July 25, 2005
Social Class and Etiquette in the Antebellum South
I chose to research the topic of class etiquette and its influence on the social hierarchy of the antebellum South. While in the process of gathering information, I very quickly found that the vast majority of both primary and secondary sources focus on the role of the Planter or Master class within this hierarchy. This is a natural phenomenon, in that the elites of any society are the most likely to leave behind detailed accounts of their lives, and in this respect the wealthy plantation owners of the South are certainly no exception. As a result, the sources reflected here are inherently biased toward the lifestyles and perspectives of that group. However, from their perspectives, one can get at least a vague understanding of the interaction of all social groups upon one another and society at large. As a result, this bibliography is meant to explore issues of class distinctions, quality of life and the resultant lifestyle choices of individual social groups (including rules of etiquette and morality), and the mobility between these social groups.
This book focuses on “social gentility” and the transformation of etiquette
as an exclusive trait of the gentry during the Colonial years before the
Revolutionary War to an accepted aspect of middle-class life by the
antebellum era. This work is useful for examining and comparing the
workings behind class distinction in the early years of the United States.
America. New York: Hill and Wang Press, 1990.
A nice starting point, this is a study of etiquette books and the rise of the
nineteenth century urban middles class. Specific chapters focus on the art of
public appearance, dining, and entertainment. As a cultural work, this book
focuses on the latter-half of the nineteenth century, but is still useful as a
comparison against the established Northern (especially New England) social
This work contains over 500 annotated bibliographic entries covering etiquette
and conduct manuals published prior to 1900. Included are manuals guides
designed for men, women, children, and mixed audiences. This is a wonderful
reference guide to go along with any of the secondary sources listed, and even
some of the primary sources as well.
This is a look at the most elite planters of the South, those that owned 250 or
more slaves. This book explores this multi-faceted group, destroying the
common belief that all big plantation owners were the same. Of special
interest is the discussion of the Natchez, Mississippi “nabobs”—plantation
owners who had strong Unionist ties before and during the Civil War.
Southern Honor argues that in antebellum Southern society, honor and shame played the same dominant social-shaping role that middle-class morality and respectability did in the North. This book is a very useful and revealing look at relations between families and acquaintances within all southern white classes.
War, 1760’s-1890’s. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
In this book, Wyatt-Brown explores the relationship between religion, honor, patriotism, and racial bias and the combined effects of these on the “ruling” planter class of the antebellum Deep South. This is an interesting explanation of why a social hierarchy existed in the South, as well as an exploration of the many different justifications used for secession and slavery.
This article focuses on General Sherman’s march through Madison, Georgia
on his way to Milledgeville and eventually Savannah in late 1864. While it
deals mainly with the events of the Civil War and postbellum era, it has some
interesting insights into the antebellum life of individual citizens and the entire
town as a whole. Especially good is the contrast between pre-war and post-
war conditions and lifestyles.
This article is an overview of a study involving detailed reading of a variety of
antebellum planter families’ correspondence. Most of the letters referenced
are addressed from parents to their adolescent children of both sexes away at
school, or vice versa. This is a valuable study in that is highlights the personal
and social etiquette and qualities planter families hoped to instill in their
progeny, as well as the intimate familial relations betweens parents and their
This collection of family diaries and correspondence includes details of the life and residence of the Bailey family of Georgia, offering insight into the lives of wealthy antebellum Georgia “coast aristocrats”. It is located at the headquarters of the Georgia Historical society located in Savannah, Georgia. This collection can be accessed by contacting the society by mail or phone and requesting copy information, or by visiting its on-site headquarters.
This mid-antebellum etiquette guide was widely read by Southern as well as
Northern young ladies-in-training, and is referenced by both Kasson and
Newton in their works cited in the list of secondary sources. A copy of the
original published in 1837 has been converted to microform by the University
of Georgia and is available for viewing at the Main Library.
Hundley, a native Southerner, explains the South’s different social classes in
detail, devoting a chapter each to Planter Gentlemen, Displaced Yankees, the
Nouveau Riche, Yeomen Farmers, Poor White Trash, and Slaves. This
invaluable book is a wonderful treatise on antebellum Southern culture and
the intricate rules of etiquette as viewed by antebellum Southerners. Social
Relations is available online in its entirety thanks to the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill digitization project, Documenting the American South.
This is another antebellum etiquette book popular throughout the middle classes of the United States. The original manuscript was republished in 1972 under the same title, and is available through the University of Georgia Main Library.
A recollection of Olmsted’s travels throughout the South, reflecting
contemporary biases against the slave states, this book is useful in interpreting
how non-Southerners viewed different Southern social classes. This title was
reprinted in 1996 along with several other of Olmsted’s works, and is available
at the University of Georgia Main Library.
Trollope published her decidedly unflattering viewpoint of the United States
population (with considerable emphasis on the “backwards South”) upon her
return to England. Much like Olmsted’s work, Domestic Manners is valuable
as an outside look at the region and its inhabitants, especially the relationship
between white Southerners and black slaves. This book was reprinted in 1997
and is available through the University of Georgia Main Library.