story and photos by Ruby Dean
Guests to the Clayton House received a glimpse into Victorian social life on Saturday (Feb. 9) afternoon during the “Social Etiquette for Victorian Valentines.” The party began with a light musical performance by Hollye Dickinson, harpist, soothing hot tea served by volunteers, and delicious petite sweets.
Where did the idea come from for afternoon tea? Legend has it that afternoon tea was started in the mid 1800s by the Duchess of Bedford. At the time, there were only two meals each day – a mid morning breakfast-like meal and the other was an increasingly late dinner-like meal. So the story goes that the Duchess found herself feeling a little hungry in between meals and decided to have some friends over for assorted snacks and tea. It became very fashionable and spread across high society and was a favorite pastime of ladies of leisure.
The Clayton House history team shared a brief and entertaining review of signals of love or lack thereof that could be shown with a fan or folded corner of the calling card. Victorian-era rules of proper behavior for men and women were discussed and received a few giggles from the crowd.
Rules for etiquette for men and women were a tradition of the Victorian era. A season was dedicated just for courting beginning in mid spring to mid August. During this time, balls were held so that single men and women could meet.
The first step to etiquette was that you had to be introduced by a mutual friend and only if the woman agreed. The second step was that you could walk together in public only if chaperoned. The main goal of courting was to eventually become engaged and married. Once engaged, the men and women could go out in public without a chaperone.
Instead of passing notes or texting like most teens do, a calling card was left at the lady’s house you wished to visit. One couldn’t just show up uninvited. Calling cards were the social networking. Different symbols on the cards had different meanings. For example, a swan meant graceful and elegant.
Bending corners of the calling card had significant meanings as did the flirting the females did with their fans. If a fan is held in the left hand in front of the face, it meant I desire you. The movements of the fan were considered secret and only the woman and man knew the meanings.
On Saturday, Victorian era Valentines were also given to each guest for them to assemble. Following the tea and Victorian life education, guests received a complimentary guided tour of the restored Clayton House. William Henry Harrison Clayton, the chief prosecutor of Judge Isaac Parker’s court, and his Southern belle wife raised six daughters and a son from 1882 to 1897 in the Clayton House.