Susanna here, packing today for more travel—this time to New York, for BookExpo America—so I thought it might be time to consult Miss Leslie’s Behaviour Book, to see what advice America’s go-to etiquette expert of the mid-nineteenth century offered young ladies for such situations.
As always, Miss Eliza Leslie has a chapter tailored to my needs: DEPORTMENT AT A HOTEL, OR AT A LARGE BOARDING-HOUSE.
Perfect. I’ll be staying at a hotel. This chapter is exactly what I need.
Miss Leslie begins by explaining her reasons for tackling this angle of etiquette:
“Now that there is so much travelling in the summer, (and indeed at all seasons,) and so much living in public, to save the trouble and the expense of keeping house in private, it may be well to offer some hints on the propriety of manners that ought to be observed in places where you are always exposed to the inspection and to the remarks of strangers.”
All right, then. I’m ready to better my manners, my pen poised and ready to write down these gems of advice on propriety…
“Ladies no longer eat salt-fish at a public table.”
Um…okay. Duly noted.
“It is ungenteel to go to the breakfast-table in any costume approaching to full dress. There must be no flowers or ribbons in the hair.”
Now, see, this is more up my alley, as, being a writer, I rarely appear at the breakfast table (or anywhere else, except book signings) in any costume remotely “approaching to full dress”. Yoga pants and T-shirts, yes. Jeans and slouchy pullovers, yes. Full dress, next to never. So, Miss Leslie would approve.
But books like Miss Leslie’s are also, for people like me, a rich source of material when we are writing our novels and stories. Even though I don’t write in her period, I still take great pleasure in reading her detailed description of what a proper lady ought to wear to breakfast, picturing in my own mind how I’d turn that to a costume for a character, if I wrote an American Victorian romance where my young heroine was eating breakfast in a hotel (or at a large boarding-house):
“A morning cap should be as simple as possible. The most genteel morning-dress is a close gown of some plain material, with long sleeves, which in summer may be white muslin. A merino or cashmere wrapper, (grey, brown, purple, or olive,) faced or trimmed with other merino of an entirely different colour, such as crimson, scarlet, green, or blue, is a becoming morning-dress for winter. In summer, a white cambric-muslin morning-robe is the handsomest breakfast attire, but one of gingham or printed muslin the most convenient. The coloured dress may be made open in front, with short loose sleeves and a pointed body. Beneath it a white under-dress, having a chemisette front down to the belt, and long white sleeves down to the wrist. This forms a very graceful morning costume, the white skirt appearing where the coloured skirt opens.”
Mind you, Miss Leslie warns, “The fashion of wearing black silk mittens is now obsolete. It was always inconvenient, and neither useful nor ornamental.”
In the public parlour, I am to be especially careful around the hotel’s piano, as “it is selfish an unmannerly to sit down to the instrument uninvited, and fall to playing or practising, without seeming to consider the probability of your interrupting or annoying the rest of the company, particularly when you see them all engaged in reading or conversation. If you want amuseument, you had better read…”
“If you have no book, you can ring the bell, and send to the reading-room to borrow a file of newspapers; but in most hotels, there are books belonging to the establishment, lying on a table in the ladies’ parlour. Be sure not to carry any of these books upstairs, as they are intended solely for the drawing-room, and their removal from thence is interdicted. Also, never carry away the Directory, the Atlas, the City Guide, or any other book placed there for the convenience of strangers.”
And there you have it: No salt fish. No ribbons in the hair. Definitely NO black silk mittens, and no practising of the piano.
Only comfortable, breezy, simple, informal dress, and plenty of glorious reading.
Which sounds like advice I can easily take.
What’s your best bit of travel advice, for staying in hotels (or boarding-houses?)