Rules for women who travel alone in the 1850s

A few months ago I stumbled across a rather interesting (and ridiculous) historical article which described how to have sex with your husband in the 1960s. The rules the women were taught to follow are hugely out of place in today’s society, but it nevertheless served as an insight to how things used to be (in the not too distant past) and, what’s more, how things still are in many societies today.

This morning I came across another similar article, but this one has to do with travel. More specifically, how a woman in the 1850s was to travel if she didn’t have a male escort to accompany her.

The article begins with an explanation. Even if the woman was traveling with other women, servants or her children, she was considered to be traveling alone. The absence of a male escort (husband or other family member) was key even if the poor woman was surrounded by hordes of children, other women, servants. (Ugh)

Traveling in those days was often by train. I’m trying to picture myself in that century, wearing all those layers while subjected to dusty and dirty conditions, not to mention the lack of privacy, all the while preoccupied by the need to follow all sorts of silly rules. I hope time travel doesn’t become a thing because I think I might lose my mind if I had to adhere to all these expectations.

Thankfully for the traveling ladies of the 1850s and beyond, Florence Hartley wrote The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness.

The article (link below) referred to this (and other) books for supplemental explanations. Of course I have things to say (write) about on this topic, and helpfully injected my commentary for you as well. (You’re welcome) πŸ™‚

Here goes:

Above all else, a woman was urged to be punctual. The main reason? We wouldn’t want the poor lady to be “annoyed and heated by hurrying at the last moment“. Well yes, think about all those petticoat layers she’s wearing, the uncomfortable shoes, and god forbid her painstakingly coiffed hair should look out of place while herding children, supervising luggage and directing servants.

There is an underlying current that the author observes which implies (to me) that travel was a stressful endeavor for women. Of utmost importance however was how she was judged by others, namely men, while traveling.

Basically, women had to be courteous and polite in all situations, and grateful if someone offered her service of some sort. If she wasn’t able to uphold this or, if she became selfish which was described as “…the roof of all ill-breeding” that was definitely frowned upon.

What if she was on her period while traveling? What if she was pregnant, or worse, lactating with a infant? What if it was hot and humid or frigid and snowy and she’d been up all night with a screaming infant or tending to her husband’s sexual advances or simply just fed up, anxious, or *gasp*…pms-ing?

lol (sigh)

There were specific rules to follow whenever men were within the solo traveling lady’s vicinity. She was urged to be “dignified and modest” and to “avoid any advance toward acquaintanceship“. (How boring…)

Naturally, men were anticipated to be “impertinent” or “obtrusive in his attentions or conversations“, at which point the traveling lady was to “lower her veil and turn from him“. After all, a lady should not engage in conversation with a man if she had not been formally introduced by her husband perhaps, or a parent or other senior member of her household.

Of course, all this undesirable conversation by questionable men could have been avoided if she had just dressed more appropriately. (OMG)

I immediately thought of Jodie Foster’s movie The Accused here…wasn’t there a scene at some point where she was blamed for wearing a tank top while dancing in the bar, implying she was ‘asking for it’? That her clothes enticed the men, made them gang-rape her, excusing them from the crime and blaming the victim? Or something of that nature? (I haven’t seen this movie in years…)

Anyway, our traveling lady in the 1860s can prepare herself to not be pestered by “questionable gentlemen by following some simple suggestions. πŸ™„

She was advised to dress “plainly“, to avoid “showy silks” or “dress-bonnets” which are called “preposterous“. (I don’t even know what this is. The Little House on the Prairie bonnets?)

No jewelry or ornaments either because frankly, the lady can’t be trusted she won’t lose them. And god forbid she does loose them, if they are found and then discovered as “false” that would be “very ungenteel“.

Oh, and by the way, “no white kid gloves“. “Respectable women” never wear those.

I had to look this up. The word ‘kid’ has nothing to do with children…a kid is a baby goat.

Merriam-Webster has this explanation:

Click here if you want to read more on this fascinating word history.

You would think that wearing gloves during dusty and dirty travel would be a good thing…but apparently, it is not so. Huh. I guess only English butlers wear white kid gloves then? πŸ˜›

There’s another book that’s quoted, The Behavior Book: A Manual for Ladies (1855) by author Eliza Leslie. She too addresses the traveling lady, especially if she’s traveling without a male companion. Apparently it was also considered bad form to address other single women travelers, especially one “whose face is painted” or who “wears a profusion of long curls about her neck” and who has “a meretricious expression of the eye“.

If you look up the word meretricious it is defined as “vulgar or tawdry or pertaining to a harlot“. Synonyms include garish, flashy, gaudy… πŸ™‚

These books, the helpful manuals and rules, were written, often (not always) by women, with the intent of making life easier rather than to ridicule them. We may have a very different perspective today about social norms and behaviour when it comes to women and girls, but much of the world today still adheres to rigid regulations on social behaviour and customs (religious or traditional) that feed toxic male patriarchy.

For the record, I do not consider men the enemy. I may have met an asswipe or three in my life, and a predatory doctor, but I love the men in my life, real and virtual. ❀ Still…history teaches us things, provides us with insights, education, tolerance, understanding…and maybe a little bit of entertainment too. It may be eye-opening to think about what the women went through, the discomforts and annoyances that must have been so prevalent to them for generations, but thank goodness many of us have reached beyond those shackles and bonds.

Makes for fun reading (and analyzing) though, doesn’t it.

To read the original article, click on the link below:

Who knew that travelling with white kid gloves was not respectable

Happy weekend! I’ll be heading to a rink… πŸ™‚

27 thoughts on “Rules for women who travel alone in the 1850s

  1. My mom lived by the rules of Emily Post etiquette! It was important to behave in the correct manner at all times! Today these things are less important and in some ways we’ve lost a little common curtesy with our quest for being our own person. Maybe there’s a balance?


  2. Have you found the counterpart to this book, on how men travelling alone are supposed to act? Nope. ‘Cause there ain’t one. Our rule is “Never ask for directions and pretend you are just taking a shortcut”.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Who needs those electronic devices. Not me, by God, I follow the sun and my instincts. Sometimes for hours, but the earth has finite space, and if I drive long enough I will get where I am going!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I just recently (like in the past month) learned how to use a gps in the car. Before that, I checked map, or printed off a map, and used that. But, I get confused easily and I have to admit, the gps has been helpful over the past weekend with mishaps and snowstorms and all that…


        Liked by 1 person

  3. My secret fantasy: to go back in time to this era and do everything a woman is not supposed to do! There would be no cult of true womanhood for me, and I know exactly where I would end up… confined to one of those “hidden in the countryside” sanitariums where wives were discreetly removed from the eyes of society by their husbands to live out their days labeled as crazy or possessed.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ugh.
      Right? It’s kind of maddening.

      There’s archive stories about Toronto’s so-called Insane Asylum where women were taken and given lobotomies in the name of curing their hysteria. Diaries discovered after disclosed the patients were repeatedly raped by their widowed, alcoholic fathers. The women often questioned why it was them taken away from the household and not the men.

      This of course is extreme but for the time not unusual. Makes you read these rules about expected women’s behaviour with a different mindset…

      Liked by 1 person

Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.