Classroom Manners: Analyzing behavior with primary sources

Civil behavior is required for civil society and a civil classroom. Web articles about why, how, and where children and young adults should learn manners are common. But can lessons on polite behavior in the classroom mask important truths that should be addressed rather than concealed?

A common classroom rule is “Show respect to others.”  But what if someone’s words and actions do not deserve respect? Are the standards for polite behavior different for boys and girls, men and women? These modern-day conundrums can be examined in the classroom by using examples from the past.

Polite Behavior in the Past
Good manners
This image and the header image demonstrate expectations for men and women in the late 19th century. From Hill’s Manual of Social and Business Forms. Chicago: Hill Standards Book Co., 1888

In England and the American colonies in the 1700s, many assumed polite manners automatically reflected good morals, thoughts, and intentions. Rude behavior was thought to be rooted in bad morals and a corrupt nature. This view of human behavior was influenced by Enlightenment philosophers who believed men were rational and virtuous if educated properly.

Enlightenment thinkers didn’t agree about the behavior of females. Some, such as the French philosopher Condorcet, believed women were equal to men, but society cheated women of a proper education.  Others, such as Rousseau, thought that women were incapable of rational thought and behavior and only needed to be educated to take care of a home and children.

In the following primary source, published in 1913 in Munsey’s Magazine, the author Karin Michaelis argued that society forced women to pretend and hide their real thoughts and feelings.

How Social Etiquette Breeds Lies
Society’s rules of etiquette are such that a woman’s small untruths are counted as good form. . . .She who cannot show a smiling face and talk agreeable even to her worst enemy when they meet on neutral ground has not the qualities required of a woman . . . She must be able to hide her feelings, to look as if she was enjoying herself thoroughly when she is ready to fall asleep from boredom.
The women who enters into the life of society is compelled to lead an absolutely double existence, together with her society toilet (clothing and makeup) she puts on a society manner, a society face – yes, even a society soul.

Examining Manners in the Classroom

Many people believe one can or should “fake” good manners to hide selfish motives or their true thoughts. Ask students to consider if phony polite behavior is a good thing, or not? Is it okay to use good manners to manipulate others or create good impressions just to get ahead? Should the rules be the same for males and females? Is it ever okay to have different rules for different people? Encourage students to really consider the wider role of polite behavior in human interaction, now and in the past.

For lots more history and primary sources related to manners and etiquette –  Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

An Eighteenth Century “Date”- Bundling

Did bundling, as pictured in the movie The Patriot (2000) really happen in colonial America?  Yes!  Examining historical relationship etiquette can provide students with insight into their own behavior.

In 1811, an English dictionary described “bundling” as

 “a man and woman sleeping in the same bed, he with his small clothes, and she with her petticoats on; an expedient practised in America on a scarcity of beds, where, on such an occasion, husbands and parents frequently permitted travellers to bundle with their wives and daughters. This custom is now abolished.”

But, as historian Jack Larkin noted, if bundling during courtship was supposed to prevent sexual contact and pre-marital pregnancy, it often failed. Young Americans courted unchaperoned at dances, singing schools, sleighing and quilting parties and often paired off and spent time alone.  In the late 1700s, pregnancy before marriage was frequent.  The number of pregnant brides had been rising in America since the late 1600s and peaked in the decades during and after the Revolution. In the 1780s and 1790s, nearly one-third of rural New England brides were pregnant.

The lyrics of “A New Bundling Song” (published in Boston between 1810-1814) noted “sometimes say when she lies down, She can’t be cumbered with a gown.” Men and women that bundled were supposed to wear clothes and be wrapped in sheets and be “chaste” but this did not always happen.

Classroom Resources

Many of our modern ideas about the sexual strictness of “the past” reflect the new, stricter morality that developed in the 1800s. Ask students to examine modern relationship etiquette and compare and contrast it to the past using primary sources.

For more about courtship and dating and primary sources for the classroom – See Chapter 3 – Manners and Etiquette – in Exploring Vacation and Etiquette Themes in Social Studies

For more about bundling:

Text of A New Bundling Song , 1810-1814

Verses in Vogue with the Vulgar – A New Bundling Song

Courtship, Sex, and the Single Colonist

       Atlas Obscura on bundling

The Reshaping of Everyday Life by Jack Larkin p. 193-195

Header Image: “The Country Wedding” 1820. By John Lewis Krimmel. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Was everyone a flapper in the 1920s?

Manners were changing in the 1920s, but did everyone act like a flapper?  Or did people prefer the old-fashioned advice of the late 1800s, codified by Mary Elisabeth Wilson Sherwood in Etiquette, The American Code of Manners and hundreds of other nineteenth century etiquette books? In reality, both were practiced depending on one’s age, location, and situation. New social customs are not adopted by everyone at the same time, or for the same reasons.

The conflicting views of proper etiquette in the 1920s are demonstrated by Lorelei Lee, a flapper and the main character in the 1925 novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady by Anita Loos. Lorelei pretends to follow the “old” manners when they best suit her purpose, but she is really living the free life of a flapper.

To Lorelei, etiquette was something a girl with working class background like herself used to get ahead in life. A similar attitude was outlined in Lillian Eichler’s Book of Etiquette (1921). Chapter 2, entitled “Etiquette’s Reward” is excerpted below and summarizes Lorelei’s goal. Eichler was just eighteen when she published her etiquette advice, blending the old and the new attitudes.

 Everyone loves to mingle with cultured, well-bred people; with brilliant and celebrated individuals. Everyone loves to attend elaborate social functions where the gay gowns of beautiful women are only less charming and impressive than their faultless manners. But it is not everyone who can be admitted to these inner portals of good society.

It is a well-known truth that manners rather than wealth decide social rank. A man may be fabulously wealthy, but if he does not know how to act, how to dress and speak, he will not be respected. American society has rules of its own, and those who are not willing to learn these laws are shunned, banished. Etiquette is the wall which divides the cultured from the uncultured, which keeps the ill-bred out of the circles where they would be awkward and uncomfortable, and where they would undoubtedly cause mortification to others.

On the other hand, to know these rules of good conduct is to be admitted to the highest circles of society. To know that one is correct banishes at once all uncertainty, all embarrassment. And one mingles with perfectly-mannered people, calm in the assurance that one knows just what is correct, and that no matter what happens one can do or say nothing to reflect on one’s breeding. p. 13

Flappers in Novels

By the way, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady  is hilarious – read it!  The 1953 movie with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell was based on a 1949 musical, based on the novel. The movie is good, but it is set in the 1950s and VERY different from the novel set in the 1920s.

 1925 novel of the life of flappers
“Gentlemen Prefer Blonds” – 1925 novel of the life of flappers

Read more:

Coslovi, Marina, “Why Blondes Need Manners? ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ and the Uses of Etiquette” South Atlantic Review, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Spring 2011), pp. 109-129. Stable URL:

Gentlemen Prefer Blonds Comic Strip

Image credit: “Man seated at piano, surrounded by group of glamorous girls (flappers), Washington, D.C”. , October 8.1923.  Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Header Image: “Man seated at piano, surrounded by group of glamorous girls (flappers), Washington, D.C,” 1923. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Telephone Etiquette in the 1950s

"The Telephone and How We Use it" booklet. c. 1950s; etiquette, manners
“The Telephone and How We Use it” booklet. c. 1950s

New technology calls for new etiquette. What are the rules of etiquette for texting? for Twitter? for other types of social media? Why do good manners in communication even matter? Ask your students to explore these questions and make comparisons to “old” manners and technology from the past.

Telephone Etiquette of the 1950s

This 24-page booklet, published by the Bell Telephone Service in the 1950s, was distributed to teach children how to use the telephone and the correct manners for telephone conversations. Suggested activities are even included in the back. The rotary phone is obsolete, but have telephone manners (p. 16) also changed? If so, what are the expectations for polite smart phone use?

Teaching Manners in the 21st Century

Ask students to consider why a society should or shouldn’t have standards for behavior (manners or etiquette). How does one learn manners in the 21st century? Who teaches these lessons in correct behavior – parents? teachers? peers? Should students have more lessons in polite behavior? If so, what behaviors need to be covered? How should adults learn the new behavior for the new technology?
The entire booklet is available here