Obama's getting flak for bowing in Japan. Early Americans bowed all the time.

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Nov. 17 2009 6:48 PM

"How Ceremonious You Are!"

A history of bowing in America.

Barack Obama with Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama with Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko

President Obama bowed (rather deeply) to the emperor of Japan over the weekend, providing ample fodder for his conservative detractors. Former Vice President Cheney, for one, said "There is no reason for an American president to bow to anyone. … Our friends and allies don't expect it, and our enemies see it as a sign of weakness." In Japan, bows are standard accompaniments to formal greetings. And as anyone who's seen a period drama about Colonial America knows well, bows were once standard here, too. When did Americans stop bowing?

Not until the early 20th century, although by then it was uncommon. It's difficult to trace the history of gestures, but based on textual evidence, we know there was a fair amount of bowing during Colonial times. In tracts and sermons, 17th century Puritan ministers exhorted those of inferior station to lower their eyes and bow upon meeting a superior—a "sign of honour and veneration … [and a] testimony of submission." Parents, schoolteachers, tutors, and dancing masters disseminated the tradition on through the 18th century, instructing men to bow to women, inferiors to bow to superiors, and equals of some rank to bow to one another.

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In the revolutionary period, the practice was regarded, by some, as a vestige of a less democratic society. Thomas Jefferson, for example, liked to shake hands instead of bowing. Traditional signs of deference took a further hit during Andrew Jackson's presidency (1829-37), when many American self-consciously rejected the trappings of hierarchy and the Old World. In The Reshaping of Everyday Life, historian Jack Larkin cites the Englishman Frederick Marryat, who complained in 1835 that it was "invariably the custom to shake hands" in the Unites States, making it difficult to discern the status of new acquaintances. Larkin contends that, during this era, bowing was mostly practiced by children, who would doff their hats and bow (or curtsy) before their elders.

Another historian, Stephen Nissenbaum of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, suggests that for New England Puritans, bows were obligatory and registered real subservience. In the Jacksonian era and beyond, by contrast, bows signified membership in "polite society." Indeed, bowing persisted among the elite into the 20th century. Edith Wharton's characters, for example, bow to one another. (Shallow bends seem to have been in style. In the novella New Year's Day, the narrator notes that young Hubert Wesson leans over too far when greeting Mrs. Hazledon. "Dear me," she says, "how ceremonious you are! Really, I'm not as old as that bow of yours implies."). Politeness maven Emily Post saw fit to include a section on bowing in her 1922 book, Etiquette: A gentleman should perform a "standing bow" when he "rises at dinner to say a few words, in response to applause, or across a drawing-room at a formal dinner when he bows to a lady or any elderly gentleman." This formality entails the clicking of heels and a "quick bend over from the hips and neck." If he sees an acquaintance on the street, he should perform an informal bow—he should remove his hat and bend, but in an "easy and unstudied" way.

So when, exactly, did American socialites abandon the bow, consigning the gesture to curtain calls? By the 1920s it was already a fusty gesture, and by World War II it was gone from the streetscape, reserved for debutante-type balls.

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Explainer thanks Slate contributor and Emory professor Megan Marshall and Stephen Nissenbaum of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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