Book Smarts: Tracing the evolution of etiquette

This pamphlet lists the students and faculty for the academic year ended June 29,1870, plus a few rules and protocols of the college. Image courtesy of The York County Heritage Trust.

In the past century, the pace of life has increased dramatically.

We shoot off a text message instead of handwriting a letter and waiting weeks for a response.

We microwave our pre-packaged, frozen dinners instead of growing the produce and baking the bread.

We rush from the kids’ soccer practice only to sneak into a clarinet lesson a few minutes late.

Accepted etiquette has adapted: No texting at the dinner table or during a church sermon. Wipe out the microwave if your frozen dinner leaks or explodes. Resist the urge to cut anyone off in your mad dash across town between activities.

Some of the lessons from the 19th century feel starkly different. But some, if you look closely, are the same.

There’s no better way to see how ladies and gentlemen were expected to behave than to go straight to the source: We looked at a pamphlet from Cottage Hill College, a women’s school founded in 1847 in York.

The large, three-story building along Newberry Road — now Cottage Hill Road — exchanged hands a number of times before it was leveled in 1900.

Collections at the York County Heritage Trust include correspondence, photos, a commencement speech and a handful of pamphlets — including a “Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Cottage Hill College for Young Ladies” for the academic year that ended June 29, 1870.

The college asserts its “rules for the regulation of the Institution are enforced in the spirit of kindness,” but students in 2013 might see them as overbearing.

Cottage Hill College. Image courtesy of The York County Heritage Trust.

At Cottage Hill, “a daily account (was) kept with each student, in such a way as to afford a full exhibit of her habits in regard to punctuality in her duties, as well as the merit and demerit of her recitations.”

In other words, they kept a close eye on their pupils: No sleeping in the back row of these classes.

The emphasis on punctuality repeated in a section titled “Remarks”: “It is expected that every member of the College, if possible, be present on the first day of session. … The work of organizing the classes can then be readily perfected, and the regular duties promptly commenced.”

As the school only housed about 100 students, a missing pupil on the first day would surely be noticed.

But perhaps the paragraph that is the most telling about Cottage Hill’s code of conduct is that which deals with gentlemen callers: “Ladies are not permitted to receive the visits of gentlemen with whom the officers of the School have no acquaintance, unless sanctioned by letters of introduction from parents. And it is exceedingly desirable that parents designate the persons with whom they wish their daughters to correspond.”

I doubt many students today write to Mom and Dad to request permission for a boy to visit.

But some of the catalogue’s undertones still ring true in the 21st century: Most people appreciate promptness, whether it be a dinner reservation, scheduled flight or hair appointment. Punctuality might have diminished, but it’s still polite.

And even if your parents don’t screen your prospective beaus, some colleges stand by restrictions on visitors of the opposite sex. And most students likely don’t appreciate a roommate forever lip-locked with her boyfriend.

Cottage Hill College aimed for students to understand that their “obedience to the laws established” … “will secure their own happiness and prosperity.”

In 21st-century words we might recognize?

“It’s for your own good.”

Sarah Chain

I'm an avid reader and book lover living and working in downtown York. Follow me on Twitter at @sarahEchain.

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2 Responses

  1. February 18, 2013

    [...] expectations of the female students at York’s Cottage Hill College for Young Ladies circa 1870. Our favorite quote from the school handbook [...]

  2. October 4, 2013

    [...] expectations of the female students at York’s Cottage Hill College for Young Ladies circa 1870. Our favorite quote from the school handbook [...]

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