Traditional Values

How to Make a Party Pleasant: Party Etiquette for the Gentleman From an 1800s Handbook on Manners

BY Epoch Inspired Staff TIMEFebruary 3, 2023 PRINT

The following is an excerpt from “The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness” by Cecil B. Hartley, published by Locke & Bubier in 1875. 


Now, there are many different kinds of parties. There are the evening party, the matinée, the reading, dancing, and singing parties, the picnic, the boating, and the riding parties; and the duties for each one are distinct, yet, in many points, similar. Our present subject is:


These are of two kinds, large and small. For the first, you will receive a formal card, containing the compliments of your hostess for a certain evening, and this calls for full dress, a dress coat, and white or very light gloves. To the small party you will probably be invited verbally, or by a more familiar style of note than the compliment card. Here you may wear gloves if you will, but you need not do so unless perfectly agreeable to yourself.

If you are to act as escort to a lady, you must call at the hour she chooses to name, and the most elegant way is to take a carriage for her. If you wish to present a bouquet, you may do so with perfect propriety, even if you have but a slight acquaintance with her.

When you reach the house of your hostess for the evening, escort your companion to the dressing-room, and leave her at the door. After you have deposited your own hat and great-coat in the gentlemen’s dressingroom, return to the ladies’ door and wait for your companion. Offer her your right arm, and lead her to the drawing-room, and, at once, to the hostess, then take her to a seat, and remain with her until she has other companions, before you seek any of your own friends in the room.

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(Illustration – alex74/Shutterstock)

There is much more real enjoyment and sociability in a well-arranged party, than in a ball, though many of the points of etiquette to be observed in the latter are equally applicable to the former. There is more time allowed for conversation, and, as there are not so many people collected, there is also more opportunity for forming acquaintances. At a soirée, par excellence, music, dancing, and conversation are all admissible, and if the hostess has tact and discretion this variety is very pleasing. As there are many times when there is no pianist or music engaged for dancing, you will do well, if you are a performer on the piano-forte, to learn some quadrilles, and round dances, that you may volunteer your services as orchestra. Do not, in this case, wait to be solicited to play, but offer your services to the hostess, or, if there is a lady at the piano, ask permission to relieve her. To turn the leaves for another, and sometimes call figures, are also good natured and well-bred actions.

There is one piece of rudeness very common at parties, against which I would caution you. Young people very often form a group, and indulge in the most boisterous merriment and loud laughter, for jests known only to themselves. Do not join such a group. A well-bred man, while he is cheerful and gay, will avoid any appearance of romping in society.

If dancing is to be the amusement for the evening, your first dance should be with the lady whom you accompanied, then, invite your hostess, and, if there are several ladies in the family you must invite each of them once, in the course of the evening. If you go alone, invite the ladies of the house before dancing with any of your other lady friends.

Never attempt any dance with which you are not perfectly familiar. Nothing is more awkward and annoying than to have one dancer, by his ignorance of the figures, confuse all the others in the set, and certainly no man wants to show off his ignorance of the steps of a round dance before a room full of company.

Do not devote yourself too much to one lady. A party is meant to promote sociability, and a man who persists in a tête-à-tête for the evening, destroys this intention. Besides you prevent others from enjoying the pleasure of intercourse with the lady you thus monopolize.

Avoid any affectation of great intimacy with any lady present; and even if you really enjoy such intimacy, or she is a relative, do not appear to have confidential conversation, or, in any other way, affect airs of secrecy or great familiarity.

Dance easily and gracefully, keeping perfect time, but not taking too great pains with your steps. If your whole attention is given to your feet or carriage, you will probably be mistaken for a dancing master.

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(Illustration – alex74/Shutterstock)

When you conduct your partner to a seat after a dance, you may sit or stand beside her to converse, unless you see that another gentleman is waiting to invite her to dance.

Do not take the vacant seat next a lady unless you are acquainted with her.

After dancing, do not offer your hand, but your arm, to conduct your partner to her seat.

If music is called for and you are able to play or sing, do so when first invited, or, if you refuse then, do not afterwards comply. If you refuse, and then alter your mind you will either be considered a vain coxcomb, who likes to be urged; or some will conclude that you refused at first from mere caprice, for, if you had a good reason for declining, why change your mind?

Never offer to turn the leaves of music for any one playing, unless you can read the notes, for you run the risk of confusing them, by turning too soon or too late.

If you sing a good second, never sing with a lady unless she herself invites you. Her friends may wish to hear you sing together, when she herself may not wish to sing with one to whose voice and time she is unaccustomed.

Do not start a conversation whilst any one is either playing or singing, and if another person commences one, speak in a tone that will not prevent others from listening to the music.

If you play yourself, do not wait for silence in the room before you begin. If you play well, those really fond of music will cease to converse, and listen to you; and those who do not care for it, will not stop talking if you wait upon the piano stool until day dawn.

Relatives should avoid each other at a party, as they can enjoy one another’s society at home, and it is the constantly changing intercourse, and complete sociability that make a party pleasant.

Private concerts and amateur theatricals are very often the occasions for evening parties, and make a very pleasant variety on the usual dancing and small talk. An English writer, speaking of them, says:

“Private concerts and amateur theatricals ought to be very good to be successful. Professionals alone should be engaged for the former, none but real amateurs for the latter. Both ought to be, but rarely are, followed by a supper, since they are generally very fatiguing, if not positively trying. In any case, refreshments and ices should be handed between the songs and the acts. Private concerts are often given in the ‘morning,’ that is, from two to six P. M.; in the evening their hours are from eight to eleven. The rooms should be arranged in the same manner as for a reception, the guests should be seated, and as music is the avowed object, a general silence preserved while it lasts. Between the songs the conversation ebbs back again, and the party takes the general form of a reception. For private theatricals, however, where there is no special theatre, and where the curtain is hung, as is most common, between the folding doors, the audience-room must be filled with chairs and benches in rows, and, if possible, the back rows raised higher than the others. These are often removed when the performance is over, and the guests then converse, or, sometimes, even dance. During the acting it is rude to talk, except in a very low tone, and, be it good or bad, you would never think of hissing.”

If you are alone, and obliged to retire early from an evening party, do not take leave of your hostess, but slip away unperceived.

If you have escorted a lady, her time must be yours, and she will tell you when she is ready to go. See whether the carriage has arrived before she goes to the dressing-room, and return to the parlor to tell her. If the weather was pleasant when you left home, and you walked, ascertain whether it is still pleasant; if not, procure a carriage for your companion. When it is at the door, join her in the drawing-room, and offer your arm to lead her to the hostess for leave-taking, making your own parting bow at the same time, then take your companion to the door of the ladies’ dressing-room, get your own hat and wait in the entry until she comes out.

When you reach your companion’s house, do not accept her invitation to enter, but ask permission to call in the morning, or the following evening, and make that call.

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