Here’s what I know: in 1854, my great-great grandmother received a letter from a man who expressed his “ardent love” and “an anxious desire to form an acquaintance” with her. I have the letter, written in fancy calligraphic hand, adhered to acid-free paper in a closely guarded scrapbook.
My great-great grandmother, whose name was Caroline Grose, lived in Nicholas County, Virginia. I am currently writing a historical novel about her life before and during the Civil War. This letter creates for me an antebellum romantic mystery. Did she agree to grant the letter writer a visit? Did they fall in love? How did they go about “courting,” as they call it?
Well, unfortunately there is no follow-up letter from her to explain any of this, nor have I found any of her writings at all. I have gleaned what I do know about Caroline and her family from libraries in Virginia and West Virginia. Thankfully her family history was documented by a grand-nephew early in the 20th century. West Virginia Archives and History holds a copy of one of his accounts, “A History of Panther Mountain Community,” which is where she grew up and lived for much of her life.
But back to this courtship conundrum. How do I write about this Victorian courtship without more details? Well, a writer needs to do research and the Internet is a good place to start. I find from reading the Trail End State Historic Site that a proper gentleman looking to make an acquaintance with a proper lady would call on her for a brief visit–and by brief, I mean 15 minutes.
“According to etiquette, men were expected to “retain gloves upon the hand during the call” in honor of the fifteen-minute time limit. Also, a well-bred man would never put his hat down on a chair, but would hold it in his hands at all times. This was an indication of control and responsibility. After all, if a man could not tend to his own hat for fifteen minutes, how would he ever manage a wife for an entire lifetime?”
Well, how indeed? A guy who can’t keep track of his hat for a quarter of an hour has to be pretty irresponsible. We all know that.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand — But I Shan’t
So many rules for these young lovers back in the day! I wonder if it made them even more nervous than they already were? Proper gentleman callers were warned not to “touch an open piano, walk about the room examining pictures, nor handle any ornament in the room while waiting for a hostess.” One must presume that the chaperone, who was always to be present during the 15 minute call, was monitoring this. This seems like an early version of NSA spying without the electronics.
And forget about actual physical contact, even the least passionate form — holding hands. This was highly frowned upon at all times, not just during courtship visits in the home. However, those crafty Victorian lovers sometimes found ways around this rule:
“Physical contact was closely monitored in Victorian society. No taking a gentleman’s arm unless offered or the couple is engaged. A gentleman should never offer his arm in daylight.
Many courting couples, however, found ways to get around this: roller skating and ice skating gave young couples the chance to hold hands in public. Piano duets were also popular because the couple could not only share the piano bench, but could occasionally touch hands while reaching for the keys.”
So it seems that if you could skate or play piano, you were more likely to get to first base, which in this case means hand touching.
Because I am writing about a rural Virginia courtship, I think it’s important to compare what was acceptable in the country as opposed to the city when 19th century gentlemen callers were on the move. I look to “Our Deportment,” an 1879 book subtitled The manners, conduct, and dress of the most refined American society, comprising rules of etiquette, social forms and ceremonies, forms of letters, invitations, etc., also suggestions on home culture and training. Try fitting that into the New York Times bestsellers list column. “Our Deportment” offers specifically regional tips for courtship, including these:
“It is not customary in cities to offer refreshments to callers. In the country, where the caller has come from some distance, it is exceedingly hospitable to do to. Calls in the country may be less ceremonious and of longer duration than those made in the city.”
I wonder what Caroline might have served her gentleman caller who traveled such a long way by wagon or horseback to court her? My theory is that she referred to a popular magazine of the day, Godey’s Lady’s Book, for recipes that would impress a guy she was sweet on. So here is a recipe for almond custard from an 1854 issue. Perhaps you’d like to try this on your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day.
Boil in a pint of milk, or cream, two or three bitter almonds, a stick of cinnamon, and piece of lemon-peel pared thin, with eight or ten lumps of sugar; let it simmer to extract the flavor, then strain it and stir it till cold. Beat the yolks of six eggs, mix them with the milk, and stir the whole over a slow fire until of a proper thickness, adding one ounce of sweet almonds, beaten fine in rose-water.