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25 Pieces of Advice from a 19th Century Etiquette Book

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For unsolicited, antiquated advice, you can’t do much better than 1883’s American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness by Walter R. Houghton. It covers everything from which colors are harmonious to proper wedding anniversary gifts to how to behave at the White House, and (as you’ll read below) what to do when in the presence of an inferior human being. Completely unrelated: it’s also terribly sexist. Read on for a glimpse of society life was like 130 years ago.

1. DON'T GOSSIP. 

This bit of advice is actually pretty sensible. "Be free from tattling," Houghton urges. "Do not inflict upon society another member of that despicable and dangerous species called gossipers. That tongue that carries slander and defames the character of others is as black as sin itself. Always be careful in your conversation not to dwell on what you heard somebody say about somebody else."

2. KNOW WHEN TO SHOOT AN ICY GLARE. 

Turns out, cutting a badly behaved individual is a time-honored tradition.  "The 'cut' is given by a continued stare at a person," Houghton instructs. "This can only be justified at all by extraordinary and notoriously bad conduct on the part of the one 'cut,' and it is very seldom called for. Should any one desire to avoid a bowing acquaintance with another, it may be done by turning aside or dropping the eyes."

It's also important to know who you can cut: "Good society will not allow a gentleman to give a lady the 'cut' under any circumstances; yet there may be circumstances in which he would be excused for persisting in not meeting her eyes, for should their eyes meet he must bow, even though she fail to grant him a decided recognition," Houghton writes.

3. DON'T KISS A WOMAN (IF YOU'RE A WOMAN). 

This piece of etiquette is not just outdated, it's become the offender: "The practice of women kissing each other in public is decidedly vulgar, and is avoided entirely by ladies of delicacy and true refinement."

4. WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE.

"Such exclamations as 'The Dickens,' or 'Mercy,' or 'Good Gracious,' should never be used," Houghton writes. "If you are surprised or astonished, suppress the fact. Such expressions border closely on profanity."

5. HEY, DON'T TALK DOWN TO WOMEN.

This piece of advice manages an impressive feat: being disrespectful when it thinks it's being respectful. "A gentleman should never lower the intellectual standard in conversing with ladies," Houghton says. "He should consider them as equal in understanding with himself. A lady of intelligence will not feel compliments by any means, if, when you talk to her, you 'come down' to common-place topics."

6. LOOK AROUND—BUT NOT TOO INTENTLY.

Houghton's instruction here seems practical at first, then veers into preemptive creeper-prevention: "Look in the way you are going, both to avoid collisions and because it is bad manners to stare in any other direction. If you chance to see an acquaintance at a window you show bow; but, by all means, do not stare into houses. Avoid looking full into the faces of strangers whom you meet, especially of ladies."

7. DON'T PLAY IN TRAFFIC.

It's not just risky, it's uncouth: "For a lady to run across the street before a carriage is inelegant and dangerous."

8. MEN, KNOW HOW TO PICK YOUR WOMAN'S HORSE.

Who knew that a horseback riding date contained so much responsibility? "When a gentleman has an engagement to go riding with a lady, he should be very careful in selecting her horse, and should procure one that she can easily manage," Houghton writes. "It is his duty to see that her saddle and bridle are perfectly secure; trust nothing to the stable men, without personal examination. He must not keep the lady waiting, clad in her riding costume."

9. BE PUNCTUAL, LADIES.

After all, men are just trying to please you. Let them do so in a timely manner. "Ladies who are invited to drive with gentlemen, at a certain hour, should be ready exactly at that moment. It is neither well-bred nor dignified to keep any one waiting who has made an appointment conducive to your pleasure," Houghton lectures. "Have everything ready, gloves on and buttoned up, and all arrangements of the toilet complete."

10. FAKE OBLIVIOUSNESS.

Another piece of etiquette that generally holds true to this day. "A visitor should not appear to notice any unpleasant family affairs that fall under his observation. He should never comment upon them to strangers, or to the host himself, unless his friend should first broach the subject," Houghton instructs. "Also, if you do not find your friend in as high a state of prosperity as you had anticipated do not take too evident notice of the fact. Your observations may be cruel as well as impolite."

11. DON'T GET ENGAGED TOO QUICKLY.

Another bit of common sense that's stood the test of time. "It is very unwise, not to say presumptuous, for a gentleman to make a proposal to a young lady on a too brief acquaintance," Houghton explains, elaborating:

Such hasty proposals generally come from mere adventurers, or else from mere novices in love, so that in either case they are to be rejected. A lady who would accept a gentleman at first sight can hardly possess the discretion needed to make a good wife.

12. EXERCISE.

But only do so in very particular, gender-specific ways:

To every well-bred man and woman physical education is indispensable. It is the duty of a gentleman to know how to ride, to shoot, to fence, to box, to swim, to row, and to dance. He should be graceful. If attacked by ruffians, a man should be able to defend himself, and also to defend women from their insults. Dancing, skating, swimming, archery, games of lawn tennis, riding and driving, and croquet, all aid in developing and strengthening the muscles, and should be practiced by ladies. The better the physical training, the more self-possessed and graceful she will be. Open-air exercise is essential to good health and a perfect physical development.

13. PERFORM WHEN ASKED, BUT DON'T OVERSTAY YOUR WELCOME.

"If a lady is requested to sing or play, she should do so at once, if she intends to comply, without waiting to be urged," Houghton mandates. "In refusing, she should do it in a manner that shall make her decision final. A lady should not monopolize the evening with her performances, but return to make room for others. It is a mark of vanity for a lady to exhibit any anxiety to sing or play."

14. SUPPRESS YOUR EMOTIONS.

One might say this is the primary tenet of good manners: "It is a mark of good breeding to suppress undue emotion, whether of disappointment, of mortification, or laughter, of anger, or of selfishness in any form."

15. DON'T ACT SUPERIOR (EVEN IF YOU OBVIOUSLY ARE).

"Never affect superiority," Houghton writes. "If you chance to be in the company of an inferior, do not let him feel his inferiority. When you invite an inferior as your guest, treat him with all the politeness and consideration you would show an equal."

16. KEEP VERBAL WITTICISMS TO A MINIMUM.

I think we can all agree that Houghton's moratorium on puns is indeed for the best. "Avoid bringing anecdotes into the conversation," he counsels. "Do not exhibit vulgarity by 'making puns.' Indulge with moderation in repartees, as they degenerate into the vulgarity of altercation."

17. REMOVE YOUR MOLES.

And do so in a terrifying manner:

Moles may be removed by moistening a stick of nitrate of silver, and touching them: they turn black, become sore, dry up, and fall off. If they do not go by first application, repeat. They are generally a great disfigurement to the face and should be removed, but it is better and safer to consult a surgeon before taking any steps to remove them.

18. DON'T MESS WITH YOUR EYES.

This intense bit of instruction on keeping the eyes unadorned is both nice in its sentiment, and probably wise health advice. "Beautiful eyes are always admired. Nothing lends so much to the beauty of the eyes as an honest, intelligent, benevolent expression of the face," Houghton writes. "They eyes are the index of the soul, and many traits of character may be read in them; therefore, it should be remembered, that to have pleasing eyes, pleasing traits of character should be cultivated, and a clear conscience preserved. Their beauty is independent of all arts of the toilet. Nothing is more foolish and vulgar than painting or coloring the lids or lashes. The eyes are very delicate and should never be tampered with. They are easily destroyed."

19. PUT THE BLING AWAY, BOYS.

"No well-bred gentleman will load himself with jewelry," Houghton asserts. "He may wear one ring, a watch chain, studs and cuff buttons."

20. LADIES, MAKE YOUR GIFTS LADYLIKE.

Any gift made by a lady "should be of a delicate nature, usually some dainty product of their own taste and skill," Houghton writes. "If a married lady makes a present to a gentleman she should give it in the name of both herself and her husband."

21. PRACTICE RESTRAINT IN YOUR LOVE LETTERS.

In the era of Snapchat, a caution to keep your wits about you when writing a love letter is downright sweet. Jane Austen readers will appreciate this one. "A love letter should be dignified in tone and expressive of esteem and affection," Houghton writes. "It should be free from silly and extravagant expressions, and contain nothing of which the writer would be ashamed were the letter to fall under the eyes of any person beside the one to whom it was written."

22. DON'T BE A BUZZKILL.

A rare instance in which Houghton makes allowances for fun. "At picnics, while ladies and gentlemen will not forget to be polite and courteous, forms and ceremonies are thrown aside," he writes. "Men and women engage in these days of pleasure that they may escape, for a time, the cares of business, and the restraints of formal society, so at such times it is the duty of all to make the occasion one of gayety and mirth."

23. ELIMINATE GRAY HAIRS WITH A HOMEMADE CONCOCTION.

Certainly this could not have smelled good.

One-half ounce sugar of lead, one half ounce lac sulphur, one ounce glycerine, one quart rain water. Saturate the hair and scalp with this two or three times per week and you will soon have a head free from gray hairs and dandruff, while the hair will be soft and glossy.

24. GET RID OF THOSE UNSIGHTLY BLACK TEETH.

Cream of tartar is still used as a common material to whiten teeth naturally. Though by the sound of things, it probably had to work a lot harder back then. "Pulverize equal parts of salt and cream of tartar, and mix them thoroughly," Houghton instructs. "After washing the teeth in the morning, rub them with this powder, and after a few such applications the blackness will disappear."

25. BANISH FLESH WORMS.

It's unclear what the cologne is doing here, but smelling nice is always in line with good etiquette: "Wash the face in tepid water, rub thoroughly with a towel, and apply a lotion made of half an ounce of liquor of potash, and three ounces of cologne. Make the application with a soft flannel rag."

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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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