The One Great Law of Courtship

Books Bygone: The One Great Law of Courtship and Other Advise For Suitors
By Marica Bernstein

Love is in the air! What better time to review the complex rules of etiquette regarding “courtship– the word which sums up a man’s attentions to the woman he wishes to marry”? I say “complex” because we have a tendency to think of days bygone as simpler than those in which we now live. As The Book of Good Manners: A Guide to Polite Usage for All Social Functions (published in 1923) shows, there was nothing simple about courting in the 1920s. Let’s begin with some definitions. Good manners are based on “kindness of heart and courtesy of mind.” Etiquette is the “great body of rules [this book is over 500 pages!] to which good society conforms.” Culture is achieved when “good manners in every detail have become second nature.”

“A courtship, as a rule, develops naturally out of the propinquities of the same social circle.” (I had to look that up. Propinquity means nearness in place, proximity, similarity.) A young man finds attractive a particular young woman he has met “on the tennis court, at dances, in the home of her friends.” He pays her a call. He may call at her parents’ home only between the hours of 8 and 10 o’clock in the evening. He should never overstay his first call. This puts the young woman in an embarrassing situation. As to what he should wear—he does want to make a good impression—“a neat business suit or his Sunday best” are appropriate. Assuming the young woman finds his first and subsequent calls acceptable, they may begin to “pair off” as they engage in group social activities. The courtship thus “develops as a matter of course.”

Naturally, a young man who is paying court to the woman of his dreams will be inclined to give her gifts. These should be “impersonal—flowers, candy, one’s photograph, books” and so on. Any article of clothing is strictly prohibited. The gift of a pair silk stocking would be “vulgarism beyond redemption.” The suitor’s impersonal “giftmaking is justified by the tenuous and undefined status of the courtship” which will not change until the engagement is announced. Naturally, the young woman may infer—though she’s told in other etiquette books not to—that these gifts mean something more than “friendly generosity.” If her inference is correct, she has a responsibility. It is her duty to let her suitor know, as soon as possible, “whether or not his attentions are acceptable.” In no circumstances is it permissible to “play off” one suitor against another. This violates the “cardinal rule of all good manners—kindness to others.”

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Filed under American History, Social Life, Western culture

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