Understanding of, and kind-hearted consideration for the feelings of others are the basic attributes of good manners.Emily Post, Etiquette
Last week, I finished Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home by Emily Post. I’ve read several later editions of this book, but this one is Emily’s original without having been revised. It was published in 1922, after the straight-laced Victorian era had ended and the wild changes in culture and society were starting to turn into the “Roaring Twenties”. It’s not surprising there was a market for such a book!
A lot of things struck me as fascinating throughout this book. The first is that even though this book is still held as the most standard and referenced etiquette guide, much of what she recommended is not what people think is proper etiquette! For example, she says that it is entirely permissible to put your elbows on the table in certain situations, such as in a noisy restaurant when you need to lean forward to hear your companion.
And in leaning forward, a woman’s figure makes a more graceful outline supported on her elbows than doubled forward over her hands in her lap as though in pain!Emily Post, Etiquette
One of my favorite things about this book was that it very often gave explanations for “rules” or customs – not just telling me what the proper etiquette for something is, but why that is the case. Silverware is set the way it is because it makes life easy for the person eating – they don’t need to remember what fork is for what course, they simply need to keep using the outermost utensil as they go through courses until they are out of silverware (even better, she suggests, is to have your servers bring new silverware for each course just prior to serving it). My favorite was her reasoning behind recommending christenings at home instead of in a church:
… you can scarcely expect a self-respecting baby who is hauled and mauled and taken to a strange place and handed to a strange person who pours cold water on it – not to protest. And alas! it has only one means.Emily Post, Etiquette
Signs of the society she lives in and the changing world around her are everywhere. Mrs. Post never mentions Prohibition, nor seems to have any inkling that it would only last a decade, but she often makes suggestions for what to do when hosting without being able to serve alcohol (although she also encourages you to continue to include wine and such whenever you can, it’s just that not everyone’s wine cellar remains stocked). She was publishing this book a mere three years after women earned the right to vote, but she expresses strong beliefs that it makes no sense and is unforgivable to pay a woman less than a man for the same work. I think many people expect her to have been a stuffy, conservative woman expressing rules down her turned-up nose, but she’s actually very forward thinking in her sense of what the world should be.
The other thing that image of the snobbish Victorian prude handing down rules of etiquette misses about Mrs. Post is that she is very funny! She is a keen observer of human nature and makes great, astute, entertaining observations throughout the book.
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.Emily Post, Etiquette
For me, perhaps the single most interesting and appreciated thing this book had to offer was a constant awareness and discussion of the philosophy of etiquette. Emily Post not only knew how to be perfectly poised and well-mannered, but also why good manners matter at all. She regularly comes back to what the point is.
Again, good manners are, after all, nothing but courteous consideration of other people’s interests and feelings.Emily Post, Etiquette
I enjoyed reading this book immensely. There are certainly pieces that I don’t think reflect modern life very well (I am never likely to have a staff of servants to serve my guests, nor do I ever plan to keep a set of matched dishes coordinated to the decor in my guest room for those who order breakfast up), but there is so much of this book that is still useful and even more that is fascinating. It is perhaps the most interesting and enlightening book I have read about this very unique period of time, all without claiming to be set in time at all! I would absolutely recommend this one. It’s hard not to love that more than any other etiquette book I know (which is a lot), this book does a great job of expressing that good manners are fundamentally simply about showing care and respect for everyone you interact with.
Would you know the secret of popularity? It is unconsciousness of self, altruistic interest, and inward kindness, outwardly expressed in good manners.Emily Post, Etiquette