Presbyterians of the Past

Manners, Sitting in Company

The following comments have been gleaned from a Presbyterian of the past who was responding to what he believed was discourteous and ill mannered seminary student behavior in his day. He offers observations and recommendations to theological seminaries concerning the need to refine student conduct. Please excuse the formality and archaic tone of the writing; the author was a proper antebellum gentleman. However, his observations provide food for thought with regard to a seminarian’s presence and courtesy as he ministers.

The mode of SITTING IN COMPANY, is a point concerning which no little indecorum is often indulged. The offences against propriety in this respect are numerous. Many, when seated, even in large and ceremonious companies, are in the habit of lifting up one or both of their feet and placing them on a neighboring chair. Others, if they can get a place on a sofa or settee, lay their bodies upon it at full length, in a horizontal posture; and thus either exclude all others from sharing in the seat, or subject them to the danger of encountering their soiled shoes. A third class, the moment they fix themselves upon any kind of seat, appear to be searching for something to lean or recline upon; and when such an article is found, are incessantly hanging and lounging upon it. While a fourth class, though they have only a single chair to occupy, thrust out their feet as far as possible, and throw their persons as near to the horizontal posture as they can, as if the object were to cover the largest practicable space on the floor, and to subject those who have occasion to pass before them to the risk, every moment, of stumbling over their feet. I have often wondered that persons of the least delicacy or reflection should be found indulging such habits. If you have any disease of the feet or legs, which requires them to be placed in a horizontal posture, mention the circumstance to your hosts, and obtain permission to use the needed privilege, and all will be well. I have only to mention, under this head, the incivility of setting with your back to any portion of the group with which you may be seated. This is never proper, unless a room is so crowded that avoiding it is manifestly impossible.

The habit of TILTING YOUR CHAIR BACK, while you are sitting upon it, so as to rest only on its two hinder feet, is, on several accounts, improper. It has proved the fruitful source of many ludicrous, and even dangerous falls backward, as most persons have had an opportunity of observing. And it almost necessarily leads to those awkward, constrained, or lounging postures of the body, which have been already mentioned as offences against that respectfulness of manner which every gentleman is bound habitually to maintain. This practice of tilting back the chair in company, has been considered and represented in Europe, as one of the peculiarities of ill-bred Americans.

The header image is from the New York Public Library free use digital collection. The man pictured in the header has “thrust out” his “feet as far as possible.” The quote is from Samuel Miller, Letters on Clerical Manners, 1827.

Barry Waugh

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