The Traditional Gentlemen’s Club and Its Etiquette

Image depicting the inside of a New York gentlemen’s club

by “The Gentleman”  •  edited and extra copy by Judy Gonyeau

 

New York Yacht Club interior, 1901
New York Yacht Club interior, 1901

According to Wikipedia, the term gentleman refers to any man of good, courteous conduct. In its original meaning, the term was used to signify any well-educated man of good family and distinction, often used to describe a man with an income derived from property, a legacy, or some other source, who was thus independently wealthy and did not need to work. 

Over time, the term became more commonly used to describe behavior. In many contexts nowadays, being a gentleman means treating others, especially women, in a respectful manner and not taking advantage or pushing others into doing things he chooses not to do.

Being a gentleman according to my definition is, above all, the art of being a genuinely good person. It may sound easy, but it clearly is not. We end up in situations on a daily basis that challenge our judgment and our principles as gentlemen. It is therefore important to know what characterizes good manners and high morals. In many cases, we don’t have to go back many generations to find inspiration for how to behave like a gentleman. Actually, it’s quite simple. Mostly it’s about putting oneself in someone else’s situation and making others feel better about themselves.

In short, it’s about respect and being slow to judge the actions of others, either in their public or private affairs. It’s also about taking responsibility for your own life.

The Gentlemen’s Club

Nowadays many think of Gentlemen’s Clubs as nightclubs with strippers. Therefore, it’s maybe more appropriate to talk about traditional gentlemen’s clubs to avoid misconceptions.

A gentlemen’s club in its traditional meaning is a private social club that typically contains a formal dining room, a library, a bar, a billiards room, and rooms for socializing. Having the domestic needs taken care of seamlessly and promptly was the centerpiece of a well-run establishment.

A Place of Privacy

Boodle’s gentlemen’s club interior
Boodle’s gentlemen’s club interior

In short, the club is a place where men could walk away from the everyday stress and requirements in their lives. That is also one of the reasons why so few know about these clubs. On most occasions, the members in a gentlemen’s club don’t give interviews or show the spaces in the club, on the ground that this is their “second home.” In other words, the privacy of the members and the atmosphere of the club is one of the most important things for a traditional gentlemen’s club to keep sacred.

The traditional gentlemen’s club was originally set up by and for British upper-class men in the 18th century and was popularized by English upper-middle-class men and women in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The original clubs were established in the West End of London and some of the clubs took over some parts of the role occupied by coffee houses in 18th-century London. White’s, Brooks’s, and Boodle’s were among the first gentlemen’s clubs in the world and provided an environment for gambling, which was illegal outside of members-only establishments. White’s is the oldest gentlemen’s club in London, founded in 1693, and is widely considered to be the most exclusive private club in the world.

Note: White’s is still offering memberships on a rather elite basis. Prince William and Harry frequent this establishment, which today has a nine-year waiting list. No women allowed and no website. Being hugely private places, there are only a few who really know what they are like inside – you either know about it, or you don’t.

Although traditional gentlemen’s clubs are no longer as popular or influential as they originally were, many of the original rules still apply. Obtaining membership is done by an election after the proposers (at least two and in many clubs more), who have known the candidate for a term of years, formally nominate the person for membership.

The Carlton Club in London
The Carlton Club in London

An Overview of the Gentlemen’s Club and its Etiquette

Below is part of a draft from the book Etiquette for Gentlemen, 1929. Under the chapter CLUBS, you will find some of the etiquette rules of a
traditional gentlemen’s club.

CLUBS

The advantages of clubs are being realized with increasing appreciation every day, for to the business man, the lonely man, or the man who is not comfortably or conveniently settled at home, the club is one of the greatest of boons.

HOW TO JOIN

Those who wish to join a club should write to the secretary for the rules and forms of application. If it is a new club, the names of two friends must be given as references, their consent having been asked and granted. If the club be old-established, it is generally necessary to be introduced and seconded by two members who have agreed to act as social sponsors.

Having filled in the application form, the prospective member hands it to his friends, and when they have filled in their names the form should be returned to the secretary, who will bring the matter forward at the next committee meeting and send the intimation of election when the necessary subscription should be paid by return.

Having been elected, members must make it their business to study the rules and regulations of the club, and rigidly observe them. The man who monopolizes the best chair in the place nearest the fire, and appropriates an undue share of the most up-to-date paper, is never popular. The new member should be ready to give up his chair to an older member or an older man, to co-operate with his fellow members in their common interests, and to behave as courteously and kindly to them as if they were fellow guests in a friend’s house.

Another pitfall is that of joining in conversation. If a member enters the club drawing-room and finds two or three members conversing he should not immediately join in. If they wish for him to be included, one will address some friendly remark and thus give him the opportunity of joining the little circle.

The successful club member is the man who is invariably courteous, never obtrudes his own views, and never indulges in gossip or discusses a member as soon as his back IS turned. Speak of a person as you would speak to him is an excellent motto, and its observance will save the unwary from much unpleasantness.

When using the club dressing-rooms, it is well to remember that they should be left as one would wish to find them. Brushes, combs, and towels are usually provided a neat array for the use of the members, and should always be left in a tidy condition.

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be” is another useful maxim for club members.

If you play cards or billiards, pay immediately all scores. Should you be appealed to by a member for monetary assistance have courage and refuse! These people are excellent readers of character and hunt their prey with skill and persistence till their nefarious work meets its reward and the club is cleansed of their presence. While careful yourself to uphold by circumspection and good manners the honor of your club, do not be censorious of other members.

Club servants should not be tipped. There is usually a “Holiday Box” on the mantelpiece of the dining-room, or in some other conspicuous place, where members may place their contributions from time to time, the proceeds being equally divided among the servants.

GAMBLING GENTLEMEN

While you may have heard quite a bit about men at their clubs playing pool or a game of cards, some of the earlier renditions of these establishments also included gambling. In the 17th century, the first casinos or gambling houses arose in Italy; the Ridotto was founded in Venice in 1638.

The first legal gambling institution in Europe opened in Venice in 1638, and the history of the genuine casino began there. Il Ridotto was the name of the casino. The term “casino” comes from an Italian word that means “little home.”

With the number of gentlemen’s clubs exploding in the late 19th century, the more established clubs tended to be wary of a new form of “gentleman” looking to obtain access. At their height, London had over 400 such establishments, many being established by these somewhat less-than-desirable gentlemen looking for friendship and camaraderie from others with similar interests in a variety of pressing topics of the time. Here, men were granted the freedom to perform actions and behaviors not normally conveyed in their “public-oriented” lives.

American Gentlemen’s Clubs

Image depicting the inside of a New York gentlemen’s club
Image depicting the inside of a New York gentlemen’s club

The oldest clubs that exist in the U.S. date back to the 18th century and typically have ties to their counterparts in London, especially those in the oldest cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Even today, acceptance of an individual had to meet the admissions committee’s standards for values and behavior. However, old money prevailed over new money as with the industry titans of the day, including the Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Morgan families. Establishing a strong standing in society meant not only did an individual have membership in more than one club, but so did their descendants. J.P. Morgan belonged to nineteen clubs in all; Vanderbilt, to fifteen, and railroad executive E.H. Harriman belonged to fourteen.


About “The Timeless Gentleman”

The aim of the blog is to inspire a new generation of men, that exhibits the behavior of a true gentleman. Knowing how to cope in a society with increasingly demanding requirements requires a guiding hand. A large part of the content is about how to handle these issues and become a strong and independent man, that at the same time takes into account the society in which he lives. www.thetimelessgentleman.com