Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New York and the Painfully-Correct Promenade

By 1872 Fifth Avenue itself had become a promenade on Sundays -- "Lights & Shadows of New York" 1872 by James D. McCabe (copyright expired)
For well-heeled Victorian New Yorkers the promenade was of utmost importance.  Whether the word was being used as a verb or a noun, the promenade was essential in polite society.  It was where one was seen, where information was passed and where eligible young men and women were displayed.

In the first half of the century, elegant public parks such as St. John’s and Union Square provided impromptu promenades.  Then when James Renwick designed the enormous Croton Reservoir on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street, opened in 1842, he included a promenade along its top rim.  It immediately became a destination point for society strolls.

Currier & Ives captured strolling couples along the Croton Reservoir's promenade -- Library of Congress
But promenading was not a simple exercise.  There were excruciatingly correct rules of conduct to be followed and proper ladies and gentlemen were expected to know them as if second nature, and to adhere to them as if instinctive.

In 1840 “Etiquette for Ladies; with Hints on the Preservation, Improvement, and Display of Female Beauty” instructed that young married women could permit the company of gentlemen “in promenades, without suffering the least injury to their reputation, provided it is always with men of good morals, and that they take care to avoid every appearance of coquetry. Young widows have equal liberty with married ladies.”

It warned unmarried women about the hazards to one’s reputation on the promenade. Single women who promenaded with a young man were expected to have a chaperone along.  It looked better.

The book addressed the problem of unwanted attention.  "She should not turn her head on one side and the other, especially in large towns, where this bad habit seems to be an invitation to the impertinent.”

The “impertinent” to which the author referred was any young man to whom the lady had not been formally introduced. “If such persons address her, she should take good care not to answer them a word. If they persist, she should tell them in a brief and firm, though polite tone, that she desires to be left to herself. If a man follow her in silence, she should pretend not to perceive him, and at the same time, hasten a little her step.”

Rules for gentlemen were clearly outlined in a small book with a very large title. “Beadle’s Dime Book of Practical Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen: Being a Guide to True Gentility and Good-Breeding, and a Complete Directory to the Usages and Observances of Society” was published in 1859.  It noted that “Good behavior upon the street, or public promenade, marks the gentleman most effectually…We always know, in walking a square with a man, if he is a gentleman or not.” 

Beadle’s Book gave a long list of violations that “real gentility never does" while promenading.  Among them were the seemingly self-evident:

Never picks the teeth, nor scratches the head
Never swears or talks uproariously
Never smokes or spits upon the walk, to the exceeding annoyance of those who are always disgusted with tobacco in any shape
Never stares at any one, man or woman, in a marked manner
Never scans a lady’s dress impertinently, and makes no rude remarks about her
Never loses temper, nor attracts attention by excited conversation

Ladies, too, were to contain themselves.  “She affects none of the ungraceful, idiotic gaits, such as some unknown authority occasionally pronounces ‘fashionable.’  She does not giggle, laugh nor speak loudly, nor rush frantically up to her friends and kiss them at meeting or parting.  She remembers that the cold, critical world is looking on, and that which would be perfectly fitting in her own drawing-room or on a sequestered country road, is not proper on the pavements of a crowded city street,” warned Mrs. Rose Hartwick Thorpe in her “As Others See Us, or the Rules and Customs of Refined Homes and Polite Society.”

Because promenades were quite often circular paths, those strolling were likely to meet more than once. And so there were more rules.

“In meeting acquaintances several times during the same promenade, it is not necessary to salute them at every passing,” said Beadle’s. “The Hand-Book of Etiquette,” published the following year, agreed. “On meeting acquaintances repeatedly in the same promenade, etiquette only requires ladies or gentlemen to bow once.”

It was not all that simple, however.

The “privilege of the first recognition” rested with the lady. Should she pass the first time without bowing, “it is only with very great intimacy that can excuse your first accosting her,” instructed The Hand-Book.  The guide warned of the penalties attached to an attempt for a gentleman to introduce himself to a lady.

“By so doing, they run the risk of seriously offending the lady they are most anxious to please, and of bringing down on themselves the just indignation of the lady’s male relatives.”

"Etiquette for All: or Rules of Conduct for Every Circumstance in Life,” published about the same time, offered the handy tip to “Avoid everything unusual in your mode of greeting it is sure to offend.  For shaking hands, never offer two fingers, unless the others are maimed.”

While it was “extremely vulgar” for a lady to take the arms of two gentlemen, a man could get away with escorting two ladies.  “Routledge’s Manual of Etiquette” noted ”Two ladies may without any impropriety take each one arm of a single cavalier; but one lady cannot, with either grace or the sanction of custom take the arms of two gentlemen at the same time.”

With the completion of Central Park, a new venue was available.  Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted included a sumptuous promenade in their plan.   It was cleverly designed so that promenaders did not have to retrace their steps (and suffer the uncomfortable problem of running into strollers they had already greeted…or not).  Carriages dropped off passengers at the south end of the Promenade, drove around to the exquisite Bethesda Terrace to pick them up.  The Carriage Drive also solved the potential problem of walking through the park to the Promenade through masses of less prosperous New Yorkers.

1894 promenaders in Central Park ended up at the stunning Bethesda Terrace -- Library of Congress
By the last quarter of the century, Fifth Avenue itself became a promenade following Sunday church services.  The stream of well-dressed millionaires and socialites strutted the blocks along St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian and St. Thomas Church.  

James D. McCabe wrote in 1882, "It is the custom for church goers on Sunday morning to promenade Fifth avenue after service.  At such times the street is uncomfortably crowded, but the display of fashionable costumes is worth seeing.  On Easter Sunday, if the weather be fine, the ladies are out in all the glory of new toilets, one of the most inexorable laws of fashion requiring such displays."  

It planted the seed of the last surviving vestige of Manhattan promenading—the Easter Parade.

Well-heeled New Yorkers promenade on Easter Morning along 5th Avenue in 1893 -- illustration in Harper's Monthly by W. T. Smedley (Library of Congress)
After-church promenading was the one exception to the otherwise-regulated promenade costume.  John H. Young’s 1883 book “Our Deportment or the Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society” clearly laid out the rules.

“The dress for the promenade should be in perfect harmony with itself.  All the colors worn should harmonize if they are not strictly identical.  The bonnet should not be of one color, and the parasol of another, the dress of a third and the gloves of a fourth.  Nor should one article be new and another shabby.  The collars and cuffs should be of lace; the kid gloves should be selected to harmonize with the color of the dress, a perfect fit.  The jewelry worn should be bracelets, cuff-buttons, plain gold ear-rings, a watch chain and brooch.”

Afternoon promenade costumes were permitted (and expected) to be a bit more colorful than morning wear -- Peterson's Magazine 1889 (copyright expired)
Promenade dresses were expected to be less showy than evening wear.  Maud C. Cooke’s “Social Etiquette” summed it all up neatly.  “This should be plain—tailor-made is the best—walking length, and of good material.  ‘Fussy’ styles should not be chosen for street wear, and the hat or bonnet should be rather plain and harmonize with the gown.”
With all this color-matching of outfits, a very wealthy father or husband was helpful.

With the loosening of social restrictions following World War I and new distractions like the telephone and motorcar, the ritual of the promenade gradually died away. Today New Yorkers walking along the Central Park Promenade wear shorts and t-shirts, the great Croton Reservoir was been long ago demolished, and Fifth Avenue is…well, not the Fifth Avenue of 1880.

Well-dressed Edwardians strolling Central Park's Promenade just prior to World War I had no idea theirs would be the last generation to do so -- vintage postcard view.
And it is all just as well.  A society that cannot grasp the polite use of a cell phone in public would be hard pressed to absorb a set of rules that took volumes to contain.