Mrs. John Sherwood

Frances Glessner on Etiquette

On February 10, 1889 – exactly 125 years ago – Frances Glessner recorded the following in her journal:
“The article on Etiquette which John and I wrote came out yesterday in the (Saturday Evening) Herald.”

Frances Glessner was well qualified to write on etiquette.  As a resident of Chicago’s exclusive Prairie Avenue district, she would have been well-versed on the topic.  In addition, she owned a number of books on the subject, including the 1887 edition of Manners and Social Usages, the leading book on etiquette at the time, penned by Mrs. John Sherwood, and quoted at the end of her article.  (For more information on Mrs. Sherwood and the lecture she gave in the Glessner home in May 1888, see the blog article dated July 8, 2013).

In honor of the anniversary of the publication of John and Frances Glessners’ article, we provide excerpts for your reading pleasure.

Etiquette is an old French word derived from the Low German “atikke,” a peg or pin, and originally meant a thing attached, or a label. . . The word now means conventional forms of ceremony or decorum, the forms which are observed toward particular persons or in particular places, especially in courts, levees and on public occasions; social observances required by good breeding.  This last is our definition.  We doubtless need more simplicity in our daily lives; they are already artificial enough, but conventionality is no hindrance – rather it is a great assistance, regulating our relations to acquaintances and the world at large, smoothing the friction of our contact with neighbors and friends, and telling us how to govern our acts and appearances on particular times and occasions. 

The questions commonly asked concerning correct forms of etiquette have reference to these three subjects – the acknowledgement of invitations, the use of visiting cards, and formal calls.  These and all other social usages are based on common sense.

The average society woman has so many engagements and so much to do that it is impossible she should be at home all days, and driving the rounds, climbing steps to front doors, etc., to learn that the lady is out or is excused, involves much labor and time; so it becomes a duty as well as a pleasure for every lady in society to select and announce to her friends some time when she may always be found at home.  If she can not keep one day each week she should keep a part of a day or days each month during the season.  If at these times she serves tea and wafers to those who call, it is an afternoon tea, and so it comes that an invitation to such tea may be written on a visiting card.  If she write only “tea at 5 o’clock” below her own name, and the date after her receiving day, that is enough.  The lady who has selected an “at home” day should give her afternoon tea on one of those days.

Does your attendance at an afternoon tea require a subsequent call upon you by the hostess?  Certainly not; it differs from the ordinary call in this only.  You may return this civility in like manner, and in that way your hostess returns this particular call.  Of course, owing to the occasion, ladies never remove their bonnets at such tea, and wear the same dress and in the same way as at ordinary afternoon calls, and the hostess wears the same house dress she would in receiving the ordinary afternoon call, as do the ladies who assist her.  Where it can conveniently be so arranged it is well for the ladies in one neighborhood to select the same “at home” day and naturally then the afternoon teas in one neighborhood will fall on the same days, enabling ladies to make several such calls in one afternoon.  There is no time between luncheon and dinner when it is proper to serve more than tea, wafers and confections, and it is because people forget this, that confusion has arisen about calls after an afternoon tea.

The evening reception is a much more formal affair.  Here is the opportunity for all the elaboration and magnificence and dress that is desired.  Everybody knows this requires full dress, no bonnets, and a call afterwards.  At no evening entertainment is it permissible for a lady to wear her bonnet, and this applies with equal force to the theatre as to the private house. . . Objectionable as they are at the home reception, they are much more objectionable at the play.  If you feel that the lace or other headgear ordinarily worn by fashionable women is not enough when going from your home to the theatre, by all means wear a bonnet, but remove it when you have taken your seat and hold it in your lap.

A lady who is “at home” to her friends and acquaintances a certain day in the week, will have that day engraved on her visiting cards.  While it is often impossible to call upon that day, one should not be hurt if the busy woman is excused or out when the call is made upon another day than that set apart to see her friends.  A lady who has no day will endeavor to receive callers at any time.  If she is occupied she will instruct her servant to say so when callers present themselves, and before they are admitted, for a visitor once admitted to the house must be seen at any inconvenience.

Leaving cards is one of the most important of social observances, as it is the foundation in society of all acquaintance.  Cards are always to be left at the afternoon tea, but not at the evening reception.  On entering, they should be passed to the servant who opens the door, or left in the hall where a place is or should be provided for them.

Ladies do most of the card-leaving.  She leaves a card upon those upon whom she calls, and for those whose cards she carries.  A wife leaves cards for her husband, a daughter for her father, a niece for her uncle.  A wife in calling upon a married lady leaves two of her husband’s cards, one for the husband and one for the wife, together with one of her own, for a lady never leaves her card upon a gentleman.  No separate cards of the husband need to be left upon unmarried members of the family, unless one of them has left a card upon him, or their age is such as to require it, or when other exceptions make it desirable to do so.  One may leave cards for an invalid mother or sister.  If guests are stopping in the house where you call, cards must always be left upon them, or if calling upon guests where you do not know the hostess you may inquire if the ladies are at home, and not being admitted, leave cards for the host and hostess as well as for the guests themselves, as this is one of the first requirements of good breeding.  After the first exchange of cards the acquaintance drops, unless followed by an invitation from one side or the other.

Between two and six o’clock in the afternoon is the proper time for making calls.  Party calls should be made within ten days and must be made within two weeks after the party, unless certain reception days were set apart when the invitation was sent.  If reception cards are enclosed in invitations, setting aside certain day or days in which to receive party calls, a special effort should be made to attend on one of those days.  If unable, a card should be left at the house of the reception.


“It is not a communistic spirit that asks,” says Mrs. Sherwood, “How can I do this thing in a better way?  It is that wise and liberal conservatism which includes reference for law, respect for age, belief in religion, and a desire for a refined society.”