Kōrero: Manners and social behaviour

Whārangi 2. Nineteenth-century manners

Ngā whakaahua

Nineteenth-century Pākehā settlers brought with them the manners and customs of their homelands, with English manners being the dominant influence. The concept of etiquette – formal rules of manners – had gained ground in the English-speaking world from the mid-18th century, and was particularly important in the 19th century.

How vulgar!

Some rules of etiquette were specially designed to trip up those who attempted to rise above their station. An 1866 etiquette manual for women prescribed that ‘Your gloves should always be of kid; silk or cotton gloves are very vulgar,’ and that ‘Ladies scarcely ever eat cheese after dinner. If eaten, remember it should be with a fork’. Language was one of the most subtle markers of class. It was unwise to use the words ‘polite’ or ‘genteel’ in society: ‘it is quite certain they mark the class to which you belong’.1

Manners and class

Manners were strongly associated with ideas of class. The upper classes developed an intricate set of customs to differentiate themselves from people of lower classes, or from cultures they believed to be inferior. To them, these manners were a sign of being ‘refined’ and their absence suggested that a person was ‘uncivilised’. For people who had been born into a high class but had come down in the world, like some settlers who were forced to emigrate because of a lack of money, manners were often one of the few remaining signs of their rank, so they clung to them.

For those who aspired to better themselves socially, learning manners was essential. They turned to advice books such as Etiquette for ladies (1866). There was also some demand for private tuition in deportment and manners for the young.

However, some of the stricter aspects of Victorian etiquette had to be relaxed in the raw new colony. In 1855 one observer noted that people in New Plymouth made an effort to keep up appearances, entertaining guests with good plates and cutlery, but that the serving and cleaning up generally had to be done by the hostess and her daughters.

Manners and egalitarianism

Manners were influenced by the growing egalitarianism of New Zealand society. But while some settlers were happy to see class distinctions broken down, others wanted to preserve them. Some who considered themselves of the upper classes complained of the ‘rudeness’ and ‘familiarity’ of servants and tradesmen.

Proletarian politeness

According to an 1843 newspaper article, the egalitarian spirit of New Zealand society resulted in ‘the labouring classes’ paying the respects due to those ‘of superior station’ to each other instead. ‘Every working man styles his fellow workman “the gentleman,” and his wife a “madam;” indeed we have never, in the society of what are styled the gentry at home, met with a hundredth part of the “ma’ams” and “sirs” which we hear bandied about in the cottage of a colonial labourer.’2

Working-class people objected to being dismissed as inferiors. They had their own sense of manners – in particular, they expected to be treated with respect. In a society that depended on their labour to function, their views carried weight. According to a newcomer to Auckland in the 1860s, ‘A servant thinks nothing of sitting down while her mistress is standing and giving her orders; at the smallest cause of offence … the former walks off and is seen no more. From the dearth of servants, the former can always secure a good place …They know this, and rule their mistresses with a rod of iron.’ 3

These trends supported the view that a person’s birth and upbringing was less important than their behaviour. The terms ‘lady’ and ‘gentleman’ once primarily indicated a person’s wealth and high social caste, but they were increasingly used to describe a courteous person of any class or culture.

Manners and gender

In the 19th century New Zealand’s male-dominated rural working world, which encompassed all classes of men, had its own code. But, often associated with hard drinking, fighting and swearing, it was inconsistent with the world of polite manners. As urban bourgeois men increased in numbers, these behaviours were increasingly frowned on, though they never entirely disappeared.

Women, on the other hand, were seen as a ‘civilising’ influence and the guardians of manners. Upper-class women observed the formalities of paying and returning calls, for example. Gradually these expectations relaxed, and simply dropping by to visit became more common.

By the end of the 19th century, while manners remained important, many people considered strict etiquette and dress codes out of keeping with the more casual New Zealand way of life.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Jill Brewis, Colonial fare: in which we learn of the amazing fortune and fate of pioneering women who ventured from their kitchens at Home to embark upon a new life in the unknown territory of New Zealand. Auckland: Methuen, 1982, p. 152. Back
  2. Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle, 9 December 1843, p. 366. Back
  3. ‘First impressions of Auckland’, Colonist, 21 February 1865, p. 3. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Manners and social behaviour - Nineteenth-century manners', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/manners-and-social-behaviour/page-2 (accessed 21 October 2019)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 Sep 2013