomenon that was put in place partially by works such as The Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton. This work outlined what the rules and duties of a woman were in this time, especially with regards to their relationship with their husband and the best and most proper way to run their household.

Isabella Beeton was an English woman, married to a magazine editor and publisher. She began writing by publishing weekly magazine articles for her husband’s publication on cookery and French fiction. She then began writing longer pieces for his “Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine” about the correct etiquette for Victorian society. These pieces were eventually published into a single Book of Household Management, which described how to conduct oneself in a variety of situations from hiring servants to throwing a dinner party.2 The book became extremely popular and the name ‘Mrs. Beeton’ became synonymous with a domestic authority. One reason that this book was likely so popular was that many women were entering into the upper middle class society for the first time. The middle class was growing, and many women likely looked for a codified authority on what proper etiquette was so that they would not make any social blunders or embarrass their husbands in social settings. Victorian society was also one with a lot of rules and standards of what was considered acceptable and not, so having this book with the rules written down likely assisted many women in making sure they fully understood what the proper action was in each situation.

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management is still being published today, and while it is now largely used as a study on Victorian etiquette, are there other similar publications today? Do magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens or the Oprah Magazine perform similar functions as The Book of Household Management? Is social etiquette as clearly defined today as it was in nineteenth century England?

  1. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 1899 []
  2. Isabella Beeton, The Book of Household Management, 1861 []

One thought on “Defining Etiquette

  1. I don’t believe that there are many works being published today similar to the book published by Mrs. Beeton, but societal expectations are expressed in other mediums. Television shows and movies, for example, idealize women as the ones taking caring of the household. As you mentioned with the magazines listed, some publications are definitely aimed for the female audience. When compared to Beeton, these magazines convey similar messages in a more indirect way. These magazines are essentially suggesting ways to improve the household realm, which is essentially what Beeton is trying to communicate.

    Social etiquette today is very different compared to what was described in 19th century England. I think reputation was extremely important during this time as communication was much more limited. Having a good reputation allowed for more business opportunities and capital gain. By having a wife who is confined to the household and without a real personality, one’s reputation would have less of a chance of being tarnished.

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