The Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility

[Editorial Note: Guide books to correct behavior became very popular in the first half of the nineteenth century as tens of thousands of families, newly arrived in the city, and perhaps, in the middle class, sought to learn in books the forms of ettiquette they had not learned on the farm from their parents. Those who assigned themselves the task of explaining the correct ways to behave saw their task as prescriptive rather than descriptive. So we should not read Thornwell's Guide to Perfect Gentility as an account of how people actually entered rooms or wrote thank-you notes or mounted horses. Instead we should pay attention to the cultural aspirations her work expressed. What was "gentility," after all? And why was it so desirable in women?

In this context, it is worth noting that the image of "Gentility" her publishers used as a frontispiece is not a portrait of an actual woman. This stands in contrast to the companion volume for men Derby and Jackson published the following year, Henry Lunettes, The American Gentleman's Guide to Politeness and Fashion; or, familiar letters to his nephews, containing rules of etiquette, directions for the formation of character, etc., etc., illustrated by sketches drawn from life, of the men and manners of our times. (New York: Derby and Jackson, 1857). Its frontispiece was a portrait of a French aristocrat, Count D'Orsay.

The Lady's Guide to Perfect Gentility, in Manners, Dress, and Conversation, in the Family, in Company, at the Piano Forte, The Table, in the Street, and in Gentlemen's Society. Also a Useful Instructor in Letter Writing, Toilet Preparations, Fancy Needlework, Millinery, Dressmaking, Care of Wardrobe, the Hair, Teeth, Hands, Lips, Complexion, etc. By Emily Thornwell (New York: Derby and Jackson, 1856).

[Frontispiece -- engraving of a woman entitled "Gentility"]


Beauty must be natural.--In order to have its full effect, beauty must be natural, and connected with perfect health. A fair skin and rosy cheeks are calculated to excite admiration; but if it be discovered that they are entirely produced by paint, that admiration becomes disgust; or if owing to disease, it is changed to pity.

P. 16: Requisites to female beauty.--Exercise is unquestionably one of the very best means for the preservation of health; but its real importance is unknown, or but too lightly considered by the majority of females. Were they, however, to be made fully sensible of its extraordinary power in preserving the vigor of the body, in augmenting its capability to resist disease, in promoting its symmetrical development, in improving the freshness and brilliancy of the complexion, as well as its influence in prolonging the charms of beauty to an advanced age, they would shake off the prejudices by which they have been so long enthralled, and [P. 17] not voluntarily abandon means so completely within their power, and so simple, of enhancing all their physical perfections. But let it be recollected, that to produce its beneficial effects, exercise must be taken in the open air. Not all the occupations appertaining to the domestic duties of a female, though they may require her to bustle from garret to cellar, will impart the kind of action to the different portions of the body by which her health and beauty shall be essentially improved.

[pp. 17-20: goes on to recommend walking, 2-4 miles per day, horseback riding; for her instructions on mounting and dismounting, see Pp. 108-109]


P. 27: Cosmetic juice.--Make a hole in a lemon, fill it with sugar-candy, and close it with a leaf gold, applied over the rind that was cut out; then roast the lemon in hot ashes. When desirous of using the juice, squeeze out a little through the hole already made, and with it wash the face with a napkin. This juice is said to cleanse the skin and brighten the complexion wonderfully,

Freckle wash.--Take one dram of muriatic acid [sic, should be muramic acid, an animo sugar found in algae], half a pint of rain water, half a teaspoonful of spirits of lavender: mix, and apply it two or three times a day to the freckles with a bit of linen, or a camel's hair pencil. White veils have a tendency to promote sunburn and freckles, by their increasing the power of the sun's light. They are also very injurious to the eyes. Green is the only color which should be worn as a summer veil.

P. 29: Pomade for removing wrinkles.--Take two ounces of the juice of onions, the same quantity of the white lily, the same of honey, and one ounce of white wax; put the whole into a new tin pan, in a warm place, till the wax is melted; keep stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon, till it grows quite cold. You will then have an excellent ointment for removing wrinkles. It must be applied at night, on going to bed, and not wiped off till the morning.

P. 31: Virgin milk for the complexion.--The virgin milk which is in most general use, and which is most salutary, is a tincture [of] benzoin [resin from trees] precipitated by water. To obtain the tincture of benzoin, take a certain quantity of that gum, pour spirits of wine upon it, and boil it till it becomes a rich tincture. Virgin milk is prepared by pouring a few drops of this tincture into a glass of water, which produces a milky mixture. This virgin milk, if the face be washed with it, will give a beautiful rosy color. To render the skin clear and brilliant, let it dry upon it without wiping.


Means of improving the appearance of the hands.--An elegant hand is regarded by many as betokening evident prestige in its possessor. Indeed, some persons, especially gentlemen, make the hand the test of beauty, calling a lady pretty, however ugly she may be otherwise, if she only can display a beautiful hand.

Pp. 55-56: Paste for the hands.--Take one pound of sweet [P. 56] almonds, quarter of a pound of bread crumbs, one pint of spring water, the same quantity of brandy, and the yolks of two eggs. After blanching the almonds, pound them, and sprinkle them with vinegar, that the paste may not turn to oil; add the crumbs of bread, which moisten with the brandy as you mix it with the almonds and the yolks of eggs. Set this mixture over a slow fire, and keep stirring it, lest the mixture should adhere to the bottom of the vessel.


Desireableness of a pure breath.--the purity of the breath is of the greatest consequence; what, indeed, could be so afflicting to one of the gentle sex as impurity in this respect? yet it may occur without any neglect on her part, and it is not always that a remedy can be offered; in other words, there are cases where it is incurable.

P. 62: Refreshing draught for the breath.--Take five to ten drops of hydrochloric acid in half a tumbler of spring water, a little lemon juice, and loaf sugar, rubbed on lemon peel to flavor it to suit the palate. Let this mixture be taken three times a day for a month or six weeks, and, if useful, then continue it occasionally. It is a pleasant refrigerant [i.e., tonic for reducing fever] and tonic draught.


P. 68: Naturalness.--The first great fundamental rule of good taste is to be natural; and it is from an infringement of this that many of our worst mistakes proceed. In manner or style, affectation is the source of the most flagrant offenses against taste.

P. 80: Raising the dress.--When tripping over the pavement [i.e., walking], a lady should gracefully raise her dress a little above her ankle. With the right hand, she should hold together the folds of her gown, and draw them towards the right side. To raise the dress on both sides, and with both hands, is vulgar. This ungraceful practice can only be tolerated for a moment, when the mud is very deep.

Pp. 87-88: Propriety of movement and general demeanor in company.--To look steadily at any one, especially if you are a lady and are speaking to a gentleman; to turn the head frequently on one side and the other during conversation; to balance yourself upon your chair; to bend forward; to strike your hands upon your knees; to hold one of your knees between your hands locked together; to cross your legs; to extend your feet on the andirons; to admire yourself with complacency in a glass; to adjust, in an affected manner, your cravat, hair, dress, or handkerchief; to remain without gloves; to fold carefully your shawl, instead of throwing it with graceful negligence upon a table; to fret about a hat which you have just left off; to laugh immoderately; to place your hand upon the person with whom you are conversing; to take him by the buttons, the collar of his cloak, the cuffs, the waist, and so forth; to seize any person by the waist or arm, or to touch their person; to roll the eyes or to raise them with affectation; to take snuff from the box of your neighbor, or to offer it to strangers, especially to ladies; to play continually with your chain or fan; to beat time with the feet and hands; to whirl round a chair with your hand; to shake with your feet the chair of your neighbor; to rub your face or your hands; wink your eyes; shrug up your shoulders; stamp with your feet, and so forth; [P. 88] --all these bad habits, of which we cannot speak to people, are in the highest degree displeasing.

P. 101: Special rules to be observed at the table.--It is ridiculous to make a display of your napkin; to attach it with pins to your bosom, or to pass it through your button-hole; to use a fork in eating soup; to ask for meat instead of beef; for poultry instead of saying chicken or turkey; to turn up your cuffs in carving; to take bread, even when it is within your reach, instead of calling upon the servant; to cut with a knife your bread which should be broken by the hand, and to pour your coffee into the saucer to cool.

P. 102: Never use your knife to convey your food to your mouth, under any circumstance; it is unnecessary and glaringly vulgar. Feed yourself with a fork or spoon, nothing else; a knife is only to be used for cutting.

P. 103: Ladies should never dine with their gloves on; unless their hands are not fit to be seen.

In conversation at the table, be careful not to speak while eating a mouthful; it is indecorous in the extreme.

Bite not your bread, but break it with your fingers; be careful not to crumb it upon the table-cloth.

The knife and fork should not be held upright in the hands, but sloping; when done with them, lay them parallel to each other upon the plate. When you eat, bend the body a little toward your plate; do not gnaw bones at the table, always use your napkin before and after drinking.

Pp. 108-109: THE LADY ON HORSEBACK. [Winslow Homer's "Bridle Path, White Mountains" (1868)]

P. 108: In riding, the gentleman's first duty is to provide [P. 109] a gentle horse, properly caparisoned [a caparison is an ornamental covering for a horse's harness]. After seeing that the girths are tight, he leads the lady to the horse. With her back to the horse, she takes hold of the horn of the saddle, and the reins with her right hand, and places her left foot upon the shoulder of the gentleman, who stoops before her, making a stirrup of his clasped hands. Raising himself gently, the lady is placed in the saddle. The gentleman puts her foot in the stirrup, adjusts her dress, mounts his horse and takes his position, usually on the right, but authorities differ, and many prefer the left.

In dismounting, the lady, having lifted her foot from the stirrup, and her dress from the saddle, may be received in the gentleman's arms.


Points to be considered.--In the regulation of female dress too much is sacrificed to fashion and appearance. The whims of a French or English mantua-maker [dressmaker], or the depraved taste of some reigning beauty, are of infinitely more weight in determining the nature of clothing worn by females even of this country, than all the arguments drawn from the character of our climate, and the attention which experience teaches us should be paid to the season of the year, the state of the weather, and the amount of exposure.

[P. 116] Many of the diseases to which the delicate and youthful of the female sex are peculiarly liable, and by which so many of them are hurried into the grave in the spring-time of their existence, may be traced to impropriety of dress: either in preventing, by its unnatural tightness and inconvenient form, the proper growth of the body, and the natural and free play of its various parts and organs, or to a want of caution in accommodating it to the temperature of the season, and to the various and rapid vicissitudes of the weather.

Fashionplate, Godey's Lady's Book, January 1850

Figure on left. Black-spotted tulle over a pink silk slip. Double skirt, and a triple berthe cape. The hair is arranged very simply, with a wreath of pansies and drooping green foliage. A tasteful and simple costume.

Figure on right. Dress of rich white silk, the second skirt open at the right side, and fastened by a graceful festooning of crimson velvet leaves and Roman pearls. The hair is in Grecian braids, and the wreath is of crimson velvet leaves, with festoons of Roman pearls to match the skirt. This is a novel and pleasing style. The long sharp bodice is the mark of a Parisian evening dress.

One cause of the alarming prevalence of consumption among females in this country may, we suspect, be traced to the general adoption of a style of dress which is totally unadapted to guard the body from the influence of cold, and of those sudden transitions from heat to cold, so common, especially in the middle and northern states; and more, especially, under circumstances when these transitions of temperature are most liable to produce their baneful effects upon the system.

Dress for the house and for company.--Strangers who have visited the United States, have frequently expressed their astonishment at the flimsy dresses of our fashionable females . . . .

[P. 117] We should perhaps be considered as exaggerating the imprudence of our females, in neglecting to protect their bodies by sufficient clothing, if regard were had only to the dress worn by them whilst within doors; and, especially, whilst engaged in their domestic duties. . . .

But in preparing for an evening ball or party, or even for a simple visit to a friend, it is too common for females, when the temperature of the external air is that of mid-winter, to retire from a warm parlor to a cold dressing-room, and there exchange a comfortable, warm gown, for one perhaps of thin silk or muslin (with wide sleeves of a still more flimsy material than the gown itself, which leave the arms almost entirely naked), and their worsted or cotton stockings and thick shoes, for flimsy silk stockings, and slippers of a scarcely more substantial material; and thus attired, with their neck and shoulders bare, or merely covered with thin lace, they sally forth into the damp and chilly air of the night, and arrive at the place of their destination shivering with cold. After several hours passed in a hot, close, often crowded apartment, and perhaps when the body has [P. 118] been heated by the exercise of dancing, they again brave the cold and dampness of the external air, and on arriving at their homes retire to their beds with cold feet and a shuddering frame.

Who can be surprised that the consequences of such imprudent exposure are affections [sic; afflictions? infections?] of the throat and lungs, attended with cough and hoarseness, and too often terminating eventually in fatal consumptions? Motives of delicacy, as well as a proper regard for health, have been repeatedly urged in vain to enforce the strong necessity of relinquishing such destructive practices; the arguments of the moralist and of the physician have alike failed to induce conviction. And hundreds, who might have shone forth for years among the most estimable and lovely of the sex, have in early youth been dressed in the shroud, because, in an evil hour, they laid aside those parts of their apparel which their health as well as comfort rendered absolutely necessary.

Ladies' morning attire.--The most appropriate morning dress for a lady upon first rising is a small muslin cap and loose robe. It is not in good taste for a lady to appear at the table in the morning without being laced at all; it gives an air of untidiness to the whole appearance. The hair papers which cannot be removed on rising (because the hair would not [P. 119] keep in curl till evening), should be concealed under a bandeau of lace . . . .

In this dress we can receive only intimate friends, or persons who call upon urgent or indispensable business; even then we should offer some apology for it. To neglect to take off this morning dress as soon as possible is to expose one's self to embarrassments often very painful, and to the appearance of a want of education.

. . . to suppose that great heat of weather will authorize the disorder of the toilet, and will permit us to go in slippers, or with our legs and arms bare, or to take nonchalant and improper attitudes, is an error of [P. 120] persons of a low class, or destitute of education.

. . . On the other hand, to think that cold and rainy weather will permit us like liberties, is equally an error. Ladies should not wear large socks of list and similar materials; much less noisy or awkward shoes. When you visit in rainy weather, all these articles, together with muff, umbrella, and cloak, should be laid aside. To make a noise in walking is entirely at variance with good manners.

Street dress.

. . . Morning calls may be made in an elegant and simple négligé, all the details of which we cannot give, on account of their multiplicity, and the numerous modifications of fashion. We shall only say that ladies generally should make these calls in the dress which they wear at home, with some slight additions

Fashion Plate, Godey's Lady's Book, December 1850.

Fig. 1. - MORNING DRESS. A closely fitting morning-dress of plain cashmere, sleeves short at the wrist to display the full puff of muslin around the hand. A row of gimp embroidery from the hem of the skirt to the throat. Small collar of embroidered muslin, and cap of lace and ribbon.

Fig. 2. - WALKING-DRESS for sociable calls, of plain stone colored merino; a short cloak of ture satin, trimmed with fringe; drawn casing bonnet of dark-green silk.


[P.122] Young ladies' attire.--Situation in the world determines among ladies those differences which, though otherwise well-marked, are becoming less so every day. Every one knows that whatever be the fortune of a young lady, her dress ought always, in form as well as ornaments, to exhibit less of a recherché appearance, and should be less showy than that of married ladies. Costly cashmeres, very rich furs, and diamonds, as well as many other brilliant ornaments, are to be forbidden a young lady; and those who act in defiance of these rational marks of propriety make us believe that they are possessed of an unrestrained love of luxury, and deprive themselves [P. 123] of the pleasure of receiving those ornaments from the hand of the man of their choice at some future day.

. . . The apparel of older ladies.--The rules suitable to age resemble those which mediocrity of fortune imposes; for instance, old ladies should abstain from gaudy colors, recherché designs, too late [i.e., up-to-the minute] fashions, and showy ornaments, as feathers, flowers, and jewels. A lady in decline, wearing her hair dressed, and having short sleeves, and adorned with necklaces, bracelets, etc., offends as much against propriety as against her interest and dignity.


Lacing the chest.--

[P. 133] When the chest is scientifically laced as tight as can be borne, it often causes the blood to rush to the face, neck, and arms, on taking exercise or remaining in a heated room. Young ladies at parties frequently become so suffused from this cause, that they present the appearance of a washerwoman actively engaged over a tub of hot suds. Tight lacing also causes an extreme heaving of the bosom, resembling the panting of a dying bird.

Effect of tight lacing on the face, neck, arms, shape, and motion of the body, etc..--those who wear very tight stays complain that they cannot sit upright without them; nay, are sometimes compelled to wear them in bed, and this strikingly proves to what an extent braces of any sort weaken the muscles of the trunk. It is this which disposes to lateral curvature of the spine. From these facts, as well as many others, it is evident that tight stays, far from preventing the deformities which an experienced eye might remark among ninety out of every hundred young girls, are, on the contrary, the cause of these deviations.

. . . [P. 134] In many persons, tight stays displace the breast, and produce an ineffaceable and frightful wrinkle [P. 135] between it and the shoulder; and in others, whom nature has not gifted with the plumpness requisite to beauty, such stays make the breasts still flatter and smaller. Generally speaking, tight stays also destroy the firmness of the breast, sometimes prevent the full development of the nipples, and give rise to those indurations [i.e., hardening] of the mammary glands, the cause of which is seldom understood, and which are followed by such dreadful consequences.

They also cause a reddish tinge of the skin, swelling of the neck, etc. A delicate and slender figure is full of beauty in a young person; but suppleness and ease confer an additional charm. Yet most women, eager to be in the extreme of fashion, lace themselves in their stays as tight as possible, and, undergoing innumerable tortures, appear stiff, ungraceful, and ill-tempered. Elegance of shape, dignity of movement, grace of manner, and softness of demeanor, are all sacrificed to foolish caprice.


[P. 145] A lady's influence in conversation.--Every woman whose heart and mind have been properly regulated, is capable of exerting a most salutary influence over the gentlemen with whom she associates; and this fact has been acknowledged by the best and wisest of men, and seldom disputed, except by those whose capacities for observation have been perverted by adverse circumstances.

Conversing with modesty and simplicity.--Always seek to converse with gentlemen into whose society you may be introduced, with a dignified modesty and [P. 146] simplicity, which will effectually check on their part any attempt at familiarity . . . .

You may with propriety accept such delicate [P. 147] attentions as polished and refined men are desirous of paying, but never solicit them, or appear to be expecting them.

. . . How to address young gentlemen.--Do not be tempted to indulge in another proof of feminine indecorum, which may be countenanced, but can never be sanctioned by example; that of addressing young gentlemen of your acquaintance, who are unconnected [i.e., unrelated] with you, by their christian names. It opens the way to unpleasant familiarities on their part, more effectually than you can well imagine, unless you have been taught the painful lesson by the imprudence of a friend.

[P. 148] Undue pretensions to learning.--

. . . [P. 149] . . . whether your pretensions to learning are well founded or not; the simple fact that you aim to appear learned, that you deal much in allusion to the classics, or the various departments of science, with an evident intention to display your familiarity with them, will be more intolerable than absolute ignorance.


How a lady should speak of her husband.--A lady should not say "my husband," except among intimates; in every other case she should address him by his name, calling him "Mr." It is equally proper, except on occasions of ceremony, and while she is quite young, to designate him by his christian name.

Never use the initial of a person's name to designate him; as "Mr. P.," "Mr. L.," etc. Nothing is so odious as to hear a lady speak of her husband, or indeed, any one else, as "Mr. B."

How a lady should be spoken of by her husband.--It is equally improper for a gentlemen to say "my wife," except among very intimate friends; he should mention her as "Mrs. So-and-so." When in private, the expression "my dear," or merely the christian name, is considered in accordance with the best usage among the more refined.

[Last two chapters are detailed guides to correct letter-writing and to embroidery.]