The History Main Page New York City Directory The World Of Society Main Directory    

American and English Etiquette Contrasted


No sooner does the American traveler land in England than are forced upon his consideration the striking differences in the etiquette of the two countries, the language for common things, the different system of intercourse between the employee and the employer, the intense respectfulness of the guard on the railway, the waiter at the hotel, and the porter who shoulders a trunk, and the Stately "manageress" of the hotel, who greets a traveler as "my lady," and holds out her hand for a shilling. This _respect_ strikes him forcibly. The American in a similar position would not show the politeness, but she would disdain the shilling. No American woman likes to take a "fee," least of all an American landlady.

In England there is no such sensitiveness. Everybody can be feed who does even the most elevated service. The stately gentlemen who show Windsor Castle expect a shilling. Now as to the language for common things. No American must ask for an apothecary's shop; he would not be understood. He must inquire for the "chemist's" if he wants a dose of medicine. Apothecaries existed in Shakespeare's time, as we learn from "Romeo and Juliet," but they are "gone out" since. The chemist has been born, and very good chemicals he keeps. As soon as an American can divest himself of his habit of saying "baggage," and remark that he desires his "luggage sent up by the four train," the better for him. And it is the better for him if he learns the language of the country quickly. Language in England, in all classes, is a much more elaborate and finished science than with us. Every one, from the cad to the cabinet minister, speaks his sentences with what seems to us at first a stilted effort. There is none of the easy drawl, the oblivion of consonants, which mark our daily talk, It is very beautiful in the speech of women in England, this clear enunciation and the proper use of words. Even the maid who lights your fire asks your permission to do so in a studied manner, giving each letter its place. The slang of England is the affectation of the few. The "general public," as we should say, speak our common language most correctly. At first it sounds affected and strained, but soon the American ear grows to appreciate it, and finds the pure well of English undefiled.

The American lady will be sure to be charmed with the manners of the very respectable person who lets lodgings, and she will be equally sure to be shocked at the extortions of even the most honest and best-meaning of them. Ice, lights, an extra egg for breakfast, all these common luxuries, which are given away in America, and considered as necessaries of existence, are charged for in England, and if a bath is required in the morning in the tub which always stands near the wash-stand, an extra sixpence is required for that commonplace adjunct of the toilette. If ladies carry their own wine from the steamer to a lodging-house, and drink it there, or offer it to their friends, they are charged "corkage." On asking the meaning of this now almost obsolete relic of barbarism, they are informed that the lodging-house keeper pays a tax of twenty pounds a year for the privilege of using wine or spirits on the premises, and seven shillings--equal to nearly two dollars of our money--was charged an invalid lady who opened one bottle of port and two little bottles of champagne of her own in a lodging-house in Half-moon Street. As it was left on the sideboard and nearly all drunk up by the waiter, the lady demurred, but she had no redress. A friend told her afterwards that she should have uncorked her bottles in her bedroom, and called it medicine.

These abuses, practiced principally on Americans, are leading to the far wiser and more generous plan of hotel living, where, as with us, a man may know how much he is paying a day, and may lose this disagreeable sense of being perpetually plucked. No doubt to English people, who know how to cope with the landlady, who are accustomed to dole out their stores very carefully, who know how to save a sixpence, and will go without a lump of sugar in their tea rather than pay for it, the lodging-house living has its conveniences. It certainly is quieter and in some respects more comfortable than a hotel, but it goes against the grain for any one accustomed to the good breakfasts, the hearty lunch, and the excellent dinners of an American hotel of the better class, to have to pay for a drink of ice-water, and to be told that the landlady cannot give him soup and fish on the same day unless her pay is raised. Indeed, it is difficult to make any positive terms; the "extras" will come in. This has led to the building of gigantic hotels in London on the American plan, which arise rapidly on all sides. The Grand Hotel, the Bristol, the First Avenue Hotel, the Midland, the Northwestern, the Langham, and the Royal are all better places for an American than the lodging-house, and they are very little if any more expensive. In a lodging-house a lady must have a parlor, but in a hotel she can sit in the reading-room, or write her letters at one of the half-dozen little tables which she will find in each of the many waiting-rooms.

London is a very convenient city for the writing and posting of letters. Foreigners send out their letters of introduction and cards, expecting a reply in a few days, when, lo! the visitor is announced as being outside. Here, again, London has the advantage of New York. The immediate attention paid to a letter of introduction might shame our more tardy hospitality. Never in the course of the history of England has self-respecting Londoner neglected a letter of introduction. If he is well-to-do, he asks the person who brings the letter to dinner; if he is poor, he does what he can. He is not ashamed to offer merely the hospitality of a cup of tea if he can do no more. But he calls, and he sends you tickets for the "Zoo," or he does something to show his appreciation of the friend who has given the letter. Now in America we are very tardy about all this, and often, to our shame, take no notice of letters of introduction.

In the matter of dress the American lady finds a complete _bouleversement_ of her own ideas. Who would not stare, on alighting at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in the hot sunshine of a June evening, to find ladies trooping in at the public entrance dressed in red and blue and gold, with short sleeves or no sleeves, and very low corsage, no cloak, no head-covering? And yet at the Grand Hotel in London this is the nightly custom. These ladies are dressed for theatre or opera, and they go to dine at a hotel first. No bonnet is allowed at any theatre, so the full dress (which we should deem very improper at Wallack's) is demanded at every theatre in London. Of course elderly and quiet ladies can go in high dresses, but they must not wear bonnets. The laws of the Medes and Persians were not more strictly enforced than is this law by the custodians of the theatre, who are neatly dressed women ushers with becoming caps. Here, again, is a difference of custom, as we have no women ushers in America, and in this respect the English fashion is the prettier. It would be well, if we could introduce the habit of going to the theatre bonnet less, for our high hats are universally denounced by those who sit behind us.

The appearance of English women now to the stranger in London partakes of a character of loudness, excepting when on the top of a coach. There they are most modestly and plainly dressed. While our American women wear coaching dresses of bright orange silks and white satins, pink trimmed with lace, and so on, the English woman wears a plain colored dress, with a black mantilla or wrap, and carries a dark parasol. No brighter dress than a fawn-colored foulard appears on a coach in the great London parade of the Four-in-Hands.

Here the London woman is more sensible than her American cousin. The Americans who now visit London are apt to be so plain and undemonstrative in dress that they are called shabby. Perhaps alarmed at the comments once made on their loudness of dress, the American woman has toned down, and finds herself less gay than she sees is fashionable at the theatre and opera. But she may be sure of one thing--she should be plainly dressed rather than overdressed.

As for dinner parties, one is asked at eight or half-past eight; no one is introduced, but every one talks. The conversation is apt to be low-voiced, but very bright and cordial--all English people unbending at dinner. It is etiquette to leave a card next day after a ball, and to call on a lady's reception day. For the out-of-door fetes  at Hurlington and Sandhurst and the race days very brilliant toilettes of short dresses, gay bonnets, and so on, are proper, and as no one can go to the first two without a special invitation, the people present are apt to be "swells," and well worth seeing. The coaches which come out to these festivities have well-dressed women on top, but they usually conceal their gay dresses with a wrap of some somber color while driving through London. No one makes the slightest advance towards an acquaintance or an intimacy in London. All is begun very formally by the presentation of letters, and after that the invitation must be immediately accepted or declined, and no person can, without offending his host, withdraw from a lunch or dinner without making a most reasonable excuse. An American gentleman long resident in London complains of his country-people in this respect.

He says they accept his invitations to dinner, he gets together a most distinguished company to meet them, and at the last moment they send him word: "So sorry, but have come in tired from Richmond. Think we won't come. Thank you."

Now where is his dinner party? Three or four angry Londoners, who might have gone to a dozen different dinners, are sulkily sitting about waiting for these Americans who take a dinner invitation so lightly. The London luncheon, which is a very plain meal compared with ours-- indeed, only a family dinner--is a favorite hospitality as extended to Americans by busy men. Thus Sir John Millais, whose hours are worth twenty pounds apiece, receives his friends at a plain lunch in his magnificent house, at a table at which his handsome wife and rosy daughters assist. So with Alma Tadema, and the literary people whose time is money. Many of the noble people, whose time is not worth so much, also invite one to lunch, and always the meal is an informal one.

English ladies are very accomplished as a rule, and sometimes come into the drawing-room with their painting aprons over their gowns. They never look so well as on horseback, where they have a perfection of outfit and such horses and grooms as our American ladies as yet cannot approach. The scene at the corner of Rotten Row of a bright afternoon in the Derby week is unapproachable in any country in the world.

Many American ladies, not knowing the customs of the country, have, with their gentlemen friends, mounted a coach at the Langham Hotel, and have driven to the Derby, coming home very much shocked because they were rudely accosted.

Now ladies should never go to the Derby. It is not a "lady" race. It is five hundred thousand people out on a spree, and no lady is safe there. Ascot, on the contrary, is a lady's race. But then she should have a box, or else sit on the top of a coach. Such is the etiquette.

It would be better for all Americans, before entering London society, to learn the etiquette of these things from some resident.

In driving about, the most aristocratic lady can use the most plebeian conveyance. The "four-wheeler" is the favorite carriage. A servant calls them from the door-step with a whistle. They are very cheap--one-and-sixpence for two miles, including a call not to exceed fifteen minutes (the call). The hansom cab with one horse is equally cheap, but not so easy to get in and out of. Both these vehicles, with trunks on top of them, and a lady within, drive through the Park side by side with the stately carriages. In this respect London is more democratic than New York.


Website: The History
Article Name: American and English Etiquette Contrasted
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:  Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John Sherwood Harper & Brothers-New York 1894 Chapter LVII ; Library of Congress
Time & Date Stamp:  


  Privacy statement | Terms of use