19th C. Washington Societal Etiquette

June 1, 2017

Washingtonian Social Etiquette

The wife of the chief-justice, and not the wife of the President, is the first lady in the land, and takes precedence of all others. She holds receptions and receives calls, but she alone is excluded from all duty of returning calls.

Lady Washington’s Reception Day by Daniel Huntington

The life of a lady in society at Washington is exceedingly onerous, and more especially so if she be the wife of any official.

Next in rank comes the wife of the President.

Social Duties Of The President

It is made the duty of the President to give several state dinners and official receptions during each session of Congress. Besides these, there are the general receptions, at which time the White House is open to the public and every citizen of the United States has a recognized right to pay his respects to the President.

Presidential Receptions

On the days of the regular ” levees” the doors of the White House are thrown open, and the world is indiscriminately invited to enter them.

No “court “-dress is required to make one presentable at this republican court, but every one dresses according to his or her own means, taste or fancy. The fashionable carriage- or walking-dress is seen side by side with the uncouth homespun and homemade of the backwoodsman and his wife.

General Washington at Christ Church, Easter Sunday, 1795 Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Neither are there any forms and ceremonies to be complied with in gaining admittance to the presidential presence. You enter, an official announces you, and you proceed directly to the President and his lady and pay your respects. They exchange a few words with you, and then you pass on, to make room for the throng that is pressing behind you. You loiter about the rooms for a short time, chatting with acquaintances or watching the shifting panorama of faces, and then you go quietly out, and the levee is ended for you.

Private Call Upon The President

If any one wishes to make a private call upon the President, he will find it necessary to secure the company and influence of some official or special friend of the President. Otherwise, though he will be readily admitted to the White House, he will probably fail in obtaining a personal interview.

“Fanny” Allen―daughter of American Revolutionary War General Ethan Allen–was the first New England woman to become a Catholic nun. 1784-1819

Social Duties Of Cabinet Officers And Their Families

The ladies of the family of a Cabinet officer must hold receptions every Wednesday during the season from two or three o’clock to half-past five. On these occasions the houses must be open to all who choose to call. Refreshments and an extra number of servants are provided. The refreshments for these receptions may be plain, consisting of chocolate, tea, cakes, etc.

George Washington At Bartram’s Garden. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Every one who has called and left a card at a Wednesday reception is entitled to two acknowledgments of the call. The first must be a returning of the call by the ladies of the family, who at the same time leave the official card of the minister. The second acknowledgment of the call is an invitation to an evening reception.

The visiting-list of the family of a Cabinet minister cannot contain less than two or three thousand names. Cabinet officers are also expected to entertain at dinners Senators, Representatives, justices of the Supreme Court, the diplomatic corps, and many other public officers, with the ladies of their families.

The season proper for receptions is from the first of January to the beginning of Lent. The season for dinners lasts until the adjournment of Congress.

The President is not expected to offer refreshments to the crowds who attend his receptions. The Vice-president and Speaker of the House are also freed from the expense of feeding the hungry public.

Sarah Livingston Jay married to John Jay in 1774. She was the fifth daughter of William Livingston, the War Governor of New Jersey.

Social Duties Of Congressmen And Their Families

It is optional with Senators and Representatives, as with all officers except the President and members of the Cabinet, whether they shall “entertain.” There is a vast expense in all this, but that is not all. The labor and fatigue which society imposes upon the ladies of the family of a Cabinet officer are fairly appalling. To stand for hours during receptions at her own house, to stand at a series of entertainments at the houses of others whose invitations courtesy requires should be accepted, and to return in person all the calls made upon her, are a few of the duties of the wife of a high official. It is doubtful if her husband, with the cares of state, leads so really laborious a life.

In Washington society one end of a card turned down denotes a call in person.


From “The Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Etiquette, A Complete Manual of the Manners and Dress of American Society” by E. B. Duffey ~ 1877

Taken from Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia by Maura J. Graber.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 579


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