We’ve already spoken about how no girl of good breeding would be caught dead at a bachelor’s apartment past 10 pm, or ever at dinner alone. But let’s say you’re a man. You’ve been introduced to a lady of good breeding from your own class and she has “meaning intentions” and you want to get to know her better, outside of her home. For that, you’d probably need a chaperone.
Often times, a mother would be the chaperone for her own daughters. But if that wasn’t possible, an outside chaperone could be enlisted. These were typically older, widowed or unmarried women who ensured that a young woman’s virtue remained intact throughout an evening of interaction with men. In Europe in the late 1800s, it was the chaperone’s job to introduce her “protege” to the hostess and other important people at any social gathering. And if a man wanted to call upon the protege, he had to ask her chaperone’s permission first. Chaperone’s had permission to accept or decline invitations from young men on behalf of their proteges, especially if they could not be present, and would often leave their own calling cards along with those of their proteges.
As we hit the 20th century, chaperones were not nearly as omnipresent in America as they apparently were in Europe. Putnam’s Handbook of Etiquette (1913) mentions the “Spanish law which says no unmarried woman may go out unaccompanied whatever her age and mission.” This largely has to do with European rules of class and society. “ In Europe, where social lines are distinctly drawn, a young woman either belongs in ‘society’ or else she does not,” writes Agnes H. Morton in 1909’s Etiquette: Good manners for all people, especially for those who dwell within the broad zone of the average (what a title). “In the former case she is constantly attended by a chaperone. In the latter case she is merely a young person, a working girl for whom ‘society’ makes no laws.” This was the case in America at the turn of the century, where many young, single women held jobs.
Morton agrees that, for these working American girls, enlisting chaperones to take them to and from work every day would be “burlesque in the extreme.” However, just because you work doesn’t mean you’re still not a delicate flower that needs constant watch around men. “The girl who is thus allowed to go alone to an office in business hours sometimes thinks it absurd for any one to say that she must not go alone to a drawing room and she does go alone. Right here this independent girl makes a mistake.”
Morton suggests the solution is “intermittent chaperonage,” because while at work, a young woman is “shielded from misinterpretation.” This idea of misinterpretation is basically what chaperonage is about–the idea that young people, especially women, needed a social translator, lest they say something risque and their reputation ruined.
As time went on the rules relaxed a bit, and chaperones became more like teenage watchdogs instead of personal attendants. In 1948, Vogue’s book of etiquette mentions teenage dates where young women couldn’t go out without a chaperone if they were going to be out past 7. It also mentions college dances, where male guests must first greet the chaperone or the house mother before entering the party, or cut in to introduce themselves if the chaperone is dancing.
Today, chaperones are mainly relegated to school dances and other organized, nighttime gatherings of teens, though there definitely are still regions where supervision on dates is required (*cough* Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding *cough*). And honestly, how different is the assumption that a boy must ask permission of the father to take a girl on a date than asking permission of a chaperone?