• Happy Christmas by Viggo Johansen 1891 e1544470500415 9b7f6

    There’s nothing more quintessentially Christmas than a Victorian Christmas, complete with mistletoe, tinsel, and candles on the tree. But there was more to Victorian holiday decorating than tinsel and candles. Just like us, many Victorians had a fondness for glitter and gold. In my new Victorian Christmas romance A Holiday By Gaslight, there’s a scene in which the guests at a country house party decorate for Christmas by gilding acorns and artificially frosting the tips of holly and ivy leaves with crystals. These Victorian decorating ideas didn’t originate in my fevered authorial brain. They were actual methods used to create glittering, gold-flaked, holiday cheer.

    An issue of the Delineator from 1900 declares that “one of the handsomest effects” for the Christmas tree was “having the tips of the green boughs glittering with crystals and reflecting the lights in many brilliant colors.” It goes on to state that:

    “One would suppose, at first sight of the glittering display, that some expensive method was necessary to produce the effect, but the process of covering the green twigs with crystals is very cheap and simple.”

    At this juncture, I feel it necessary to warn you that you should definitely NOT try this at home. Many recipes the Victorians employed for decorating were highly toxic and not at all safe for use. The information provided below is purely for your historical edification.

    The Christmas Tree by Albert Chevallier Tayler 1911 e1544471938356 2a54fThe Christmas Tree by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1911.

    To produce the effect of glittering crystals on Christmas tree branches, the Delineator recommends the application of a solution of alum and boiled water. The recipes reads as follows:

    “Put into a bucket a pound or more of alum and pour a gallon of boiling water upon it. Place the tree in such a position that the tips of the boughs may remain in this solution for some hours— perhaps overnight. Repeat the process until as many boughs are tipped with crystals as will make the tree very beautiful; or, if preferred, cut off the twigs, crystallize them and fix them again on the boughs.”

    This method of frosting could also be used to create crystals on the leaves of holly and ivy. The 1881 edition of Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine describes one method for doing so, writing: 

    “On one pound of alum, pour a quart of boiling water. Whilst still warm, suspend the leaves in it by a string tied round the stalks; leave them in for twenty-four hours and then hang them up till dry.” 

    Arthur’s also offers a few more methods for creating snow-like crystals on Christmas tree branches. One was by coating the surface of the branches and leaves with gum solution and then “sprinkling thickly with flour.” Another, used to create an effect that resembled hoar frost, was to drape white cotton wool over the branches and then:

    “Drop gum upon the wool, wherever frost would naturally form, and sprinkle coarse Epsom salts over it.”

    As an alternative to Epsom salts, a Victorian could purchase “frosted glass, ready crushed.” Or, for an even cheaper solution, Arthur’s advises its readers to:

    “…crush with a garden roller, any pieces of glass, such as old bottles, which have been saved up during the summer for this purpose.”

    Christmas Tree by Alexei Korin 1910 5ae28Christmas Tree by Alexei Korin, 1910.

    Along with frosted branches, gilded acorns and walnuts were also very popular Victorian Christmas decorations. Golden fruits were very much in style as well. According to the Delineator:

    “Golden fruit is popular on frost-tipped Christmas trees and reminds one of the orange-tree bearing the ripened fruit in an early frost or snow-storm.”

    Gilding requires far less explanation than frosting. For this, Victorian simply used gold leaf. However, for something like Christmas decorations, there were less expensive methods for gilding fruits and nuts. The Delineator advises its readers to:

    “Hammer a long tack into the end of the walnut by which to suspend it after gilding. Using a feather or soft brush, wash the nut with mucilage; then roll it in gold powder until it is well gilded; or, cover it with tin foil in imitation of gold leaf or paint it with gold paint.”

    I hope the above gives you some idea of how Victorians created gilding and frosting on their Christmas decorations. For more Victorian Christmas cheer, check out my new Victorian Christmas romance A Holiday By Gaslight!

    Top photo: Happy Christmas by Viggo Johansen, 1891.

    This article originally appeared on and is reprinted here with permission.

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  • Ladies Taking Tea by Joseph Scheurenberg Date unknown f7905

    In the Victorian era, Halloween parties were rife with games designed to help young ladies see into their marital futures. These games were generally played at co-ed Halloween celebrations. There were even some which could be played by gentlemen. The bulk of these games, however, were geared toward marriage-minded females. It is therefore not surprising to find descriptions of Halloween parties—or Halloween Teas—that were strictly for women.

    The November 5, 1898 edition of the Western Mail describes a Halloween tea held by a young lady by the name of Anna Leighton. Miss Leighton is reported to have invited sixteen of her female friends to “an early candlelight tea.” The guests arrived to find the Leighton’s parlor decorated with autumn leaves, fruits, nuts, and ears of corn. There were jack-o-lanterns arrayed on the mantel and candles burning under crepe paper shades. As the article relates:

    “The decorations of the dining-room were unusually pretty, the walls being draped in soft red and yellow, with wreaths and garlands of autumn flowers and leaves gracefully festooned on the wall, and from each corner were suspended Jack-o’-lanterns cut from immense pumpkins.”

    Wax candles illuminated the table and, beside every place setting, there was a cluster of red and yellow roses tied with ribbons and accented with a “silver horsehoe stick-pin” that could be taken home as a souvenir. In addition, attached to each set of roses, was a hand-painted card which revealed the respective guest’s fortune. The Western Mail reports that one such card was drawn with four-leaf clovers and read:

    “The man you’ll marry is full of pluck;
    He has gone to Klondyke and had good luck.”

    Teatime by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta n.d. via Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana e1540769368468 504f2Teatime by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta, n.d. (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana)

    In keeping with the holiday theme, the menu for the Halloween tea consisted primarily of “nuts, fruit, and candy.” The guests were also served “fancy cakes” and ices which contained “either a needle, thimble, dime, or ring.” According to the Western Mail:

    “The needle and thimble indicated that the ones who happened to take them would remain spinsters for another year; the dime and ring meant either an engagement or marriage.”

    There were other chances for young ladies to divine their romantic futures, many of which revolved around cups of tea. For example, to find out how many years she might have to wait until she married, a young lady balanced a dry spoon on the edge of her teacup. A second spoon was filled with tea and “holding it above the balanced spoon,” she slowly dropped the tea into the first spoon until it overbalanced. Each drop represented a year.

    Another tea-related marriage game was said to reveal how soon one’s lover might call. As the Western Mail explains:

    “If a tea stalk floats in the cup it is called a lover, and when this is seen maids should stir their tea very rapidly round and round, and then hold the spoon upright in the centre of the cup. If the tea stalk is attached to the spoon and clings to it he will call shortly, and maybe, this very evening; if the tea stalk goes to the side of the cup he will not come, and you will not have a proposal this year.”

    After an evening of tea drinking and marriage forecasting, the young ladies at Miss Leighton’s party gathered around a coal fire and roasted marshmallows. They then told ghost stories. The young lady who told the scariest story was awarded a prize consisting of a pair of toy slippers accompanied by a card which read:

    "Before retiring to-night,
    Place your slippers in the form of a T.
    And to-night you, your love will see;
    The colour of his hair and the suit he will wear
    The night he is wedding to thee.”

    Tea Party by Louis Charles Moeller 1905 e1540766741246 e2df4Tea Party by Louis Charles Moeller, 1905.

    Though I’m not a fan of the endless games of marriage forecasting, I confess that the idea of a Halloween tea party for ladies does sound appealing. I hope some of you might consider reviving the tradition. Who knows? If we all take part, one day Gallowen might even become popular enough to rival Galentine’s Day.

    Top image: Ladies Taking Tea by Joseph Scheurenberg, n.d.

    This post originally appeared on and is reprinted here with permission.

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  • a confidence trick by j m staniforth 1898 3c4fb c3996

    Though tricksters and con artists have existed throughout history, the 19th century confidence man was a creature that many Victorians considered to be uniquely American. Not a thief in the traditional sense, he seduced his prey with silky words and fantastical promises until his victims willingly gave him their trust, their money, and, quite literally, their confidence. This propensity for slick talk and tall tales does tend to put one in mind of a stereotypical American of that era. But was the 19th century American confidence man more than just a Victorian stereotype?

    In fact, the first formally recorded confidence trick was American. It took place in New York in 1849 when William Thompson conned a man out of his watch.  According to the Social History of Crime and Punishment in America:

    “Thompson approached a man on the sidewalk, struck up a conversation, and asked him if he would trust him with his watch until tomorrow.  Once the item was in his possession, Thompson walked off laughing.”

    Thompson was later arrested and tried for his crime. During the trial, the New York Herald reported on how Thompson had “tricked men by gaining their confidence.” This phrase is credited as the origin of the term confidence man.

    In England, 19th century newspapers were full of reports of American confidence men coming to Britain to perpetrate swindles. Or, alternately, British men and women who were swindled by Americans while visiting the United States. Describing the American confidence man, an 1893 edition of the Pall Mall Gazette states:

    The average ‘confidence man’ will rob you of your last shilling if he can do so, but not by knocking you down and taking it from you by force.  His plan is to work himself into your confidence, and having done so, despoil you. In accomplishing his end he has just as much pity for his victim as a highway robber, but not more.”

    liberty a59fcDelmonico’s, New York, 1893.

    The Pall Mall Gazette goes on to report the story of what they call “the cleverest confidence man who has visited England for many years.” The American man in question had arrived in London the previous July and taken up residence at the Savoy Hotel. Another American, a man by the name of McDonough, introduced him as “a director of the Standard Oil Company.”  To some, he was introduced as Mr. Griffiths. To others, he was introduced as Mr. St. Elmer. In both cases, he was presented as an American “oil king.”

    Reporting on the same incident, the Yorkshire Evening Post identifies Griffiths’ victim by the pseudonym “Mr. Lamb” and describes him as “the largest steel manufacturer in Great Britain.” As the article states:

    The American met this gentleman in London, and afterwards took a train for the town in which Mr. Lamb was one of the most prominent residents.  He took rooms for himself and a companion McDonough at a hotel, and leaving McDonough there went to call upon Mr. Lamb.”

    john d rockefeller senior 1875 bcc73John D. Rockefeller Senior, 1875

    Griffiths was given a tour of Mr. Lamb’s factory, during which he casually mentioned that he expected “his friend” John D. Rockefeller, the president of Standard Oil, to arrive in London “at almost any moment.” He advised Mr. Lamb that they would need to take rooms in the local hotel for Rockefeller since, as soon as he arrived in London, he would make his way to join them.

    Griffiths conducted his “business” with Mr. Lamb over the course of several days. During that time, he convinced Mr. Lamb to lend him a large sum of money. At the end of his visit, Griffiths hosted an elaborate dinner at the hotel for Mr. Lamb and several of his principal employees. And then, when checking out of the hotel to return to London, he informed the hotel clerk that “Mr. Lamb would pay all the bills.” To add insult to injury, he borrowed an additional £7 from the hotel clerk himself and told him to “put that down to Mr. Lamb also.”

    It is not clear at what point Mr. Lamb realized that he had been duped, but at the time of printing in early December of 1893, that particular American confidence man was still wanted by the police.

    A similar story, reported in an 1890 edition of the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, involves two Englishmen, Sir Robert Peel and Mr. Clifford Talbot, who made the acquaintance of an American confidence man on board a ship headed to the United States. Upon arrival in New York, the confidence man offered to show them the sights. He subsequently divested them of their money and jewels. According to the article:

    “He was arrested last night at Delmonico’s whilst giving them a farewell dinner.  The Englishmen started for the West to-day wiser and poorer men.”

    delmonico 59172Delmonico’s, New York, 1893.

    Adding to the many reports of American confidence men perpetrating confidence tricks on unsuspecting Victorians were the sometimes larger than life stories of cons perpetrated by Americans against their own countrymen. For example, in an 1885 tale that has come to epitomize both the heights of con artistry and the depths of gullibility, William McCloundy famously sold the Brooklyn Bridge to a west coast tourist for $50,000.

    brooklyn bridge by currier and ives 1883 a7567Brooklyn Bridge by Currier and Ives, 1883.

    But these criminal feats of what one 1928 American newspaper calls “super-salesmanship” were not limited to confidence men from the United States. There were quacks and patent medicine peddlers galore in Victorian England. And con men in 19th century Europe were so far ahead of their time that they even had their own version of what many of us know today as the Nigerian prince email scam. Originating in the 18th century, it was known as the “Spanish Prisoner” or “Spanish Treasure Trick.” The October 13, 1900 Dundee Evening Post reports on its latest victim:

    The victim, who is a retired newspaper proprietor of substantial means, received the usual letter from the sharper at Barcelona, stating that the writer was a political prisoner in Spain, and had in his possession plans of a spot in the Island of Barbados, where a large amount of treasure was buried.  These plans he was willing to dispose of for £600.”

    map of the island of barbados 1682 768x633 023dfMap of the Island of Barbados, 1682.

    The retiree discussed the viability of this opportunity with “a young clergyman of the Church of England.” The clergyman, in turn, consulted his father. Between the three of them, they concluded that the scheme was legitimate and, in due course, the clergyman was dispatched to Barcelona with a draft for £600 and £150 for expenses. According to the newspaper report:

    "In due time he reached Barcelona, found the holder of the precious plans, and received them in exchange for the £600.  He was swiftly disillusioned. Once in possession of the money, the confidence man turned on the unsophisticated cleric, and he had to flee for his life.”

    Despite plenty of evidence that there were slick-talking fraudsters and con men from other parts of the world, the reputation of the 19th century American confidence man persisted. Some simply chalk this up to the geographic origin of the phrase. Others have argued that it has more to do with 19th century confidence men possessing qualities that many of that era saw as being quintessentially American. Qualities like inventiveness, daring, and an entrepreneurial spirit. In his book American Tricksters, author William Jackson even goes so far as to state that the confidence man is a major American cultural hero.

    However you argue it, the 19th century American confidence man was a reality both at home and abroad.  As for the rest, I will let you be the judge.

    on the wrong road canterbury journal kentish times and farmers gazette september 13 1890 768x407 2647aCanterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers’ Gazette , September 13, 1890.

    This post originally appeared on MimiMatthews.comand is reprinted here with permission. 

    Top image: A Confidence Trick by J.M. Staniforth, 1898.

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  • imgonline com ua resize gt3gdi71pfk6e a1924

    We all know that history is littered with dresses that wanted nothing more than to kill their wearers (shoutout to fire-loving crinolines and organ-squishing corsets!), but it wasn’t just dress engineering that could led to (a v. fashionable) early grave; the color of your dress could also lead to a veeeery nasty end! I present to you Scheele’s Green, a hue with a mission to kill every Victorian it could.

    kermitPreach Kermie (via giphy)

    Arsenic was an everyday item in Victorian England. It was just one of those things you had in your house, like soap, cosmetics, even playing cards. (Actually, arsenic was used to make all of these…)

    The industrial revolution brought a boom in the arsenic industry as ways to manufacture the element became easier. Due to this, the Victorians started to use arsenic in literally everything! They used it in furnishings, sprayed it on vegetables and meat… even coated toys in it. It sounds super deadly…and it was…BUT all this arsenic was in pretty small doses; you’d literally have had to lick all the toys in London to die from it (still don’t try it at home, though).

    Then, a guy called Carl Wilhelm Scheele entered the arsenic scene. 

    carl wilhelm scheele inventor of scheeles green a toxic arsenic pigment used in clothing wallpaper and even sweets e1502826437928 3d188

      Scheele wanted to create a long lasting, bold green hue. So, using copper arsenite as the key ingredient, he created what he called "Scheele’s Green," also known as Paris Green (the actual full name is CuHAsO3, for the science nerds out there).

    Now, you might think that having a green pigment with such a high arsenic percentage would put people off…but you made shit look sooo green. Like soooooooo green though!!!

    And so Victorians popped Scheele's Green in everything they could think of. Wallpaper? Yeah, shove some arsenic on that bad boy! Clothes? Yes, that totes needs a shade of death! Sweets? Yes…I’m sorry to say that some cavalier confectioners dyed their sweets with Scheele's Green, which did result in a tiny bit of child death.

    sorry bout that c9311Er yeah, sorry to have bought in child death so early... but it's kinda a death post (via giphy)

    Now, having arsenic in wallpaper is bad enough, so imagine how bad wearing arsenic is for one's health!

    At the time it was estimated that one ball gown made using Scheele's Green would carry an estimated 900 grams of arsenic.

    It takes 5 grams to kill an adult.


    Luckily for the ladies wearing these dresses, they were covered in layers of petticoats, linings, corsets, and crinolines, so they didn’t actually come into much contact with the deadly fabric. The same cannot be said for the poor sods making the dresses.

    arsenic dress 683f1Scheele Green, corset, and a bustle, that's like the trifecta of deadly dress!!!

    In 1861, a 19-year-old paper flower maker named Matilda Scheurer started convulsing and vomiting green liquid. The whites of her eyes turned green and so did her fingernails.

    Matilda’s job was to brush powdered green pigment onto fake flowers, which were then sold to adorn wealthy ladies hats and dresses. As you’ve probably guessed, the green powder was a type of Scheele’s Green and obviously contained all of the arsenic.

    After inhaling high levels of arsenic every day of her working life, Matilda died a slow and very painful death. She wasn’t the only one. French physician Ange-Gabriel-Maxime Vernois wrote that after visiting a fake flower factory (similar to the one Matilda worked in), the daily contact with arsenic wrought havoc on the bodies of the workers, with the arsenic literally eating away at their flesh.

    screaming 2b5c4I repeat: eating away at their flesh!! (via giphy)

    The death of Matilda led to an upper class uprising against the use of Scheele's Green. With ladies' societies campaigning against the substance's use and making it clear they felt other women’s use of Scheele’s Green dyed attire made them little more than murderers.

    This, combined with the public becoming more aware of the dangers of products based heavily in arsenic, caused the use of Scheele’s Green and other arsenic-based hues to fall sharply out of fashion – because nobody wants to die, no matter how haute couture the dress.

    too much fashion 72997You heard it here first, folks!!! (via giphy)

    This was interesting! Where do I find out more?Well if you enjoyed finding out how fashion killed Victorians, you’ll love finding out how tons of other stuff did too!! Suzannah Lipscomb’s series on hidden killers is a great watch, covering several eras in history. It’s online and you can also buy episodes to watch on Amazon.

    This post originally appeared on F Yeah History and is reprinted here with permission.

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  • Quarreling c. 1874 76 by James Tissot. cropped 1bc07

    Nobody likes to be shouted at or spoken to in an abusive, combative tone. In the Victorian era, however, such behavior was especially distasteful when engaged in by a man and directed at a woman. Men were generally larger in size and more powerful in position. It was seen as their duty as gentlemen to treat women with respect, whether those women be the lowliest of servants or the grandest of ladies. 

    Etiquette books of the day offered plenty of advice on the subject of a gentleman’s behavior toward the so-called weaker sex. For instance, in his 1873 book The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, Cecil B. Hartley states that “civility is particularly due to all women,” even those women who were abusive or provoking. He explains, “The greatest man would justly be reckoned a brute if he were not civil to the meanest woman. It is due to their sex, and is the only protection they have against the superior strength of ours.”

    This sentiment is echoed in the 1877 book The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, in which Eliza Bisbee Duffey argues that “a true gentleman” should always be “helpful and protecting to the weak.” As such, “Women—all women, of whatever age or condition—claim his respectful care and tender and reverential regard."

    arrufos by belmiro de almeida 1887 e1538346436724 bd092The Spat by Belmiro de Almeida, 1887. (Museu Nacional de Belas Artes)


     There was no excuse for a man to speak harshly, either to a woman or in the presence of one. No matter the circumstances, a true Victorian gentleman was always supposed to control his temper and moderate his tone. According to the 1889 Hand-Book of Official and Social Etiquette and Public Ceremonials at Washington, “Exhibitions of excitement, impatience or anger in the presence of ladies are a disrespect, no matter what may have happened.”

    Gentlemen of fiery disposition were advised to keep a firm hold on their tempers when in company with women. Hartley instructs his male readers, “Learn to restrain anger. A man in a passion ceases to be a gentleman, and if you do not control your passions, rely upon it, they will one day control you.”


    An Argument in the Corridors of the Opera by Jean Georges Beraud 1889 fbe36An Argument in the Corridors of the Opera by Jean-Georges Béraud, 1889.


    For those gentlemen who needed added incentive to remain civil toward a provoking woman, Hartley offers the following advice: “If you are ever tempted to speak against a woman, think first—‘Suppose she were my sister!'”

    Men who verbally attacked women were no gentlemen. Even worse, they were seen as cowardly. The sort of fellows who, according to Hartley, would “absolutely be afraid, to speak against a man, or that same woman, had she a manly arm to protect her.”

    Instead, gentlemen were urged to take an almost paternalistic view toward the women they encountered. It was more than refraining from shouting at a woman or holding the occasional door. There were hundreds of little services a Victorian gentleman might perform. Anything and everything, from offering his arm to help a lady cross a street to giving up his seat on a public conveyance.

    Today, there is greater (though still not perfect) equality between the sexes. Most women prefer to be treated as equals rather than put on a pedestal. Nevertheless, the sight of a man being verbally aggressive toward a woman still makes many of us uncomfortable. Is it because the behavior is ungentlemanly? Or because—given the physical and power differential—it’s downright abusive? As always, I’ll let you be the judge.


    Top image:Quarreling by James Tissot, c. 1874-76. (Private Collection)

    This post originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission. 

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  • Dinner by Albert von Keller 1891 e1543187905718 76762

    With the holiday season well under way, it seems an appropriate time to review a few of the many Victorian era rules for dining in company. The etiquette of the table hasn’t changed a great deal over the years. Some rules are merely a matter of basic common sense. Nevertheless, we could all do with a refresher now and then. To that end, I’ve gathered ten tips from various Victorian era etiquette books and articles addressing the basics of dining etiquette. I present them to you below.

    1) Remove Your Gloves

    “At the time of taking refreshment, of course, they must be taken off. No well-educated person would eat in gloves.” — Etiquette for Ladies, 1843.

    2) Don’t Eat Too Much or Too Little

    “Be careful to avoid the extremes of gluttony or over daintiness at table. To eat enormously is disgusting; but if you eat too sparingly, your host may think that you despise his fare.” — The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1874.

    3) Eat and Drink Quietly

    “It is decidedly vulgar to make a noise, either in taking the food into the mouth, in its mastication, or in swallowing.” — Good Housekeeping, 1893.

    4) Don’t Chew with Your Mouth Open

    “Do not fill your mouth so full that you cannot answer if you are addressed; nor open your mouth so wide during the process of chewing that your opposite neighbor may see the semi-chewed viands, which, if she be a delicate lady, might destroy her appetite altogether.” — The Golden Rule and Oddfellows Family Companion, 1847.

    5) Don’t Abstain from Taking the Last Piece

    “Avoid also, that most vulgar habit which prevails among half-bred country people, of abstaining from taking the last piece on a dish. It amounts almost to an insult toward your host, to do any thing which shows that you fear that the vacancy cannot be supplied and that there is likely to be a scarcity.” — Etiquette for Gentlemen, 1847.

    6) Don’t Blow Your Nose at the Table

    “If the handkerchief must be used, let it be very quietly; in case that is not possible, leave the table for a moment, which may be done in case of a sharp attack of coughing, sneezing, or the like, without asking permission, the cause being manifest.” — Good Housekeeping, 1893.

    7) Don’t Pick Your Teeth

    “It is a mark of rudeness to pick your teeth at the table, and it should always be avoided. To hold your hand or napkin over your mouth does not avoid the rudeness of the act.” — Our Deportment, 1882.

    8) Don’t Monopolize the Conversation

    “For one or two persons to monopolize a conversation which ought to be general is exceedingly rude.” — Our Deportment, 1882.

    9) Avoid Controversial Topics

    “No argumentative or in any way unpleasant topic should be broached at the table.” — Good Housekeeping, 1893.

    10) Refrain from Reading at the Table

    “Letters, newspapers or books should never be brought to the table; though a very important message may be received and attended to, permission being asked of the hostess.” — Good Housekeeping, 1893.

    There are countless others rules for Victorian dining, including those on what to serve, what to wear, and how to use one’s knives and forks. At some point in future, I’ll go into those in more depth. Until then, I hope the above rules—most of which are still applicable today—have given you a small taste of how Victorian ladies and gentlemen comported themselves at table.

    Top Photo: Dinner by Albert von Keller, 1891.

    This post originally appeared on and is reprinted here with permission.

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