June 11, 2011

The communication practices of the Victorians ... spiced up with a scandalous divorce

I have trawled through a handful of etiquette manuals, looking for advice to readers on telephone use.  All in vain.  The British publications pointedly avoid any mention of the new invention, even those published in later years after 1910.  The contents of these manuals are oh so predictable – visiting, invitations to balls/dinners/teas, weddings, funerals.  It seems these were the core events in one’s social calendar and members of the monied classes had to be able to negotiate their way through this minefield.  These were fixed, long established rituals which people observed in order to maintain the traditions of their class.  (Whether these were ‘invented traditions’ à la Hobsbawm is a subject for another thesis.) 

Why should lords and ladies incorporate the upstart telephone into their routines and upset tradition?  The people who read conduct manuals were probably the ones in a position to own a telephone, but that doesn’t mean they would use the instrument to conduct their social affairs.  It might be useful for ringing up one’s business premises or for ordering coal, but such an instrument, ‘tainted’ as it were by business matters, was inappropriate for inviting guests to dinner.  I think remnants of this attitude are still visible today.  There are some aspects of social business that you just don’t conduct over the telephone: wedding invitations, for example, or ‘Dear John’ letters.  I’ve never heard of a ‘Dear John’ telephone call or of someone being notified of a forthcoming wedding by telephone.  Well, they might, but they always send a fancy card by post later.

Lady Colin’s manual is no different to all the others of the era.  It makes no mention whatsoever of the telephone.  It is as if it didn’t exist.  She readily acknowledges, however, that modern life is hectic and that there is little time to devote to letter writing.  How much time she would save if she used the telephone. 

Regarding domestic use, telephone companies said it was alright to ring up traders to order supplies for the household.  Not so Lady Colin.  She advises writing a short letter, and even provides an example: “Mrs. Maitland will be obliged by Mr. Scott sending her 6lb. of tea.”  Admittedly, this method is not as speedy as a phone call, but if you can send a boy round to the shop with the note, you would still get same-day service.  And you would avoid the unpleasant necessity of having to actually converse with tradespeople.  Good houses had separate tradesmen entrances for deliveries, out of sight at the back of the building.  So we don’t want to invite tradesmen directly into our parlours via the telephone.

The writer makes further mention of post cards.  Towards the end of the century sending postcards became a popular form of communication among ordinary people.  Postage for a card was cheaper than a letter and with multiple deliveries in many large towns, it was possible sometimes to send a card and receive a reply on the same day.  You could say that post cards were to Victorians what Twitter is to us today.  Space was limited (you couldn’t add an extra sheet, as with letters) so messages had to be concise.  Lady Colin, however, advises against them for personal matters: post cards are only to be used for business transactions. 

Privacy was a major concern for these people.  Post cards entering and leaving a house would be seen by servants and the information written on them freely visible to all and sundry.  Even more paranoid, to my mind, is Lady C advising letter writers not to write their return address on the backs of envelopes.  Why?  Because servants at the receiving end would know who was writing to their employers.  Compare this with today’s business correspondence: every bill or official letter I receive is blazoned with the sender’s full details. 

I written a lot about communication and correspondence but very little about the telephone.  That’s okay because we are gradually building a picture of how people at the turn of the century communicated with each other and what attitudes they held towards each method.  Given what we now know about, say, letter writing or postal services, it’s easy to envisage how difficult it was for promoters of the telephone to convince the public of its utility. 

I suspect that the telephone eventually caught on, not so much because people realized it was a good communications device, but rather because the other means of communication deteriorated. 

A final comment about the author – Lady Colin was a victim of the hypocrisy and double standards of the day.  Wikipedia has all the sordid details and there’s also information here written by Lady Colin’s biographer.
Her divorce proceedings caused great agitation in high society and the same society ostracized her for her transgression.  Instead of quietly retiring into obscurity, Lady C took to writing and journalism and mixed in literary and artistic circles.  How fitting then that she should edit a book dictating good manners to the people who vilified her.  

Lady Colin Campbell.  Etiquette of Good Society.  London: Cassell and Company, 1893.

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.