Something I’ve been meaning to share for a while is my love for old-timey etiquette books. I wanted to use this love to take a step towards my dream job of audiobook narration, but after laying down my track, I realized I know nothing of audio editing and it just sounded….fuzzy. So let me share my favorite passages with the written word.
Might as well begin with the most outdated etiquette tips, from my 1885 copy of Our Deportment “or the Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society” by John H. Young, A.M. (what is that certification?).
What I find most interesting from this book is how complicated it was to live in the 19th century. For example:
Arrangements of Guests at the Table
When dinner is announced, the host offers his right arm to the lady he is to escort to the table. The others follow, arm in arm, the hostess being the last to leave the drawing-room. Age should take the precedence in proceeding from the drawing-room to the dining-room, the younger falling back until the elder have advanced. The host escorts the eldest lady or the greatest stranger, or if there be a bride present, precedence is given to her., unless the dinner is given for another person, in which case he escorts the latter. The hostess is escorted either by the greatest stranger, or some gentleman whom she wishes to place in the seat of honor, which is at her right. The host places the lady whom he escorts at his right. The seats of the host and hostess may be in the middle and at opposite sides of the table, or at the opposite ends. Husbands should not escort their wives, or brothers their sisters, as this partakes of the nature of a family gathering.
The Street Manners of a Lady
The true lady walks the street, wrapped in a mantle of proper reserve, so impenetrable that insult and coarse familiarity shrink from her, while she, at the same time, carries with her a congenial atmosphere which attracts all, and puts all at their ease…A lady never forms an acquaintance upon the street, or seeks to attract the attention or admiration of persons of the other sex. To do so would render false her claims to ladyhood, if it did not make her liable to far graver charges.
That escalated quickly.
Hopefully, one’s interactions only require one to three bows but definitely not a hand shake:
There are even tips for the socially awkward– just avoid eye contact or you will be required to bow.
For the more modern society person, Complete Book of Etiquette by Amy Vanderbilt, published in 1959 should suffice.
Of course, even a modern book of etiquette from the 1950’s would not be complete without some sound sexism:
The Woman Executive
A woman who achieves executive status of some kind must guard against being dictatorial at home as well as in the office. Men meet with their frustrations on the way up but do not to the same degree, that is, on the ground of sex, as women. Therefore when a woman does arrive she tends to become irritatingly important. When she gives an order she wants an action, and never mind the human element. It is very hard sometimes for a woman to continue to be warm and feminine and kindly once she has received business or professional recognition. Actually, she needs all these qualities more than ever if she is to keep on advancing and if her marital chances or relations are not to be harmed.
Yes, how dare a SHExecutive expect action when she gives an order. She must be the type of lady to show up with Mandarin nails (WHAT ARE MANDARIN NAILS???)
The 1950’s were also a bit complicated to live in, particularly when it came to making engagement announcements:
If a girl whose parents were divorced and whose mother has subsequently died has been brought up by her aunt and uncle, the announcement of her engagement reads like this:
Mr. and Mrs. Seth McClure, of 7 Fifth Avenue, announce the engagement of their niece, Sally Guthrie, to Mr. Penn Snyder, Jr., son of Mr. and Mrs. Penn Snyder, also of this city…Miss Guthrie is the daughter of Mrs. McClure’s late sister, Mrs. Broadhurst Guthrie and Mr. Joseph Guthrie [This indicates that Sally’s father was divorced from her mother at the time of her mother’s death and that he has married again. The phrasing is necessary, for to call her the daughter of Mr. Joseph Guthrie and the late Mrs. Guthrie would be, in effect, to kill off his second wife.]
Oh. Wait…Mrs. Guthrie was killed by an engagement announcement?
When parents are divorced the mother makes the announcement but the father must be mentioned in the story. Let such an announcement read:
Mrs. French Weeks, 1125 Park Avenue, announces the marriage of her daughter, Miss Pamela Weeks, etc. Miss Weeks is also the daughter of Mr. George Ranson Weeks of Asheville, N.C.
If this form is used no mention of the word “divorce” is necessary, as it is clear the parents are divorced and it is assumed, unless otherwise noted, that Miss Weeks lives with her mother.
If one parent is dead, the announcement reads…
Hold on, didn’t we already cover that?
…When a woman has reached “a certain age” she has the choice of letting her parents announce her marriage or of doing it in conjunction with the groom. Formal engagements between people, one of whom, at least has been married before, are rarely announced. The publicized engagement period does seem the prerogative of youth, along with the bridal veil and orange blossoms…
…Under special circumstances sometimes a bachelor or an older, unmarried woman adopts a daughter who may or may not have taken her adoptive parent’s name…
…When a child has been adopted by a couple, taken their name, and been brought up as one of their own children…
…Occasionally you see an engagement announcement or a notice of a marriage where some mention is made of a legally changed name…
Got all that?
The sartorial advice is incredibly specific:
And entertaining with only one maid requires some advance planning:
Next up is The Polly Bergen Book of Beauty, Fashion and Charm from 1962.
Coincidentally, Bergen died a few weeks ago. She went on to become a feminist activist, but as should expected with any book with the word “charm” in it, radically feminist it is not:
Question: For Whom Should You Dress?
When I say “dress for yourself” I don’t mean to ignore your husband’s or boyfriend’s tastes. I’m very unhappy if my husband doesn’t like something I buy, and I may very well return it. But I must like what I put on my back, and nine times out of ten, if I really like it, and if it’s right for me, sooner or later my husband will really like it too. (Then the question is– will he admit it?)
And to my teen-age friends let me say that “dressing for yourself” does not mean you wear blue jeans to the Waldorf or shorts down State Street. Again, there’s that subtle difference between license and liberty, between insulting or shocking the viewer or intriguing him with your attractive originality, between defending “the right to be sloppy” (and thus unfeminine) and growing up out of your long childhood rebellion.
Of course, before visiting the Waldorf, one must leave plenty of time for mascara application:
Leave a good ten minutes for the mascara operation, at least until you’ve mastered it, and don’t let your husband make you nervous or rush you.
Every time I open this book I find some bit of magic. Someone should make a movie based off this (hey– they did it with What To Expect While Expecting).
Finally, although not etiquette but more home ec, we have Make and Mend for Victory.
WWII home ec for patriotism is especially interesting to me and this book even comes with a pledge.
It’s mostly full of useful sewing tips served up with cutesy illustrations.
Look at everything you can make with men’s shirts!
May your week be filled with wanted bows, youthful frock coats, and well-fitting girdles!