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Behaving Ourselves, Eighteenth-Century Style


During the eighteenth century, much attention was paid to how people presented themselves (called deportment) in both public and private, and specific behaviors were required by the colonial culture and society. Such manners were distinct, specific, and related to one's social standing in the community. Children's behaviors directly reflected the social class and breeding of their family, and children were expected to behave much like adults. According to The Polite World, (Wildeblood and Brinson, 1965, p. 223) " 'Good Breeding' was the term used to indicate correct and elegant deportment of the body, and the outward show of civil behavior, whereas 'good Manners' [sic] implied moral behavior." Good breeding and good manners needed to be shown at all times, but especially in formal situations, such as dinners and balls. This lesson uses George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation as a primary source to examine these manners. Students also demonstrate proper deportment through eighteenth-century courtesies (bows and curtseys).


In this lesson, students:

  • Interpret a photo showing the proper physical “deportment” of colonial men and women
  • Describe the social situations and customs for the male bow and female curtsy
  • Demonstrate colonial customs of the male bow and female curtsy
  • Translate into modern terms several excerpts from George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation
  • Review social behavior vocabulary from the colonial period


    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • Eighteenth-Century Children Images
  • Glossary
  • Excerpts from Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation
  • George Wythe House Dining Room Image


  1. As a focus for this lesson, display the Eighteenth-Century Children Images. Have students note how the boy and girl are standing and sitting in a formal manner. Ask children to describe the children. How might they act every day? Write their responses (and questions) on the board. Discuss with the class that strict expectations for the arrangement of hands and feet, posture, even to the tilt of the head, all indicated a correct "deportment" required by polite society. Ask students how their opinion of the children might change if they were slumped or sloppy.
  2. Hand out the Glossary. Review the terms with the class.
  3. Divide the class so that boys are standing on one side of the classroom and girls on another. Instruct the students that they will now have the opportunity to practice the deportment of standing properly. The boys will learn how to bow appropriately and the girls will learn how to curtsy.
    • All students should stand with their head upright, shoulders back, with the feet and legs turned outwards to a moderate degree (note the boy's legs and feet in the photo). A person standing with arms to the side would indicate the servants' class. For the gentlemen, placing the hands on the hips was more acceptable (again, note the boy's left arm). The ladies should clasp their hands in front of their stomachs. Model these instructions for the students to follow, and allow them to practice.
  4. Instruct the class that men of good deportment were expected to bow when entering or leaving a room, when meeting someone, and before starting or finishing a dance. For the bow, the boys and men should extend one foot slightly in front of the body. The corresponding arm should cross the waist in front; the other arm should cross the waist in back. A longer or lower bow indicates a greater amount of respect. Model for the class and have the students practice.
  5. Instruct the class that women of good deportment curtsied when greeting someone, entering or leaving a room, and when beginning or finishing a dance. The girls should stand straight but very slightly bent forward. Gently bend both knees outward, slightly lifting the heels. Arms should be clasped in front at the waist, or held easily at each side. The eyes, which should be focused on the person being greeted, should be lowered at the start of the curtsy and raised again as the body returned to an upright position, but without lowering the head.
  6. After the students have practiced the bow and curtsy, have the two lines of students face one another. All the boys should bow in unison, after which the girls should curtsy toward the boys. It may be that some students are more proficient at this and can model once or twice for the whole group before everyone tries the exercise.
  7. Have students return to their seats. Pass out the Excerpts from George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation. Explain that when Washington was a boy, he wrote down a copy of these rules from a book written by French Jesuits who had written these rules in the sixteenth century.
  8. Have students read the selections (original spellings are unchanged). Students should rewrite each rule underneath in modern language. Students may work individually or in pairs. Students may also circle or underline any spellings used by Washington that have changed over time to our modern spellings for these terms.
  9. Lead a class discussion of student answers.
  10. Display the James Geddy House Dining Room Image. Ask students, based on the image and the George Washington's Rules, how manners have changed and stayed the same from the eighteenth century to today.

Lesson Extensions

Have students engage in a "think-pair-share" activity of behavioral rules followed in their own homes.

What rules or regulations are required for the students' own school cafeteria? Why are such requirements necessary? How would students revise, change or add to these lists?

This lesson was written by Shawn Cunlisk, Vancouver, WA, and Bill Neer, Baldwinsville, NY.