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Manners In Modern Times

The eighteenth century continued to advance a program of proper court behavior, with the influential Lord Chesterfield (1694–1773) coining the term etiquette in letters to his son that spoke of the "art of pleasing" at court and the necessity of cultivating "that easy good breeding, that engaging manner, and those graces, which seduce and prepossess people in your favour at first sight." It was this kind of naked and cynical self-aggrandizement that caused the backlash by Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), who claimed that the letters instilled in readers "the morals of a strumpet with the manners of a dancing master." Rather than simply reflecting the privileged if arbitrary codes of the aristocratic class, however, manners were also seen in the eighteenth century as reinforcing stability in society, with Edmund Burke (1729–1797) stating famously that "Manners are more important than laws. Upon them … the laws depend," and John Locke (1632–1704) similarly connecting good conduct with the stability and health of a democratic polity.

The art of social decorum nevertheless suffered further reputational damage with the Romantic movement and its more rough-hewn ideals of authenticity. Not only was society itself perceived by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and (1712–1778) others as a realm of corrupt artifice opposed to more truthful nature, but they considered that the manners on which that society depends expedite the process of self-alienation. At the same time, the nineteenth century gave rise in England and America to a surging middle class and a new ethic of the sentimental and domestic that allowed ideals of behavior to take on new forms and vibrancy. Where before etiquette had been associated with the aristocratic class, it now became diffused among a broader, albeit still privileged, middle class. To know the rules—that coffee was not to be served at the dinner table, that introductions were to be handled in a particular way, that one took one's place in a quadrille at the front rather than the back of the ballroom—marked one's place in the world as being on the inside of social privilege; to be otherwise was to be "vulgar" or "common" and coldly cast out.

In the New World, Americans' manners, such as hastily eating (or "devouring") their food, particularly galled the English, with Charles Dickens (1812–1870) describing Washington, D.C., as the "headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva" shooting forth from the mouths of "not always good marksmen." Nevertheless, Americans, and particularly women, proliferated as authors of etiquette manuals, which counseled on housework, child-raising, personal grooming, and marriage as well as entering polite society. In this regard America undertook its own "civilizing process," trafficking in lifestyle aspirations under the stern but gentle injunctions of an Emily Post, a Miss Manners, or, in its postmodern incarnation, a Martha Stewart.


Arditi, Jorge. A Genealogy of Manners: Transformations of Social Relations in France and England from the Fourteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998.

Aresty, Esther. The Best Behavior: The Course of Good Manners—from Antiquity to the Present—As Seen through Courtesy and Etiquette Books. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Ariès, Philippe, and Georges Duby, eds. A History of Private Life. 5 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1987–1991.

Bryson, Anna. From Courtesy to Civility: Changing Codes of Conduct in Early Modern England. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1994.

Sarah Covington

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEtiquette - A Civilizing Process, Manners In Modern Times, Bibliography