Chaperones in 19th Century History

In researching historical facts for my 1890s Christian romance novel, I wanted to know if my heroine needed a chaperone. What I discovered is that chaperones were far more common in British society than in America. In her etiquette guide published in 1887, Mrs. John Sherwood wrote that a young lady’s most natural chaperone is, of course, her own mother, but  Sherwood criticized American mothers for being careless in their duties. According to her, 19th Century American mothers had the sullied reputation of allowing their daughters to go about with young men alone in public.

The role of chaperone was rapidly decreasing in popularity in America during the 1890s. Perhaps they were too expensive. Perhaps they were viewed by the working classes as a symbol of upper class snobbery. It is clear that most teenage girls were considered rebellious and unappreciative of their chaperones.

Married ladies throughout history had no need for chaperones, because they were protected by their husbands’ reputations. But what about single women? Were they ever permitted to go out in public unchaperoned? Yes. Mrs. John Sherwood wrote that “if a woman is protected by the armor of work, she can dispense with a chaperon.” (Sherwood used the French spelling for “chaperone.”)

As a savvy, independent businesswoman, Victoria Garrett, the heroine in my story, could have safely gone about alone in public without breaking any rules of propriety. Ditching her chaperone back East had gotten her into big trouble, however, and she humbly realized her need to hire a new chaperone. Victoria wisely hired the Widow Fitzgerald as a means of improving her public image, protecting her virtue, and insulating her from further gossip.


Manners and social usages, by Mrs. John Sherwood …

Sherwood, M. E. W. 1826-1903. (Mary Elizabeth Wilson),

CREATED/PUBLISHED: New and enl. ed., rev. by the author. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1887, rev. 1894

4 thoughts on “Chaperones in 19th Century History

  1. This is so helpful; thank you for posting. Do you know how much manners may have changed between mid and late 19th century? I’m trying to discover how an American girl traveling in France in 1860 and also in 1871 would be expected to handle the chaperon situation. I’m going to download Mrs. Sherwood’s book.

  2. Very interesting post! I’m acquainted with a HF/HR reader who nitpicks the absence of chaperones, no matter the heroine’s social status or circumstances or time period (beginning of time to World War I; after that, then chaperones don’t need to be around). It always seemed to be like hugely misplaced factual sticklerism, and it’s great to see a vintage manual confirm my take on the evolution of chaperonage in America and that what was standard in Britain didn’t get transplanted wholesale across the ocean.

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