Submitted by Madeline Miele  •  March 25, 2013

“ton” in the Victorian era

I love to read Victorian era mysteries and novels. Can you tell me the meaning of “ton” as used in that era? By context it appears to refer to members of high society. Is this accurate? What is the origin of the term? Thanks for your help.

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'Ton' can mean either 'fashion' or 'people of fashion'. It's pronounced the French way with a muted 'n'.

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The American word 'toney' meaning 'fashionable' is also derived from the French word 'ton'.

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I'd forgotten all about "ton"; its a long time since I read any Georgette Heyer. To add a little to what Skeeter has said, it's from the French "bon ton", and refers mainly to members of the upper classes and to the fashionable.

In an article on Beau Brummel, Wikipedia says "His personal habits, such as a fastidious attention to cleaning his teeth, shaving, and daily bathing exerted an influence on the ton, upper echelons of polite society, who began to do likewise." Whether Brummel was ever accepted as a member of the ton, I don't know.

I can find only one reference in Jane Austen - "A clergyman must not be high in state or fashion. He must not head mobs, or set the ton in dress" (it seems she didn't mean mob in the way we understand)

There are three instances in Vanity Fair:

"Every visit which this leader of ton paid to her family was more unlucky for her"

"Scores of the great dandies of London squeezed and trod on each other on the little stairs, laughing to find themselves there; and many spotless and severe ladies of ton were seated in the little drawing-room"

"She wants ton sadly," said Mrs. Hollyock. "My dear creature, you never will be able to form her."

Doing a search for "bon ton" in Google Books gives quite interesting results: "Bon ton or: High Life above the Stairs" was the name of a play by David Garrick, published in 1781. A magazine called "Bon Ton" was published in 1818, although I don't know how long it lasted, and there was a novel published anonymously in 1820 - "Supreme Bon Ton: and Bon Ton by Profession". So it was obviously a well-known expression in regency times.

To return to Heyer, "Georgette Heyer's Regency England", by Teresa Chris, has 31 pages with references to "ton", but we are only allowed to see one: "prying eyes of the ton in London".

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re: WW's last paragraph.I meant we're only allowed to see one in Google Books.

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Thank you to Warsaw Will and to Skeeter Lewis. You both enriched my understanding.
Will, I plan to reacquaint myself with Georgette Heyer including the book by Teresa Chris.
Thanks again. m/

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I seem to remember my favourites as being Devil's Cub and An Infamous Army; they may have been light books, but her eye to historical detail was excellent.

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"Must not head mobs?"
Will - what does that mean?

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Hi Skeeter
From what I understand, simply groups of people, for example political parties. In an essay on the semantics of 'mob', one academic suggests that 'Edmund's use of head of mobs suggests the position of authority over a heterogeneous mass of people'. Just google the quote to see various discussions.

Edmund repeats both areas a clergyman should not be:
'(he) must not be high in state' - '(he) must not head mobs'
'or fashion' - 'or set the ton in dress'

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