The term gentleman has carried with it a strong connotation of status and rank. It was a term left to the educated and wealthy, for the most part, and often carried with it a standard for good behaviour when dealing with those of higher rank than ones self. With the industrial revolution and the rise of the independent wealthy we started to see a new class of the rich an powerful. The aristocracy saw this as a threat because now there were essentially working class people rising to a similar rank as themselves. since the aristocracy was quite fond of feeling superior they had to develop a way to do so, and this turned out to be etiquette. It was around this time where we started to see all sorts of complex rules governing our every action. These rules allowed one group to scoff at the other for using the incorrect fork at dinner.

An illustration by J.C. Leyendecker. Leyendecker is attributed to his coverwork for the Saturday Evening Post at the turn of the century, and for his work with the Arrow Collar Company

Throughout the 1920’s and onward in North America the title ‘Gentleman’ started to be redefined and re-appropriated. As a way of praising proper conduct you could be considered a gentleman but the emphasis was always on reserving your best behaviour for those of higher rank than yourself.

Today the term has grown too broad and is awarded not for ones positive actions and behaviour but rather for ones lack of misbehaviour. Must the moden gentleman treat only those he sees as being of higher rank than himself with his utmost courtesy? Mrs. Humphry (Mary Augusta Ward) puts it nicely when she writes:

He must be thoughtful for others, kind to women and children and all helpless things, tenderhearted to the old and the poor and the unhappy, but never foolishly weak in giving where gifts do harm instead of good–his brain must be as fine as his heart, in fact.

She wrote this in 1897 and while her book as a whole paints an unsatisfactory image of the gentleman, this passage is on the right track. Being an gentleman is a full time job, it is not something pick up and put down as it suits you. the modern gentleman is a man who holds himself to the highest standards in all facets of life at all times, especially when no one else is looking. It is not an easy job, and the rewards are modest, so we must ask ourselves: are we up to the task?