Victorian Etiquette and Modern Travels

From Museum Director Jackie Spainhour:

I recently went on a trip, the first family trip with our fifteen month old son, to introduce him to his great-grandmother in Columbia, South Carolina. My husband was eager to see his grandmother, who is in her nineties, but was even more excited to experience the tastes of his childhood at a local burger joint and a barbecue restaurant. I was really looking forward to introducing our son to the aquarium and zoo, but my excitement quickly turned to anxiety a mere three hours into our trip. We made the decision to travel by car, which would have been a seven hour drive should everything have gone as smoothly as we planned. Unfortunately, in a small town called Micro, North Carolina, our lovely Honda Odyssey, whom we affectionately call Bertha, began to shake violently. We pulled into a mom-and-pop gas station, shut off the car, and considered our options. I took a deep breath. The baby was sleeping, thank goodness, and I knew we needed to make arrangements quickly to get this vehicle towed and get us into a working one before my son became a walking terror. I pulled out my AAA card and was certain we would be on the road within the hour. I was wrong.

AAA couldn’t locate us. When they did, they said it would be an hour and a half, but there would be a tow driver coming from the next town over and he would take the car to an AAA recommended repair shop. They connected me to Enterprise to rent a car. The problem was two-fold- the gas station attendant either didn’t know what a taxi was or was confused why I needed one, but couldn’t recommend a taxi service, and I had $10 in cash. I called a service, only to be told they only accept cash. I spotted a nearby bank and walked to it. There was no ATM, so I pulled out money from the teller. I called the taxi service back and waited for my driver to arrive. She picked me up and turned up the radio station as she drove me the ten miles to pick up my rental car. I heard all sorts of interesting snippets- an older lady was selling a deep freezer for $100 and gave her telephone number ON AIR for someone to call her to buy it, someone else had chickens and pigs for sale, and the town market was having a sale on blueberries. Let’s just say, that would never happen in Norfolk!

I picked up the rental car, drove back to my husband and now screaming baby, and waited. And we waited. And we waited. I called AAA three more times over the next two hours before they finally sent a driver- who had no idea what was going on- and he took the car. We got back on the road for the longest leg of the trip. I called the repair shop to let them know the details of the engine trouble. You know what was hilarious? They don’t work on Hondas! AAA sent my car to a place, that they recommended mind you, that didn’t work on my type of car. So, I called AAA back…again…for the umpteenth time. They apologized, said they could tow it to another facility that DID work on Hondas, but I would have to pay for it. I said in my sweet southern voice, “How can I say this nicely? No. I don’t think so. I can’t for the life of me justify why I should pay for your mistake. I would like to speak with your supervisor to have this worked out.” Insert supervisor, tow is now free, and Bertha will make her way to a larger town ten miles out. Great. I will hopefully be able to pick her up and return the rental on the day we planned to come home.

Lo and behold, I was given inaccurate information about where it was towed the second time. I miraculously found the phone number of the tow truck driver, who told me where it actually was, and I called the right place. So, what was the silver lining? The problem was covered by a recall and I paid $0, plus we didn’t have to delay too long to pick it up. But, needless to say, I had a trying day by the time we made it to Columbia.

We arranged to have dinner with my husband’s aunt and uncle, after picking up his grandmother, at a nearby Cracker Barrel. We were hungry and the baby was fussy. We sat down and he immediately started to get agitated and cry. He didn’t want to sit after being in the car all day. I picked him up to walk him outside and a woman said very loudly, “What terrible parenting. That’s what’s wrong with parents today; they pick the kid up every time they cry.” I held my tongue and walked away. When he seemed calm I returned, only for him to start again. I walked past a different woman, who proceeded to say to her waitress,” You all should provide earplugs if you’re going to let people like that eat here.” I fought back tears. Tears of exhaustion, frustration, embarrassment, anger. I went outside. My husband hadn’t heard any of it. He came outside to find me and I told him I would not go back in there or I would lose it. Needless to say, we left along with the other family members we were visiting. We took our business elsewhere. All of this to say, this trip to Columbia was not what I had imagined.

Fast forward to a much more normal car ride home, I started to imagine how different a trip like this might have been if I were a Victorian woman. First, a nanny would have been caring for my son, if he would have been brought along at all. We would likely have travelled by train, which would have taken a bit of time, but would have been much more relaxing. I could have dined on delicacies in the dining car. I would be wearing a plain, nondescript outfit so as not to attract attention to myself or my escort, who happened to be my husband. I don’t think the Lularoe top and leggings I was wearing would have cut it. If the train broke down, I wouldn’t have had to stress about finding a way to fix the situation on my own, and I would likely relish in the downtime to catch up on my reading or letter writing, which I could only do when we stopped, naturally. But, I may not have those materials in my satchel, as women were encouraged to pack lightly on their person- this is not to be said of the dozens on trunks many used when they travelled via ship, etc. I would likely not even have much money on me, to ensure it would not be stolen. Typically, I would have given the majority of it to my escort for safe keeping. So, while a lot of my autonomy might have been lost, I may have found some peace without it. Isn’t that a strangely exhilarating concept?

If those interactions with those rude people at the Cracker Barrel would have taken place on the train, there would even have been etiquette to follow in such a situation. Interestingly, I actually did what would have been advised. In many etiquette books about travelling as a woman in the Victorian Era, it was advised that a woman should never “return rudeness with rudeness.” One source argued, “Nothing will rebuke incivility in another so surely as perfect courtesy in your own manner [and] many will be shamed into apology, who would annoy you for hours, if you encouraged them by acts of rudeness on your part.” So, ignore them and save yourself the hassle of arguing with them. That, I think, is good advice. I am glad I reacted that way, although every fiber of my being wanted to react negatively towards them.

Travelling as a Victorian lady would have been much more exhilarating as well, because women so rarely were able to move about unaccompanied. That is one of the reasons I find the subject so fascinating. Many women who made the bold and brave decision to travel, sometimes even alone, did so to foreign places and kept diaries about their travels. Some simply wanted to explore the exotic; others wanted to make advances in botany or Christianize foreign peoples. Their diaries are fascinating- often times they describe the people they encounter not only with awe, but occasionally with a hint of desire and jealousy. Some wanted the same freedom to speak about sexuality as the Italians and Ottomans did; others wanted the ability to travel alone without ridicule or to live a much simpler life like many of the African tribes. If, like me, this subject is of interest to you, I hope you will join me Thursday, August 17th at 7 PM at the museum, where I will give a talk on women in the 18th and 19th century who travelled to the Middle East and other areas and recorded their movements. This will be one part of the event, which is titled Arabian Nights, and will also feature readings, music, and refreshments.

So, would you want to travel as a Victorian? Do you have experiences travelling that echo the terrible experience I had last week? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and call 623-9814 if you want to register for our Arabian Nights event. It is going to be a fun evening!


Sources for further reading:

Beeton, Samuel Orchart, Family Etiquette, 1876.

Hartley, Cecil, The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness.

Hartley, Florence, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, a Manual of Politeness, 1875.

The Hand-book of Etiquette, 1860.


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