Category Archives: minutiae

The Etiquette of Eating Olives – Victorian-Era Table Manners

Richelieu, by Philippe de Champaigne (detail),...

Cardinal Richelieu, Image via Wikipedia

There’s a story about the rather richly named Armand Jean du Plessis that circulated throughout Victorian-era New England during the 1880’s.  The story goes that du Plessis, better remembered by the world as the 17th-century Cardinal Richelieu of  France, once exposed an impostor pretending to be a nobleman by the way the man ate his olives.  Those watching this spectacle, the Cardinal included, were nonplussed when the impostor nobleman, upon failing to find an olive fork at the table, exposed himself as a fraud when he substituted an ordinary fork when procuring his olives.  The proper thing to do, the Cardinal and his tablemates knew, was to fish those olives from the dish with one’s fingers.

This story resonated with Victorian listeners.  Observing table manners provided a means by which one could identify the ‘uncultivated’ who were attempting to ‘rise above their condition’ and masquerade among the wealthier classes of society.  Mary Barr Munroe, writing for the March 2, 1889 edition of Good Housekeeping, reflected on some people-watching she herself had recently done in New York.  As she sat at a New York City restaurant she “saw a richly dressed woman with every evidence a lady, handle her knife, fork, and napkin in a way that bespoke anything but gentle breeding”.  At another table, she watched “a man take from his pocket a medicine bottle, shake it, pour out a dose and swallow it with evident disgust.”

Apparently, to the Victorians, the list of crimes against proper table manners was long.  Munroe advised that it was improper to:

  • Let food fall upon one’s clothes;
  • Grasp for food across the table;
  • Gulp one’s meal or tea down lustily;
  • Pick that same meal from one’s teeth moments later;
  • Smack one’s lips after finishing that meal (including any bits caught within one’s teeth);
  • ‘Loll’ at the table; and
  • Misunderstand the various utensils at the table, including butter knives, salt-spoons, sugar tongs, and napkins.
By Creator unknown. [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Group of people lined up in front of an 'Eating Saloon'

Other table faux-paus included ordering too much from the menu or not being able to find an item there to one’s liking.  In addition to the aforementioned olives, table manners grew specific depending on the type of food consumed.  A soft-boiled egg, for instance, could be eaten in the English manner, that is, directly from its shell, using a small egg cup and egg spoon.  Alternately, the soft-boiled egg could be eaten in the American fashion, by striking the egg against the cup and then pouring its contents within that cup.

Rules were prescribed for the consumption of celery too.  ‘Strictly finger food’, the Victorians advised.  To add salt, one should hold the stalk in one’s left hand, while shaking the salt dispenser over the celery with the other.  Always be mindful, etiquette advised, that a plate is positioned under the shaking effort in order to catch any errant salt.  Corn on the cob presented a specific challenge to Victorian table watchers.  Some advised that consumers of the corn should hold the ears in “pretty little doylies”; others thought this a perfectly absurd use of table linen.  Rules even existed for the ‘after-meal': one should never pile dirty dishes or fold spent napkins.

Some claim that table manners make a pleasant dining experience possible for all.  Others argue that they serve as a method by which the upper classes of society can identify and further ostracize the ‘uncultivated’.  Before the Victorian era and even before Cardinal Richelieu‘s day, table manners were observed during what today’s society calls ‘people watching’.  But, whether you consider them important or not, they do provide some interesting viewpoints into societies of the past and the interrelations of the classes within them.

The Civility of the Past – Our Ancestors’ Experiences with Public Transport

Do you commute to work using public transportation?  There’s a certain etiquette, a set of norms, that is easily observable when you are on the bus, the train, the subway, or even a plane.  There’s a prevailing thought out there that civility is a “thing of the past”.  But, was it?  Did our ancestors live in a world where people took just one seat on a horsecar, or politely inquired about the space beside a sitting passenger before sitting on the edge of their coats?  The answer is: “hardly”.

Books and articles written on etiquette can be a dry read, but they can also be a valuable and interesting source of insight into what everyday circumstances were like for our ancestors – and provide a perspective into just how little society, at least from the standpoint of social interaction, has changed in the last 120 years.  If etiquette books cautioned electric car (trolley) riders not to open the window next to them without first asking those seated behind them, then it’s likely that they did.  And, it’s also likely that the woman behind them, as her elaborately ringleted hair was assaulted by the twin furies of wind and road dust, thought of just how she would craft the next sentence of an etiquette book admonishing this.

James Henry Stark, in his Stranger’s illustrated guide to Boston and its suburbs, includes a list of horse railroad rules that had been established by the various Horse Railroad Companies of Boston by 1882:

Horse Railroad Rules:  

  • Getting on or off the front platform, riding on the steps, or talking with the driver is prohibited.
  • Never get on or off a car while it is in motion; notify the conductor, and wait until the car is stopped.
  • No disorderly or intoxicated person will be allowed to ride in the cars.
  • No smoking is allowed on the cars, excepting on the three rear seats of the open cars.
  • Full fare will be charged for children occupying seats which may be required by other passengers.
  • Articles lost in the cars may be inquired for at the offices of the different companies.
  • Peddling in the cars is prohibited.
  • No dogs allowed in the cars.
Truly, the list of rules reads eerily similarly to what might be encountered on an MBTA bus or subway car today.  A Good Housekeeping article on The Etiquette of Travel from several years later in 1889 provides similar insights, and also suggests that the behavior observed in Boston-area horsecars was not unique to just Boston.  Good Housekeeping advises that each traveler should not occupy more than one seat, fill seats around them with packages, or show a “disobliging spirit” when asked by a standing passenger to remove their things from those seats.  As I write the first draft of this post – on a rush hour commuter rail train heading into Boston – it’s obvious that this advice applies equally well to today’s public transportation ridership.
By Heywood, John B. -- Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Horsecar outside Scollay's Building in Boston's Scollay Square

The article also tackles the issue of a group of two or three people, turning over the seat in front of them (an option still available on some of today’s commuter rail trains) and taking over a space usually available for up to four people.  If you change out today’s baseball caps for Victorian bowler hats and today’s tight-fit jeans for yesterday’s long-hemmed corseted profiles, an image emerges of later comers milling about in the aisles, unsure whether to continue standing, or force themselves into a conversation among friends, in order to sit awkwardly among them, and likely ride backwards, facing the rear of the train.  If you’ve ridden the commuter rail for any time during the cold weather months, you’ve likely endured the discomfort of an oblivious seat companion brushing beside you and abruptly sitting atop your coat.  This appears to have been equally vexing to Victorian-era passengers, maybe even more so, in an age of long dresses.

For longer journeys, perhaps the present-day equivalent of a Boston to New York City journey by train, etiquette advised our ancestors to prepare their luncheons carefully and thoughtfully so that their companions would be spared the indignity of watching them eat chicken wings or legs with their fingers.  They were also advised to throw their debris, be they peanut shells or orange peels or even chicken bones, from their open windows – since the sight of these scattered across on trolley floors or window sills was considered unsightly.

When imagining or exploring the world of the ancestors we are researching, we sometimes consider it to be far more foreign or unfamiliar than it really was.  Our ancestors commuted just as we do now and faced situations that still ring familiar today.  Civility is not truly a “thing of the past”; rather, our perception of 19th century US culture probably incorporates a greater degree of civility than what truly existed.

If you were to walk . . . Boston’s Scollay Square and Tremont Street, 1895

Boston Scollay Square - John Winthrop Statue, 1897 via Wikipedia Commons

If you were to walk . . . through Boston’s Scollay Square and down Tremont Street, into what those alive in 1895 called “the congested district”, you would feel the crush of people and electric car traffic on what, even then, was considered a narrow road.  On this midsummer workday, as you walk southwest through the Square (in an area that now borders the rather bereft expanse known as Government Center), you see that the Square is actually a triangle, and oddly shaped at that, that makes the old-timers reminisce about the now-demolished Scollay building, whose footprint caused the irregular shape.

You escape the old men by pretending to study the statue of Governor John Winthrop, an early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The statue is easy to study – since it dominates the Square.  Winthrop is depicted in bronze and granite, newly arrived in the New World, holding the colony charter in his right hand;  his left hand holds a Bible.  Behind him, the stump of a freshly felled tree stands, rope attached – presumably to the boat that had just brought him ashore.

Boston - Hemenway Building - Scollay Square, via Boston Public Library

It works; you’ve escaped the old men, no small feat in an age when sidewalks were uneven and clothes were constricting.  Their stories of the Scollay Square of yore fade into the hum of the traffic.  You pass by the statue, and onto the top of Tremont Street.  You pass by the Hemenway Building (tallest building, at left), at the intersection with Court Street.  It marks the site of a house that once lodged George Washington during his stay in Boston in 1789.  You pass other pedestrians, both afoot and aboard the electric cars.  Most are returning from work; some visit the area’s many banks, shops, theaters, newspaper offices, or railway stations.  As you brush shoulders with these other poor souls battling the foot and street traffic, you catch some rushed words about how grand the new subway will be, how it will push this mess of an electric car system underground, and ultimately how it will make both travel by street and by rail more efficient and reliable.

With Scollay Square at your back, the sidewalks of Tremont Street lead you past the Boston Museum at 28 Tremont, between the intersections with School and Court streets.  You step inside to escape the crush of humanity on the street and see the statues, paintings, even coins – standard fare for a museum, maybe, but you also hear that the Museum is Boston’s oldest theatre – dating to 1841.  One of the most prominent playhouses in the city, its fame these days lies in the introduction of foreign plays premiering in the US, including English comedies.  1,500 people can be seated inside.  The best seats will set you back $1 – some seats can be found for 50 cents or even less.

Boston's Tremont Street, 1895, via the Scientific American, 31 August 1895, Pg. 1

You next walk past the Massachusetts Historical Society, housed at 30 Tremont.  It’s likely open; its normal hours of operation are 9 A.M. to 5 P.M..  And, an added bonus, the admission is free.  Inside, such wonders await as an oak chair brought over on the Mayflower, a vial of tea purported to have been thrown into Boston Harbor during the Boston Tea Party, and even the sword of Miles Standish himself.  Its library, said to contain almost 40,000 books and over twice as many pamphlets, contains, within its collection, the largest trove of literature related to the Civil War anywhere.

Continuing along Tremont, you next approach the Granary Burying Ground, but you struggle to see the graves over the tops of the electric cars.  Established in 1660, the burial ground was originally part of the Boston Common, separated some time later by the construction of the town granary, which stood on the present-day site of the Park Street church.  If you manage to cross Tremont, to stand beneath the Burying Ground’s shady canopy, you’ll be able to make out some familiar names within its fences.  Paul Revere is buried there.  As is Peter Faneuil, who donated the market house and hall that now carried his name.  You’ll see the most prominent monument with the cemetery, one marking the graves of Benjamin Franklin’s parents.  More meandering will reveal the graves of the victims of the Boston Massacre, three signers of the Declaration of Independence, and nine governors of Massachusetts – colonial and post-Revolution.  Don’t think you can just walk in through the curve of the high, ivied gateway.  All would-be visitors are to apply for admission at No. 12 Beacon Street, at the office of the superintendent.

By Heywood, John B. -- Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

King's Chapel and Burying Ground - Boston, Tremont Street

Beyond the Massachusetts Historical Society building and the Granary Burying Ground, lies the King’s Chapel Burying Ground, and beyond that, King’s Chapel.  The Burying Ground, Boston’s oldest cemetery, dates its oldest burials to 1630.  A quick wander inside reveals the graves of many of Boston’s earliest prominent citizens.  You pause at the grave of Mary Chilton, who, as an eager 13-year-old, leapt from her boat as it approached Plymouth’s now-famous Rock in 1620, thus becoming the first European woman to touch land in Massachusetts.  The walls of Boston’s City Hall building (its entrance on School Street) frame the rear of the cemetery.  The dark granite wall of King’s Chapel, with its formidable stone tower, forms another boundary of the cemetery.  From across Tremont Street, the well-known Houghton & Dutton Department Store casts a long late-afternoon shadow across the graves.

Across the School Street intersection, you see the Parker Hotel (now the Omni Parker), first opened in 1855.  Inside, a room for the night, “with service and electric light”, can be had for $2, a fairly considerable sum in a day when nightly rates range from 50 cents through $3.  The hotel’s “European plan” rates do not include the cost of meals, a concept the hotel was the first to introduce to the US.  You next pass by the Tremont Temple, newly built just two years ago, near Tremont’s intersection with School Street.  The Temple sees most of its traffic on Sundays, but you might see concerts or lectures there on weeknights in its Lorimer or Parker Halls.  If you return on Sunday, you might even catch a sermon by its minister, Dr. Geroge Lorrimer.

By U.S. Stereoscopic Co. -- Publisher [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Brewer Fountain - Boston Common

Past the Park Street Church, Boston Common emerges on the right of the street.  Its nearly fifty acres of green grass shaded by mature elms are certainly inviting, calling to you from behind its black iron fence.  Your eyes are drawn first to the Brewer Fountain, in place now for nearly 30 years.  But, there’s also McDonald’s, across the street at 132 Tremont.  McDonald’s, not of the type your 21st-century consciousness might recognize, sits near St. Paul’s Church and is a fashionable women’s clothing store.  Its light lunches at midday attract large crowds; some are shopping; some come just to watch the scene unfold.

Whether you opt for the merchandise-themed therapies offered by McDonald’s or choose to experience the aesthetic relaxation awaiting you at Boston Common, either is a welcome respite from the congested streets and sidewalks of Tremont Street.

By Walker [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the Scollay Square Area, Boston - 1883

The Value of Living Memories, Lowell, MA: Circa 1865

For those of us born into Generation X, the earliest living memory of a family member we’ve likely been exposed to might stretch as far back as Prohibition, or the Great War, or maybe, for the older members of our generation, childhood memories of the Spanish-American War.  I write a local history column for the Billerica Minuteman.  In my research, I came across some living memory cassette tape recordings at the Billerica Public Library that date from the 1970’s.  But even these memories, from Billerica’s oldest residents of the 1970’s, date to the late 1890’s at the earliest.

Seven-year-old newspaper boy in 1914

What is harder to uncover is the living memory of generations that we haven’t met.  When you uncover photographs of your grandfather as a child, what sorts of stories would he have heard from the oldest members of his family?  As a family historian, I’ve come across lots of stories and artifacts passed down various branches of my family tree.  I often examine and ponder the Victorian-style trunk that carried my great-grandmother’s belongings to Boston when she was a young woman arriving from the Azores in 1907.  And, I’m fascinated to flip through the pages of a yellowed diary that my 2nd-great-grandfather purchased in Manchester, England, before boarding a ship that took him to the United States in 1869.  Inside, the most prominent yellowed page records, in his eloquent 19th-century handwriting, the date of his arrival in Boston:  July 25, 1869.

In genealogy, the holy grail is anything that helps us lay flesh upon the bones of the names, dates, and dry, yellowed records of the ancestors we are researching.  Sometimes, this takes the form of a treasured possession, or a diary, or a set of letters.  But, when these haven’t survived, the next best thing is the living memories of our ancestor’s contemporaries.  The trick is to find an author who has a lot in common with your ancestor – one who lived in the same area or performed the same occupation.

The history of my family has deep roots in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Five consecutive generations of my family have been born there.  So, naturally, I voraciously seek out any living memories of Lowell that have been preserved and that offer a window into the world my ancestors saw, felt, and experienced as they walked the streets of that long-ago Lowell.  The other day, I came across a fascinating article in an 1893 edition of the Lowell Sun, recounting the memories of a coal yard employee who spoke with the reporter about his memories of the city in the pre-Civil War era.

The article celebrates Belvidere resident Michael Moran’s 50 years of service in the coal yards of William Kittredge.  Like my ancestors, Moran was a laborer who had come to Lowell from Ireland, in 1846.  For nearly half a century, Moran worked for Kittredge, supporting his coal and wood businesses. Moran’s memories did not pre-date the construction of the Boston & Lowell railroad, but he did recall working with men who told him stories of the first coal being brought up the Middlesex Canal.  Moran recalled the days in Lowell before residents understood coal’s ability to heat their homes.  After Kittredge proved its worth to one Central Street merchant in an exhibition in his office, the merchant bought it on trial, put it in his grate at his Central Street office, and watch, frustrated, as the fire went out.  Enraged, the merchant threw the coals onto his lawn, and then watched, dismayed, as his lawn caught fire and burnt out.

Central Street; Lowell, Massachusetts - ca. 1875

Moran went on to recall the Lowell of the his younger years, including a Central Street with no sidewalks and lacking the Mansur and Canal blocks.  In his earlier days, shanties stood on Central Street in their place, which housed a few “traders”.  He recalled a Palmer Street before the Central Fire Station was built, and a pond that once occupied its site.  He had, in fact, cut across the site on his way home from buying a suit one night and fell into that pond.  Moran remembered a Lowell whose biggest restaurant was owned by Captain Marston and located in the Wentworth Block at the corner of Merrimack & Shattuck Streets.  Marston’s restaurant was a draw for Lowell’s theatrical crowd, where the most fashionable actors and actresses of the age could be seen before and after they took the stage.  Moran’s memories also included a youthful General Benjamin Butler, who to men of his generation, was viewed as a good friend to Lowell’s Irishmen. He also recalled the construction of the Carpet, Prescott, and Massachusetts Mills.

Benjamin Franklin Butler

The ability to access living memories of those whose lives are long past allows us a glimpse into the lifetimes of our own ancestors.  Reading accounts such as Michael Moran’s helps us visualize the Lowell of the mid-19th century, a time long lost from the living memory of society.  From a historian’s perspective, it’s interesting and helps provide some context as to how contemporary citizens viewed the city and its development toward the end of the 19th century.  For genealogists, these accounts help enliven our own family history records and put some context to our view of our ancestors’ lives.  What did they see as they walked the streets of their cities?  How did they view historical figures such as Benjamin Butler?  For us Gen X’ers, living memories captured in old books and newspaper articles are a form, a fascinating one, of time travel.

How street dirt can change the world

Historical fiction, like any genre of fiction, relies on a solid, engaging storyline, but it’s just as important to get the details right.  Flub those and you’ll quickly lose credibility with readers.  Readers seek out historical fiction to escape into another world, and another time.  Who wouldn’t want to send this coming Monday a few centuries into the future?

I write a local history column for the town newspaper.  While researching a topic,  I came across a fascinating bit of lost lore – the daily act of street watering in the late nineteenth century.   So, say you’re writing a story and it takes place in a New England mill city – Lowell, Massachusetts will do, or even Boston.  A young boy, six or seven years old, races down a city street bordered by tall brick buildings, peopled by horse-drawn carriages and women in leg-of-mutton sleeves.  The men, extravagantly mustachioed, turn to look at your boy.  Some reach up to grasp their bowlers as a cooling breeze arrives from the east.  It’s July 1894.  Your boy, call him a good 19th century name like James, needs butter from the store.  It’s not far; there were far more neighborhood stores then.  He races along.  His mother needs the butter for a cake.  And the cake needs to be made before Father returns from work.

When you read the scene, you’ll expect to see horses, and carriages, and lots of elaborate (and less than sensible) dress; you might even expect to see cobblestone lanes, streetcars, and the occasional newspaper boy hawking the latest editions of the Boston Globe or Lowell Sun.  But would you expect to see a street watering cart?  Probably not.  Street cleaning survives today in the form of street sweepers, slow-moving, tank-like vehicles that present excellent opportunities for modern day drivers to dart around before oncoming traffic closes the chance.  In Victorian-era cities like Boston or Lowell, it took on a whole new importance.  While today’s road dust consists of seasonal waste (like road sand or fallen leaves) and litter, Victorian-era road dust contained a long-forgotten nineteenth-century component – horse waste.

Scollay Square in Boston, 1883

The pollution of Victorian cities was not the auto exhaust so bemoaned today, but quite literally horseshit, or the dried dust from it.  As James runs to the store, any one of the horses that he passes could leave behind as much as 25 pounds of . . . exhaust daily, which dries into the roads, becomes pulverized by hooved, heeled, and wheeled traffic, and gets blown into the airborne dust that finds its way into Victorian homes, clothing, and lungs.  As an aside, the Sanitary Division of Boston’s Street Department towed 30,478 loads of street sweepings to sea in 1894, each load weighing one-and-a-half tons.  Although the street dirt contained house refuse, street litter, and sometimes seasonal waste such as fallen leaves, the largest component was horse excrement.

So, what does this have to do with James‘ run?  As he runs to the store, he dodges foot traffic, horse traffic, and fresh, moist horse deposits along the way.  Add to that the fashionable wheelmen and wheelwomen (now called bicyclists) who have seized upon the decade’s latest trend and are pedaling through the road traffic, and the scene starts to come together.

But, what does the road feel like, under his shoes?  He’s in a city in Massachusetts, which in 1894, most likely means that the road is graveled, or as the more technical terms calls it, macadamed.  This affects the sound of James‘ footfalls against the road as he runs, the feel of the road through his shoes, even the speed at which he can run.

But, there’s another thing to consider.  As James runs along the road, let’s call it Main Street, his shoes crunch across the gravel.  It’s July 1894, one of the hottest, driest summers in memory.  And one of the windiest.  Victorian-era roads are dusty – unless they’re watered.  And Lowell and Boston both have healthy street watering budgets.

So, instead of kicking up dust, James’ footfalls crunch through the moist gravel, and splash through puddles in the road’s uneven surface, as the heat of summer weighs down his clothes in the humidity.  Fashionable young ladies chide him as puddle droplets find and dry into their dresses.  There’s a moist earthy smell in the air.  He takes care as he steps around street car rails and larger stones in the road, slippery perils to both pedestrians and wheelmen.

Some graveled roads are watered by the street watering cart as much as twice daily.  On his trip to the store, he may pass a paved road, a luxury in 19th century Massachusetts.  If James were running along say, Boston’s prestigious Beacon Street, his shoes would clack along freshly washed, freshly swept pavement.  But even there, no less than 16 cross streets intersect his route.  As he passes each graveled cross street, he strides across a strip of dust and mud left by crossing hooves and wheels.

We are all products of our environment.  The setting where you place James as he runs to the store will determine his life experiences, his story, and even his speech.  Perhaps as he runs along Main Street, he’ll notice that there’s a strip of dry gravel on each strip of the road that has not been watered.  Many northeastern cities considered following Chicago’s example, leaving these strips dry to accomodate wheelmen and wheelwomen, who worried about losing a tire (and/or bruising a limb) on a wet, slippery rail or stone.  Perhaps, he’ll find himself on a road in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1894, freshly sprinkled to the dismay of clergymen he passes who passionately complain that any labor on a Sunday desecrates the Sabbath.

There are so many details you can work into any scene.  I see the writing as “the coming together” of the research process.  When you come down to it, the research process can be even more interesting and fun than the writing itself.  But, there is a balance.  Too little detail and the story lacks authenticity – and the ability to engage your reader through the window of time.  Too much detail and the story drowns.  If James takes 25 pages to get to the store and back, your readers, and perhaps even you, will have lost interest in the cake, James‘ father, and any other subplots your larger story explores.  But, a few well-placed details will help take your reader to that place and time you are trying to re-create and succeed in helping him or her push that inevitable Monday morning meeting decades, or even centuries away.


  • Annual Report of the Street Department – Boston, Mass. Street Dept., pp 72-74, 1895.
  • “Puritans of Somerville.”  The Boston Daily Globe.  11 May 1897: 1.
  • “Mud or Dust?”  The Boston Daily Globe.  29 June 1897: 2.
  • Report of Commission on Street Cleaning and Waste Disposal, the City of New York, p. 44, 1907.