"Etiquette is the barrier which society draws arounds itself as a protection against offenses the "law" cannot touch--"Civilian Etiquette: Meeting and Greeting Others
--Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, 1836.
Making the acquaintance of strangers has a code all its own. Letters of introduction were common enough in that era of attention to manners and form, as well as in a society that had become increasingly transient. Such letters served as certificates of respectability, and functioned as personal introductions of the carrier by one absent, to the one to whom the letter was presented.
When introduced to a person whose acquaintance you did not care to make, it was acceptable to make acknowledgment of the introduction by a formal bow upon meeting that person, but the bow was sufficient. Conversation and further acquaintance with the undesirable person was not an obligation, but the bow was. Although shaking hands was commonplace enough in America at that time, it was not normative behavior among the well-mannered. The distinction of handshaking as a lower class practice can be seen in works such as Mark Twain’s Roughing It where the more socially backward the person, the more apt they are to be found shaking hands. Introductions at a ball or dance where the purpose of the introduction was to dance rather than for business purposes or to make a new friend, it was considered highly inappropriate to shake hands. Location also affected where shaking hands would be permissible. The more public the place in which people met, the less appropriate it was to shake hands. Shaking hands was considered far too personal a matter to be employed casually.
Why was the very question of an introduction, something so seemingly commonplace and innocuous to us, a matter of such great import to the Victorians?
In polite society, once a person had been properly introduced and therefore admitted into one’s social circle, the newly introduced person was considered to have some claim on your attention and sphere of influence for the future. If the introduction was accompanied by a personal recommendation such as "I’d like you to meet my friend", then a more personal acknowledgment of the introduction than a bow was permitted. That was a case in which shaking hands was acceptable.
For gentlemen walking in the company of a lady, in the event that she receives the greeting or salute of a stranger, the gentleman is supposed to return the salute for the lady, if not on his own behalf as well. Even to your enemy, it is in bad taste to decline a recognition should he salute you. In sparsely settled places it is customary to salute everybody you meet with a bow, and the custom is an excellent one, as it shows kindly feeling and a good heart.
The more public a place where two or more people were introduced, the less that handshaking is expected to take place, something of a reversal of the practice of the earlier part of the 19th century. Ladies’ gloves are to be worn, in so far as is practical, in all public places, and they are not to be removed in order to shake hands. When a lady is introduced to a room, married ladies are expected to offer their hands, while a young, unmarried lady would not. Of course, context dictates some protocols. Introductions are not commonly to be followed by shaking hands, but by a bow from a gentleman and a nod of acknowledgment from a lady. In a ballroom setting where the introduction has as its purpose asking another to accompany you to dance, and not to initiate a friendship, ladies and gentlemen are never to shake hands.
When gentlemen meet other gentlemen or ladies in public, even when they are known to each other already, they are never to refer to one another by their first name.
Once having been introduced, a married lady may offer her hand, something an unmarried woman may never do. Ladies are generally expected to wear gloves whenever practical in all public places and in church, and it is considered improper for her to remove her gloves to shake hands. However, the dilemma raised by shaking hands should not generally occur at the instigation of a gentleman. Introductions are not to be followed by shaking hands, but rather by a bow. In a ballroom setting where the introduction is to dancing and not necessarily to friendship, neither ladies nor gentlemen should shake hands.
When a man is introduced to a lady and then afterward meets her in the street, he is expected to bow to her, and she to him. Men who are out and about, walking the street, are to acknowledge their friends. If a man fails to stop to visit with people he knew, he is to tender them the minimum courtesy of bowing, touching his hat brim in salute, or bidding his friends good-day. Should he stop to talk with them, it is expected of them to offer their hands without removing their glove. It is usually more agreeable to both parties, and to be preferred, that they leave their gloves on when shaking hands.
When a gentleman walks in the street a lady and they see another person approaching with whom they are acquainted, the gentleman is to offer the lady (or an elderly person with whom he is walking) the wall, the part of the walk furthest from the street. When taking a lady for a walk, a man is to offer her his right arm as a matter of custom. However, his left arm may be properly offered for her to take, should circumstances make it more convenient. Walking along a busy street makes it even more important to escort the lady, keeping her as close to the walls of the buildings they pass to prevent her from being jostled and run into by the passing crowd. A gentleman is to offer his arm to escort a lady of his acquaintance into, or out of, a building or a room at all social events, and whenever walking on uneven ground. In short, a gentleman is expected to offer his arm to a lady with whom he walks whenever her safety, comfort, or convenience may require it. At night, a man should always offer his arm to the lady. Whether it is day or night, though, it is always impolite and careless to leave a lady that you know unattended, except with her permission.
Regardless of the level of familiarity that a gentleman might have with another gentleman or lady, when encountering them on the street he is never to refer to another person by their first name in public.
There is a great deal of confusion within the re-enacting community when it comes to offering what we would consider a courtesy to the ladies by a gentleman removing his hat to a lady unknown to him. When a lady at a re-enactment greets a gentleman or soldier first, whether she knows him or not, he is obliged to remove his hat in greeting, or at least touch the brim of his hat in the manner of a salute. He should not expect her to smile, nod his way, or acknowledge him in any fashion.
The simplest way to keep this matter straight in the minds of gentlemen is to remember the age old notion of "Ladies first". If the lady greets you, then you are free to acknowledge her by removing your hat. Until and unless she greets you or acknowledges you in some way, do not acknowledge her in any way. A proper lady who understands and observes mid-Victorian etiquette, seeing that the gentleman does not remove his hat to her because she has not acknowledged him, realizes that he is a gentleman, and is not offended by his failure to recognize her. She realizes that the gentleman is being thoughtful of her reputation.
For other men, not knowing the rules of propriety as they ought, they are sometimes insulted that their hat-tipping to ladies unknown to them is ignored. In their ignorance, they suppose that the ladies are being unmannerly, when in fact the ladies are simply being proper ladies.
What lady would want to be greeted as a familiar by every male stranger and soldier she encounters? We can only imagine what kind of woman would be on such easy and friendly terms with so many men. A lady acting in that manner could even be mistaken for "that kind of a woman". Gentlemen should realize that they are doing ladies’ reputations a good service by not removing their hats to ladies who have not first greeted them.
Merely tipping the brim of your hat to a lady was considered to no more than a perfunctory gesture, and smacked more of rudeness than true politeness.
When bowing, a gentleman is lift his hat slightly from his head. Simply touching the rim of his hat, or only making a gesture toward it, is not correct form. The hat should be lifted slightly from the head, though, and not bandied about in a dramatic or conspicuous manner. It is appropriate to incline the head slightly as the hat is lifted, but the body need not follow suit.
In meeting a lady friend, wait for her to nod or bow to you. Return her salutation by removing your hat. If you stop to speak to a lady, hold your hat in your hand, until she leaves you, unless she requests you to replace it.
To another gentleman, it is acceptable to bow, merely touching your hat, if he is alone or with another gentleman. However, should he be in the company of a lady, raise your hat slightly in bowing to him, as if offering the salute to her. You should remain holding your hat in hand until either the lady takes her leave of you, or asks that you replace it on your head. In the presence of another gentleman only may you replace it immediately.