The Art of Handshaking – The Ins and Outs of 19th Century Greetings

In my training as a historian, I focused my research mainly on social aspects as I love Social History and most specifically on how events affected women. I could prove to you that women participated in the American Revolution due to their true patriotic fervor not as just an extension of their domestic duties (yes there was a theory to the contrary) or how women attempted to recreate Eastern society in their homes on the Western frontier. But it is the small things like etiquette and names of clothing that I really had to research in my new capacity as a historical novelist—things that make your stories realistic.

One of the first items I decided to research once I began to write the sequel to my American Victorian, Dilemma of the Heart, was the art of handshaking. This novel, Temptation of the Heart, takes place completely in Philadelphia in December 1865 at the height of society. I knew I had to be up on my American 19th century etiquette.

So what peaked my interest in this simple activity of hand shaking? Well, I needed to know the etiquette of greeting and after watching the 2004 adaptation of North and South based on Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name, I was a bit confused. In that film, Margaret Hale is from the South, near London, from a middle class family. The hero, John Thornton, is from the North, a factory owner. A display is made in showing their differences especially with the whole hand shaking scene. You see, when he offers his hand in goodbye and friendship to Margaret, she refuses to take it. Seems rude, right? Not exactly. Just in her view of appropriate etiquette, a proper gentleman would never offer his hand to a lady.

Was it like this in the United States at this time? It was a question that needed answering.

So here it is. The answer to my questions about the ins and outs of handshaking.

1. Handshaking was mainly seen as the behavior of the middle and lower classes most especially the brusque working class man.

2. 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.

3. Introductions are not to be followed by shaking hands, but rather by a bow.

4. Once a person became a part of your social circle, it became more appropriate to shake hands in public.

5. 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.

6. Once having been introduced, a married lady may offer her hand, something an unmarried woman may never do.

So there you have it. Clear as mud, right?

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