What I Am Reading: Etiquette

This week I am reading Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home by Emily Post (seventh printing, but as far as I can tell, the text is unrevised from the first edition as it was published less than a year after the first printing).

I collect etiquette books and find them fascinating. They are an interesting glimpse into culture and history and what people consider respectful and what they don’t, since ultimately manners or “etiquette” is about showing respect. Emily Post is sort of the gold standard of etiquette books, so I have a few different editions of her book. It has changed a lot over the years! Prior to this one, which was first published in 1922 (this edition is 1923), the earliest version I had read was from 1969. This one is far different from that one, which was heavily revised by Emily’s family!

Emily Post has been remembered by so many as the last word on proper manners and “best society” (as she puts it), yet she clearly doesn’t revere those rules nearly as much as many of her followers do! She regularly calls out when rules are silly, which is really interesting and unexpected.

A very young girl may motor around the country alone with a man, with her father’s consent, or sit with him on the rocks by the sea or on a log in the woods; but she must not sit with him in a restaurant. All of which is about as upside down as it can very well be. In a restaurant they are not only under the surveillance of many eyes, but they can scarcely speak without being overheard, whereas short-distance motoring, driving, riding, walking or sitting on the seashore has no element of protection certainly. Again, though she may not lunch with him in a restaurant, she is sometimes (not always) allowed to go to a moving picture matinee with him! Why sitting in the dark in a moving picture theater is allowed, and the restaurant is tabu is very mysterious.

Etiquette, Emily Post

Another thing about this book that I am finding particularly fascinating is that it very much reflects the times it was published in. It’s just three years after women got the right to vote and Emily Post talks about men and women having equal rights as a very new thing that has yet to permeate much of society, but that she is certain will in time. The book also deals a great deal with how to entertain if you have run out of alcohol to serve, since this was during prohibition (it does not acknowledge that anyone would refrain from serving alcohol without having had the misfortune of running out, however – evidently “best society” does not favor temperance).

The book is large and I don’t expect to finish it very soon, but I am very much enjoying reading it and finding out what was considered the best guide to good manners when it came out (and whose later editions generally still hold that distinction). In many ways, I think the original book and Emily Post herself are far more interesting, engaging, and amusing than the later editions and posterity have made them out to be!

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