Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Do That Anymore: Finger Bowls

Dessert place setting- the finger bowl is on the white doily to the left. [via Wikimedia Commons]

Finger bowls are one of those mainstays of snooty etiquette examples, with people focusing on this one obscure bit of etiquette as a reason it is outdated and unnecessary. Obviously, our whole point with this website is to show how etiquette is still useful and necessary. But it is also fun to talk about things like finger bowls!

So what is a finger bowl? It is essentially a little bowl of water that you dip your fingers in to clean them at the dinner table.

Some reference books claim they have been used on and off from medieval times until now, but I can barely find any references to them in etiquette books before 1900. So I believe finger bowls as we imagine them must have been a late Victorian/Gilded Age invention.

Finger bowls are always served with the dessert course. In fact, as the change of plates and silverware for the dessert course is brought out, the finger bowl is actual on top of a doily on top of the dessert plate. The diner then removes the finger bowl from the plate and places it (and the doily!) to the front and slightly left of the place setting. However, if there is no silverware on the plate with the finger bowl, it signals that there is no dessert and then the finger bowl is left on the plate.

To use the finger bowl, you gently dip the very tips of your fingers into the water and then dry them off with your napkin. You may also dab a bit of the water onto your lips with your fingers and then pat dry with the napkin. You are not really supposed to be washing your hands, merely giving a polite impression of cleanliness.

A more serious, soapy bowl of water may be given after eating messy foods such as lobster. Of course, nowadays we have those handy packets of wet wipes that rib joints pass out- not quite as elegant but definitely more practical.

Of course my favorite finger bowl story is the one where the impolite rube is at a fancy society dinner and drinks the contents of the bowl. His hostess (often said to be Queen Victoria) promptly drinks her finger bowl water also, so that he doesn’t feel that he has done something wrong. A perfect example of the spirit in which etiquette exists: to make everyone feel comfortable.

Interestingly, despite the fact that no one actually uses finger bowls anymore, every contemporary book of dining etiquette mentions how to use them. I’ve eaten at a lot of fancy places and have never seen them. If you have, please tell me where in the comments!

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Do That Anymore: Bathing Machines

 "Mermaids at Brighton" by William Heath (1795 - 1840), c. 1829. Depicts women sea-bathing with bathing machines at Brighton.

“Mermaids at Brighton” by William Heath (1795 – 1840), c. 1829. Depicts women sea-bathing with bathing machines at Brighton.

I know it’s November, but I think now is the perfect time to talk about some of the eccentricities of beach etiquette in the Victorian era. Because you know that cozy outfit you’re wearing right now? Imagine wearing that on the beach. Summertime fun!

Bathing, whether by spa or by sea, began as a recreational activity in the mid-1800s. Prior to that, prolonged time in the water was assumed to cause instant death (something about water opening the pores so all the disease can get in). But by the mid 19th-century, many doctors began espousing the restorative and medicinal properties of a good soak or swim, and the middle-class began associating cleanliness with refinement, and dirtiness as a sign of disease and immorality. So all of a sudden, everyone wanted to go to the beach, and realized you couldn’t really do this in your everyday clothing.

Beaches have always been fun for men. They could bathe in their underwear, within full view of any delicate woman. But women had to hide their beach bodies and activities. According to Victoriana Magazine (why don’t I have a subscription to this), “Women typically dressed in black, knee-length, puffed-sleeve wool dresses, often featuring a sailor collar, and worn over bloomers trimmed with ribbons and bows. The bathing suit was typically accessorized with long black stockings, lace-up bathing slippers, and fancy caps.” This just goes to show you that even though we still argue about abortion and health care and intersectionality in feminism, things have changed. I am wearing a more revealing outfit right now, and I’m at work. Also I am a woman at work.

As you can imagine, these bathing outfits were not really easy to swim around in. In Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, Charles Panati mentions that there were a number of fatalities in Europe and America due to “waterlogged bathers caught in an undertow.” But, y’know, modesty.

Now, these outfits were only appropriate for the beach, so how did a woman get into them? Surely you couldn’t just hop in the car with a sarong around yourself. No, for this, we had bathing machines! These devices first showed up in England in the 1750s and lasted until the early 20th century. W.C. Oulton in The Traveller’s Guide; or, English Itinerary, Vol II describes them as “four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.” Once in the water, a “modesty hood,” sort of like an awning,  hid her activities from male bathers.

As you may have expected, these were incredibly uncomfortable to use. Women would get in, change and store her street clothes in a little shelf up top so they wouldn’t get wet, and then get yanked into the water by horses. Sometimes other, stronger women would be hired to throw and retrieve the bathers to and from the sea, and if you couldn’t swim they’d tie a rope around your waist and let you bob there for a while, until a wave banged you around. (These “dippers” were also in charge of getting rid of male gawkers, and can we please get some erotic fiction going about them.) In The Hand-Book of Bathing, the author writes “if, therefore, the good effect of the bath is to be immediately counteracted by what must inevitably follow in a common bathing-machine, the patient had better totally refrain from sea-bathing.”

Like with most practices of modesty, we got over it, probably faster because of that whole drowning thing.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Mourn Like It’s 1861

Maybe we should bring back the timeless craft of making stuff out of dead people’s hair? The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A lot of our notions of etiquette come from the Victorian era when the middle class was on the rise and everyone wanted to show everyone else how on point they were with all of the intricacies of etiquette. One area that was particularly elaborate and somewhat gruesome to us today is the etiquette of mourning.

Length of Mourning

A widow was expected to be in deep mourning of her husband for two years. Then a third year was “ordinary” mourning, and the FOURTH year was considered “second” or “half” mourning. Many older women remained in mourning for the rest of their lives, the most famous being Queen Victoria who was in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert for more than forty years.

Widowers were expected to mourn for a year.

Parents and children were mourned for a year, siblings and grandparents for six months, aunts/uncles for three months, and cousins for six weeks.

Mourning Dress

For a funeral, everyone had to wear black (unless the funeral was for a child or unmarried girl, in which case everyone wore white). Sometimes the family/funeral director would even provide black gloves and scarves for all the mourners.

Then again, I always love a veil. By Anders Zorn 1860-1920  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Etiquette dictated what you could wear while you were in mourning (in relation to how much time had passed and your relationship to the deceased) right down to what kinds of fabric and jewelry was appropriate.

Men only had to wear a black armband over their regular clothes (though they were supposed to wear only white shirts instead of colored.) This was partially sexist and partially practical. Men’s clothes were much more difficult to dye than women’s clothes and typically when you were in mourning you would just dye all your clothes black instead of buying new, black clothes. The sexist reason was that men still had to go out and go to work and didn’t want to look too depressing.

Women did have to wear all black. In addition, it couldn’t be just any black, it had to be very matte black, so you will see a lot of references to crepe/crape as a fabric choice (a slightly crinkly fabric that does not reflect any light.) Women also had to dress fairly plainly without a lot of embellishments and jet jewelry was the only appropriate kind (other than hair jewelry, which we will get to in a moment.) In addition to all of this, widows had to wear veils over their faces.

Widows didn’t have to wear the crow look for the whole period of mourning. For instance, the widow’s veil could be shortened after the first year! Exciting! The very dark, matte fabric was for deep mourning. For ordinary mourning, you could wear shinier fabrics like silk. For half mourning, you could wear muted colors like grey and lilac.

Children wore a mixture of black and white so they wouldn’t look too sad.

Hair Jewelry

Hair jewelry designs. [Via Flikr user LEOL30]

Hair jewelry is pretty much what it sounds like- jewelry made out of hair! It was very popular during the Victorian period because hair does not decay and therefore makes a great memento of a person who has died.

The hair could just be a simple lock inside a pretty setting or it could be arranged into fabulous shapes and scenes. Simple braids of hair were also worn as bracelets. Hair wreaths hung on the walls were also very popular-see if you can spot one the next time you are in a period house museum.

Like most things related to Victorian mourning, the trend probably relates very closely to Queen Victoria’s mourning of Prince Albert. In fact, the trend disappeared almost entirely right after her death.

Weirdly, only jet jewelry was thought appropriate for deep mourning, though hair jewelry could be worn for the lighter mourning periods.

Being Social While in Mourning

Since mourners were supposed to be sad, they didn’t really go anywhere. It was supposed to have made them more sad to see other people being happy. A rule of thumb was that as long as you were wearing mourning clothes, you shouldn’t go to fun events because mourning clothes and fun clash or something. When you were in lighter mourning you could attend the theater, small functions, and informal events.

Post-Mortem Photography

Photography was first invented during the Victorian period. Combined with extremely high childhood mortality rates, photos of dead people became extremely popular! Sometimes the corpses were shown in a coffin or a bed, looking like they were sleeping. Other times they would be propped up or posed with relatives to look more lifelike. The practice died out (ha-HA!) with the advent of snapshot photography when people started taking pictures of you shortly after you had emerged from the womb and your death photo was no longer the only chance for someone to get an image of you. See some examples here if you are not too faint of heart.

As a note, I am calling this Victorian mourning, but Emily Post was still talking about all of this in her 1922 book and Amy Vanderbilt was still talking about it as something that was just dying (ha-HA! again) out in my 1967 edition of her book.