What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Instruct their Scholars in those Rules of Decorum and Politeness.”
Monsieur de Viart, a dancing master, sought to cultivate a sense of anxiety among prospective clients when he offered his services in an advertisement in the March 5, 1773, edition of the New-Hampshire Gazette. In particular, he suggested that parents needed to tend to the best interests of their children by enrolling them in classes taught by an expert who emphasized comportment as well as learning the steps of “Minuets, French Jiggs, Horn-Pipes, Rigadoons, and English Country Dances of all Kinds.” His students, he promised, would exhibit grace in their interactions as well as in their movements.
In making that pitch, Viart asserted that he “has always endeavoured to merit the Approbation of those who have hitherto favoured him with their Custom,” especially parents of his young students, “by having at all Times obliged himself to instruct his PUPIULS in those Principles which he received in that Profession himself.” The dancing master declared that he incorporated “Rules of Decorum and Politeness” into his curriculum, recognizing that dancing was part of much more extensive social interactions. He cautioned parents of prospective pupils that their children needed such lessons, “which are absolutely necessary to be known, begore Young Persons can step abroad into the World with Elegance and Ease.”
Viart claimed that other dancing masters did not focus on the relationship between dancing and manners that he did, leaving their students to clumsily stumble through encounters with others. He lamented that “not every one who pretends to teach this delicate Art … will take the Pains to instruct their Scholars” in manners. As a result, parents had reason to fear that their children might embarrass themselves. “[I]t often happens that Scholars,” Viart confided, “through the Ignorance of the Masters, are guilty of great Rudeness and commit gross Blunders on their first going into Company.” Viart prepared his pupils for much more than moving across the dance floor, helping them avoid various kinds of awkwardness and difficulties when they gathered for social events.
Dancing masters in the largest cities in the colonies – Charleston, New York, Philadelphia – made similar appeals to prospective pupils and their parents. They touted the gentility that their “Scholars” would exhibit upon taking lessons. Viart suggested that this was not merely a concern for colonizers who resided in urban ports. Instead, he encouraged students and, especially, their parents in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to experience a sense of apprehension that they did not meet the standards expected in cosmopolitan society.