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The Etiquette of Courtship

Perfect Behavior 1
“It’s as if in your soul there is a preprepared spot for every one of my thoughts,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote during his courtship of Véra Slonim. She eventually became Mrs. Nabokov.

In 1922 Donald Stewart wrote Perfect Behavior: A Guide for Ladies and Gentlemen in all Social Crises (Gutenberg). This book will leave you howling with laughter.

In Chapter One, Stewart writes on courtship:

Courtship is one of the oldest of social customs, even antedating in some countries such long-established usages as marriage, or the wearing of white neckties with full evening dress. The beginnings of the etiquette of courtship were apparently connected in some way with the custom of “love” between the sexes, and many of the old amatory forms still survive in the modern courtship. It is generally agreed among students of the history of etiquette that when “love” first began to become popular among the better class of younger people they took to it with such avidity that it was necessary to devise some sort of rules for the conduct of formal or informal love-making. These rules, together with various amendments, now constitute the etiquette of courtship.

How to Make Correct Introductions

Your first step should be, of course, the securing of an introduction. Introductions still play an important part in social intercourse, and many errors are often perpetrated by those ignorant of savoir faire (correct form). When introducing a young lady to a stranger for example, it is not au fait (correct form) to simply say, “Mr. Roe, I want you to shake hands with my friend Dorothy.” Under the rules of the beau monde (correct form) this would probably be done as follows: “Dorothy (or Miss Doe), shake hands with Mr. Roe.” Always give the name of the lady first, unless you are introducing some one to the President of the United States, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a member of the nobility above a baron, or a customer. The person who is being “introduced” then extends his (or her) right ungloved hand and says, “Shake.” You “shake,” saying at the same time, “It’s warm (cool) for November (May),” to which the other replies, “I’ll say it is.”

This brings up the interesting question of introducing two people to each other, neither of whose names you can remember. This is generally done by saying very quickly to one of the parties, “Of course you know Miss Unkunkunk.” Say the last “unk” very quickly, so that it sounds like any name from Ab to Zinc. You might even sneeze violently. Of course, in nine cases out of ten, one of the two people will at once say, “I didn’t get the name,” at which you laugh, “Ha! Ha! Ha!” in a carefree manner several times, saying at the same time, “Well, well—so you didn’t get the name—you didn’t get the name—well, well.” If the man still persists in wishing to know who it is to whom he is being introduced, the best procedure consists in simply braining him on the spot with a club or convenient slab of paving stone.

The “introduction,” in cases where you have no mutual friend to do the introducing, is somewhat more difficult but can generally be arranged as follows:
Procure a few feet of stout manila rope or clothes-line, from any of the better-class hardware stores. Ascertain (from the Social Register, preferably) the location of the young lady’s residence, and go there on some dark evening about nine o’clock. Fasten the rope across the sidewalk in front of the residence about six inches or a foot from the ground. Then, with the aid of a match and some kerosene, set fire to the young lady’s house in several places and retire behind a convenient tree. After some time, if she is at home, she will probably be forced to run out of her house to avoid being burned to death. In her excitement she will fail to notice the rope which you have stretched across the sidewalk and will fall. This is your opportunity to obtain an introduction. Stepping up to her and touching your hat politely, you say, in a well modulated voice, “I beg your pardon, Miss Doe, but I cannot help noticing that you are lying prone on the sidewalk.” If she is well bred, she will not at first speak to you, as you are a perfect stranger. This silence, however, should be your cue to once more tip your hat and remark, “I realize, Miss Doe, that I have not had the honor of an introduction, but you will admit that you are lying prone on the sidewalk. Here is my card—and here is one for Mrs. Doe, your mother.” At that you should hand her two plain engraved calling cards, each containing your name and address. If there are any other ladies in her family—aunts, grandmothers, et cetera—it is correct to leave cards for them also. Be sure that the cards are clean, as the name on the calling card is generally sufficient for identification purposes without the addition of the thumbprint.

When she has accepted your cards, she will give you one of hers, after which it will be perfectly correct for you to assist her to rise from the sidewalk. Do not, however, press your attentions further upon her at this time, but after expressing the proper regret over her misfortune it would be well to bow and retire.

Perfect Behavior 2

Cards and Flowers

The next day, however, you should send flowers, enclosing another of your cards. It might be well to write some message on the card recalling the events of the preceding evening—nothing intimate, but simply a reminder of your first meeting and a suggestion that you might possibly desire to continue the acquaintanceship. Quotations from poetry of the better sort are always appropriate; thus, on this occasion, it might be nice to write on the card accompanying the flowers—”‘This is the forest primeval’—H. W. Longfellow,” or “‘Take, oh take, those lips away’—W. Shakespeare.” You will find there are hundreds of lines equally appropriate for this and other occasions, and in this connection it might be well to display a little originality at times by substituting pertinent verses of your own in place of the conventional quotations. For example—”This is the forest primeval, I regret your last evening’s upheaval,” shows the young lady in question that not only are you well-read in classic poetry, but also you have no mean talent of your own. Too much originality, however, is dangerous, especially in polite social intercourse, and I need hardly remind you that the floors of the social ocean are watered with the tears of those who seek to walk on their own hook.

Within a week after you have sent the young lady the flowers, you should receive a polite note of thanks, somewhat as follows: “My dear Mr. Roe: Those lovely flowers came quite as a surprise. They are lovely, and I cannot thank you enough for your thoughtfulness. Their lovely fragrance fills my room as I write, and I wish to thank you again. It was lovely of you.”

Flowers and their Message in Courtship

It is now time to settle down to the more serious business of courtship. Her letter shows beyond the shadow of a figurative doubt that she is “interested,” and the next move is “up to you.” Probably she will soon come into the office to see her father, in which case you should have ready at hand some appropriate gift, such as, for example, a nice potted geranium. Great care should be taken, however, that it is a plant of the correct species, for in the etiquette of courtship all flowers have different meanings and many a promising affair has been ruined because a suitor sent his lady a buttercup, meaning “That’s the last dance I’ll ever take you to, you big cow,” instead of a plant with a more tender significance.

Some of the commoner flowers and their meaning in courtship are as follows:
Fringed Gentian—”I am going out to get a shave. Back at 3:30.”
Poppy—”I would be proud to be the father of your children.”
Golden-rod—”I hear that you have hay-fever.”
Tuberose—”Meet me Saturday at the Fourteenth Street subway station.”
Blood-root—”Aunt Kitty murdered Uncle Fred Thursday.”
Dutchman’s Breeches—”That case of Holland gin and Old Tailor has arrived. Come on over.”
Iris—”Could you learn to love an optician?”
Aster—”Who was that stout Jewish-looking party I saw you with in the hotel lobby Friday?”
Deadly Nightshade—”Pull down those blinds, quick!”
Passion Flower—”Phone Main 1249—ask for Eddie.”
Raspberry—”I am announcing my engagement to Charlie O’Keefe Tuesday.”
Wild Thyme—”I have seats for the Hippodrome Saturday afternoon.”

The above flowers can also be combined to make different meanings, as, for example, a bouquet composed of three tuberoses and some Virginia creeper generally signifies the following, “The reason I didn’t call for you yesterday was that I had three inner tube punctures, besides a lot of engine trouble in that old car I bought in Virginia last year. Gosh, I’m sorry!”

But to return to the etiquette of our present courtship. As Miss Doe leaves the office you follow her, holding the potted plant in your left hand. After she has gone a few paces you step up to her, remove your hat (or cap) with your right hand, and offer her the geranium, remarking, “I beg your pardon, miss, but didn’t you drop this?” A great deal depends upon the manner in which you offer the plant and the way she receives it. If you hand it to her with the flower pointing upward it means, “Dare I hope?” Reversed, it signifies, “Your petticoat shows about an inch, or an inch and a half.” If she receives the plant in her right hand, it means, “I am”; left hand, “You are”; both hands—”He, she or it is.” If, however, she takes the pot firmly in both hands and breaks it with great force on your head, the meaning is usually negative and your only correct course of procedure is a hasty bow and a brief apology.

Receiving an Invitation to Call

Let us suppose, however, that she accepts the geranium in such a manner that you are encouraged to continue the acquaintance. Your next move should be a request for an invitation to call upon her at her home. This should, above all things, not be done crudely. It is better merely to suggest your wish by some indirect method such as, “Oh—so you live on William Street. Well, well! I often walk on William Street in the evening, but I have never called on any girl there—YET.” The “yet” may be accompanied by a slight raising of your eyebrows, a wink, or a friendly nudge with your elbow. Unless she is unusually “dense” she will probably “take the hint” and invite you to come and see her some evening. At once you should say, “WHAT evening? How about TO-NIGHT?” If she says that she is already engaged for that evening, take a calendar out of your pocket and remark, “Tomorrow? Wednesday? Thursday? Friday? I really have no engagements between now and October. Saturday? Sunday?” This will show her that you are really desirous of calling upon her and she will probably say, “Well, I think I am free Thursday night, but you had better telephone me first.”

Making the First Call

The custom of social “calls” between young men and young women is one of the prettiest of etiquette’s older conventions, and one around which clusters a romantic group of delightful traditions. In this day and generation, what with horseless carriages, electric telephones and telegraphs, and dirigible gas bags, a great many of the older forms have been allowed to die out, greatly, I believe, to our discredit. “Speed, not manners,” seems to be the motto of this century. I hope that there still exist a few young men who care enough about “good form” to study carefully to perfect themselves in the art of “calling.” Come, Tom, Dick and Harry—drop your bicycles for an afternoon and fill your minds with something besides steam engines and pneumatic tires!

The first call at the home of any young lady of fashion is an extremely important social function, and too great care can not be taken that you prepare yourself thoroughly in advance. It would be well to leave your work an hour or two earlier in the afternoon, so that you can go home and practice such necessary things as entering or leaving a room correctly. Most young men are extremely careless in this particular, and unless you rehearse yourself thoroughly in the proper procedure you are apt to find later on to your dismay that you have made your exit through a window onto the fire-escape instead of through the proper door.

Conversation and some of its uses

Your conversation should also be planned more or less in advance. Select some topic in which you think your lady friend will be interested, such as, for example, the removal of tonsils and adenoids, and “read up” on the subject so that you can discuss it in an intelligent manner. Find out, for example, how many people had tonsils removed in February, March, April. Contrast this with the same figures for 1880, 1890, 1900. Learn two or three amusing anecdotes about adenoids. Consult Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations” for appropriate verses dealing with tonsils and throat troubles. Finally, and above all, take time to glance through four or five volumes of Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, for nothing so completely marks the cultivated man as the ability to refer familiarly to the various volumes of the Harvard classics.

A proper Call

Promptly at the time appointed you should arrive at the house where the young lady is staying. In answer to your ring a German police dog will begin to bark furiously inside the house, and a maid will finally come to the door. Removing your hat and one glove, you say, “Is Miss Doe home?” The maid replies, “Yass, ay tank so.” You give her your card and the dog rushes out and bites you on either the right or left leg. You are then ushered into a room in which is seated an old man with a long white beard. He is fast asleep. “Dot’s grampaw,” says the maid, to which you reply, “Oh.” She retires, leaving you alone with grampaw. After a while he opens his eyes and stares at you for a few minutes. He then says, “Did the dog bite you?” You answer, “Yes, sir.” Grampaw then says, “He bites everybody,” and goes back to sleep. Reassured, you light a cigaret. A little boy and girl then come to the door, and, after examining you carefully for several minutes, they burst into giggling laughter and run away. You feel to see if you have forgotten to put on a necktie. A severe looking old lady then enters the room. You rise and bow. “I am Miss Doe’s grandmother. Some one has been smoking in here,” she says, and sits down opposite you. Her remark is not, however, a hint for a cigaret and you should not make the mistake of saying, “I’ve only got Fatimas, but if you care to try one—” It should be your aim to seek to impress yourself favorably upon every member of the young lady’s family. Try to engage the grandmother in conversation, taking care to select subjects in which you feel she would be interested. Conversation is largely the art of “playing up” to the other person’s favorite subject. In this particular case, for example, it would be a mistake to say to Miss Doe’s grandmother, “Have you ever tried making synthetic gin?” or “Do you think any one will EVER lick Dempsey?” A more experienced person, and some one who had studied the hobbies of old people, would probably begin by remarking, “Well, I see that Jeremiah Smith died of cancer Thursday,” or “That was a lovely burial they gave Mrs. Watts, wasn’t it?” If you are tactful, you should soon win the old lady’s favor completely, so that before long she will tell you all about her rheumatism and what grampaw can and can’t eat.

Finally Miss Doe arrives. Her first words are, “Have you been waiting long? Hilda didn’t tell me you were here,” to which you reply, “No—I just arrived.” She then says, “Shall we go in the drawing-room?” The answer to this is, “For God’s sake, yes!” In a few minutes you find yourself alone in the drawing-room with the lady of your choice and the courtship proper can then begin.

The best way to proceed is gradually to bring the conversation around to the subject of the “modern girl.” After your preliminary remarks about tonsils and adenoids have been thoroughly exhausted, you should suddenly say, “Well I don’t think girls—nice girls—are really that way.” She replies, of course, “WHAT way?” You answer, “Oh, the way they are in these modern novels. This ‘petting,’ for instance.” She says, “WHAT petting’?” You walk over and sit down on the sofa beside her. “Oh,” you say, “these novelists make me sick—they seem to think that in our generation every time a young man and woman are left alone on a lounge together, they haven’t a thing better to do than put out the light and ‘pet.’ It’s disgusting, isn’t it?” “Isn’t it?” she agrees and reaching over she accidentally pulls the lamp cord, which puts out the light.

On your first visit you should not stay after 12:30.

The Proper Proposal

About the second or third month of a formal courtship it is customary for the man to propose matrimony, and if the girl has been “out” for three or four years and has several younger sisters coming along, it is customary for her to accept him. They then become “engaged,” and the courtship is concluded.