In 1932 Mary, Countess of Lovelace shared her memories in an essay for the Times of London.
For a picture of social life fifty years ago I can only draw upon a limited experience, first as a girl before 1880 and as a young married woman after that date. I can, in short, only give the youthful feminine point of view.
…nearly every social custom which applied to ordinary intercourse between both sexes was based on the idea that every young woman, and especially every inexperienced girl, was a sacred thing to be carefully guarded from any possibility of insult or undue temptation. The well-guarded girl of the years 1870 – 80 could not walk alone in the street or drive alone in a cab or in a railway carriage. To any sort of entertainment she must be accompanied by father or mother or by some married woman. At a ball, the place where her chaperon sat was a kind of home to which she was supposed to return after every dance. Of course, she did not always do so; and the wise mother knew when to be lenient and when to enforce the rules. All dancing partners are not equally attractive, and the necessity of “going back to Mamma” provided a by no means always unwelcome end to a tete-a-tete. Looking back I cannot recollect ever feeling my chaperon to be an irksome restraint, and she was often a most welcome protection and adviser.
The real drawback to the system was the fatigue and boredom that it imposed on the older women. How well I remember the rows of weary faces on the benches against the wall, and I wonder if they always got the loving gratitude from their charges which was certainly their due.
Now and then there would appear a male chaperon – a kind father or uncle – who took his turn at the social treadmill. He got his reward in extreme popularity, and as he was in great demand for taking dowager after dowager down to supper, he did not suffer from inaction.
I am told that there are still some chaperons, though not nearly so many as in the old days. For dinners and entertainments other than balls, apparently the girls now do not need any female protector whatever. They go about anywhere and everywhere with any male friend whom they chose. In fact, they “walk out” and “keep company” just as our friends in the servants’ hall do.
‘Society and the Season’, reproduced in ‘Fifty Years’, Thornton Butterworth, Limited, 1932.