From Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Published during the late Victorian era, Youth’s Educator for Home and Society was written for American middle-class youth and provided a guide to socially accepted behaviors. The work, which explains the common practices regarded as correct etiquette, includes specific direction for interactions between men and women in public and private life. Appropriate behavior for day-to-day activities, such as making conversation, dressing appropriately, and dining politely, is also covered. Although imperfect as a full snapshot of the social and economic diversity of US life during the time period, the excerpts reprinted here reflect not only the everyday lives of the American middle classes but their vision of themselves and the accepted ideals of this group. The excerpts also serve to help illustrate a culture, in which self-discipline, modesty, and adherence to common social rules and accepted roles serve as the backbone of what the author would term “good society.”

Summary Overview

Published during the late Victorian era, Youth’s Educator for Home and Society was written for American middle-class youth and provided a guide to socially accepted behaviors. The work, which explains the common practices regarded as correct etiquette, includes specific direction for interactions between men and women in public and private life. Appropriate behavior for day-to-day activities, such as making conversation, dressing appropriately, and dining politely, is also covered. Although imperfect as a full snapshot of the social and economic diversity of US life during the time period, the excerpts reprinted here reflect not only the everyday lives of the American middle classes but their vision of themselves and the accepted ideals of this group. The excerpts also serve to help illustrate a culture, in which self-discipline, modesty, and adherence to common social rules and accepted roles serve as the backbone of what the author would term “good society.”

Defining Moment

Throughout its history, US society has been divided into several social classes, each with its own distinctive social practices. During the nineteenth century, the American middle class expanded greatly in size and influence as the nation’s changing economy allowed for the accumulation of at least modest wealth by an expanding number of people. The United States prior to the Civil War had been a largely agricultural nation with wealth concentrated in the hands of large landowners and a few commercial scions. But in the post-Reconstruction era, the rapid industrialization of much of the Northeast and Midwest, along with the growth of major urban centers, changed that pattern. Urban factories, rather than rural farms, employed an increasing share of working-class laborers, and a new division of labor meant that business professionals, shop owners, and others with jobs not tied to control of property could join the ranks of the middle class.

By the mid-to-late nineteenth century, a separate middle-class society had emerged. These households had wealth sufficient to own their own homes, educate their children, and engage in leisure activities. Middle-class women frequently shifted the brunt of housework to one or more working-class servants, leaving their own time more open to engage in the betterment of themselves or their communities through volunteer work or involvement in the rising women’s club movement. Society considered these women to be moral guardians of the family, and a separate “women’s sphere” emerged. Middle-class children did not have to work in order to help support their families and may have fallen under the care of a nanny or tutor for the development of socially and economically desirable skills. Rising household wealth also meant that middle-class families no longer lived in tight quarters and instead had separate rooms in their homes in order to entertain guests, cook, dine, sleep, and so on. This increased privacy meant that individual behavior was not under continuous observation by others but instead, in the eyes of society, required a certain amount of self-discipline.

At the same time, new social mobility meant that those who were currently members of the middle classes had not necessarily been born to that station. Families of what may have been considered the American aristocracy had enjoyed wealth and privilege for generations with the accompanying education in social graces and deportment. But the children of working-class immigrants, who managed to attain a higher economic status, lacked the same background and exposure. Learning to follow social rules, therefore, showed that an individual more truly belonged to the middle class in a way more significant than one’s net worth. Reference guides outlined correct behavior, and mass media publications assisted in building a national consumer culture with shared tastes in entertainment, fashion, and other lifestyle choices. Individuals could then rely on this stable basis of agreed-upon ways of life in order to demonstrate their middle-class status.

Author Biography

Little verifiable information about the life and work of Anna R. White exists today. Along with her authorship of the Youth’s Educator for Home and Society, she wrote and edited other publications for young people. These included the Young Folks’ Monthly and the Western Rural, both published in the Chicago area during the late 1800s; she may also have edited Youth’s Instructor, a religious publication for young people published during the same time period.

Women made up a relatively small but vital portion of the mass media during this time period. Rising literacy and improved technology allowed for the growth of newspapers and magazines as popular entertainment, and many middle-class American women pursued socially accepted intellectual endeavors, such as writing, club work, or volunteering. Because women’s roles were largely confined to the domestic sphere, women who published articles or books were, therefore, likely to focus on matters seen as relevant to the family or household.

Document Analysis

In Youth’s Educator for Home and Society, the author outlines a series of personal behaviors quite unlike those of the generally casual modern world. At the basis of these social rules is a sense of formality and self-possession that infused correct behavior and discouraged unwanted attention toward the self. The proper, moral world is shown to be one in which each individual adheres to the mandates of society by following its etiquette.

One key to the practice of good manners in everyday life was the observance of established gender roles through all interactions. Doing so, the author suggests, provides what Victorians would have considered the weaker sex with a measure of personal and social security: “Women do not know how great are their privileges” in being able to take part in everyday activities in the company of other women rather than under the watchful eye of a husband, brother, or father. To protect these privileges, however, both women and men were bound by social rules that ensured their behavior could not be called into question or mistaken for immoral. Women must dress conservatively and behave demurely rather than act childishly or with too much familiarity. Men, in turn, must show respect for women and take care of practical or commercial matters that women could not be expected to attend to. Adhering to these rules assured women a limited level of independence while keeping them under the watchful eye of men.

The practice of etiquette was on clear display at the dining table, a focal point of Victorian society. Appropriate dress showed respect for one’s companions, and talking politely gave the affair an air of civility. Table manners also shielded others from unpleasant sights or smells, and in adhering to proper manners, adults set an example for any young people in attendance.

Indeed, learning to participate in society was one of children’s most important tasks and equally, one of their parents’ “incumbent” jobs. A foundation in the “niceties of etiquette” was one that the author argues would serve young people throughout their lives. The author suggests that mastering these arts was a true gauge of a person’s character, with polite interaction with others being “of the greatest consequence” and a better guide to the selection of friends than money or position. Following the rules laid out in the manual, therefore, assured the reader of a happy and fulfilling life, free from worries over the judgment of others and replete with the company of other respectable members of the community.

Essential Themes

Perhaps the guiding theme of White’s etiquette manual is its emphasis on adherence to the prescribed roles assigned to each type of individual in American middle-class society. In order to win acknowledgement as a “lady” or a “gentleman,” an individual needed more than money and must demonstrate a set pattern of good breeding. Doing so with ease showed that an individual was capable of exhibiting the modesty and self-discipline valued by Victorian mores. It also announced that one was a member of a cultured class, capable of spending time on personal improvement and application to moral matters rather than laboring. The working classes had no need for guidelines explaining how one was to behave at a dinner party or while traveling because members of this class had little to no opportunity to apply these practices.

Holding to these roles also reinforced the existing social order. Men and women resided in largely separate spheres of activity, and their interactions across those spheres were tightly regulated. An emphasis on a retiring modesty subtly deterred women from pressing against the male-dominated worlds of politics and commerce. In a time before the development of a separate youth culture, etiquette helped indoctrinate children in the ways of adult life.

The rules governing correct behavior changed greatly during the twentieth century, especially as middle-class women rejected social strictures confining them to the domestic sphere–inspired in part by women like White, who established the ability of women to succeed in educated, professional roles. Yet some of the key ideals displayed in the Youth’s Educator endured. Society continues to expect parents to actively participate in the social education of their children by establishing guidelines for respectful behavior in public and at home. Those guidelines also continue to form through consensus; equally, they continue to find published form in newspaper articles, magazine advice columns, and hefty manuals derived from works such as White’s and Emily Post’s seminal Etiquette. As White herself noted in her manual’s preface, the exact form that manners take over time varies, but the underlying themes of discipline and courteous respect remain.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Calvert, Karin. “Children in the House: 1890 to 1930.” American Home Life, 1880–1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services. Ed. Jessica H. Foy and Thomas J. Schlereth. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1997. 75–93. Print.
  • Grier, Katherine C. Culture and Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle-Class Identity, 1850–1930. Washington: Smithsonian Inst. P, 1997. Print.
  • Okker, Patricia. Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995. Print.
  • Schlereth, Thomas J. Victorian America: Transformation in Everyday Life, 1876–1915. New York: Harper, 1991. Print.
  • Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Knopf, 1985. Print.
  • White, Anna R. Youth’s Educator for Home and Society. Chicago: Monarch, 1896. Print.
Categories: History Content