I love…love…LOVE etiquette books. I suppose it’s some mutation in my soul that occurred thanks to my time at Wellesley, since it’s the alma mater of Miss Manners herself, Judith Martin. (An aside to my Wellesley sisters: on the “Notable Alumnae” link I just posted, there is one “Notable” from 2003, one “Notable” from 1991, and everyone else graduated well before that. We’ve got to shake the dust off, ladies, and yes, by “we” I mean me, too.) But she is still a present-day voice, and I particularly love older etiquette books. The older, the better. They provide an interesting window to the mores of their time, and are often charmingly, haltingly written by a bona-fide lady who manages to maintain demure tones, even in her writing voice. They exist in this imaginary social zone, one wherein the person who needs an etiquette book could conceivably move into the social class the author writes about, even if the reader is not to the manner born.
If you’re born to it, you don’t need some fancy book, see? You’ll ooze etiquette like a bee’s butt oozes honey. Ease of etiquette indicates the euphemistically repulsive term “breeding“, which is just one string of pearls away from eugenics in its implications about animal husbandry in relation to social acceptability. The only people who need etiquette books are the nouveau riche, who may have earned a lot of money war-profiteering or rum-running and can buy their way into the right parties and events but certainly don’t know how to behave in capital-S Society. Or social climbin’ gals, who want to trick rich men into marrying them because they think these ladies are of their class, once they master all the genteel standards a book can provide. Ha! Have you ever SEEN some elaborate table settings? Good luck with that. (And while I hate to admit it, it looks like the Kennedy fortune did not come from the aforementioned running of the rum and this is simply a wildly successful urban legend; Joe Kennedy‘s father was a savvy businessman in his own right so Papa Joe had money to start with, though that’s not to say he didn’t dabble in liquid investments–sorry, gangster romantics, and I digress.)
And so, while I was in the Street of Shops I came across an old etiquette book in the flea market section in the basement. The New Book of Etiquette, © 1925 by Lillian Eichler (whose story is pretty interesting) and no, I didn’t pay $69.99 for it. Two bucks–score! Here’s an example of some of the advice she offers:
“The friend or acquaintance who has an at-home day should be given the courtesy of having that at-home day honoured. If you know, for instance, that Mrs. Blank receives on Tuesdays, do not be so discourteous as to call on Fridays, unless you just wish to leave your card and pay a “duty” call.” — p. 138
Indeed, I would never want to call if Mrs. Blank isn’t ready to receive.
“A woman does not share on her cards the title of her husband. For instance, the wife of our President has her cards engraved, “Mrs. Calvin Coolidge.” The wife of a secretary, judge, general, or admiral does not use any other title on her personal card than “Mrs.”” — pp. 124-125.
How gauche to even consider otherwise. Ladies, “Mrs.” is all the title you’ll ever need.
“The first and invariable rule is that the woman always bows first when meeting man acquaintances.” — p. 96.
What the huh?
And so with that in mind, we turn to one of my favorite pages in the book. Oddly, this page isn’t surrounded by anything that elaborates on the caption, so I can only assume it’s up to the reader to parse out the meaning on his or her own. Okay, fine, I’ll do it.
“The unexpected guest constitutes a real problem…”
A real problem? Why? Will the hostess run the risk of breaking a limb because of the unexpected guest? Will she starve? Is this unexpected guest secretly the Pied Piper, and the hostess’s home will soon be overrun with mice? Is it because the hostess can no longer walk around naked? Will the guest steal all of her silver? WHAT IS THE REAL PROBLEM?
“…to the hostess who has no maid…”
Oh. So having a guest requires extra cleaning. Unless you’re hosting Pigpen, I don’t see how that’s a legitimate issue.
“…and only the simplest kind of guest room.”
Because I, for one, refuse to stay somewhere unless there’s a chandelier from which my boyfriend can swing.
If the room has a place to sleep, four walls, a ceiling that lacks holes and a bathroom nearby, what more does the unexpected guest need?
Apparently, they need maid service.
This is the world that I find so fascinating. How dreadful! That a lady may have to meet the needs of her guest all on her own, without the assistance of a maid or, apparently, a husband, who as a host is not presented as having any sort of problem with an unexpected guest when he lacks a maid. Because he’s got a built-in maid in his wife. (The gender politics make my head spin.) That she may have to house a guest in a simple room that doesn’t have a single automated toenail clipper or Magic Fingers® or a mature dog she could strap a serving tray to and send in cocktails. This was 1925; penicillin hadn’t even been discovered yet, the income disparity that triggered the Great Depression was building, and a hostess’s real problem was that someone she theoretically likes stops in for a visit? And that she had to put them into a guest room that may or may not have fancy soap? Get over yourself, Ina Garten. The world has much bigger fish to fry.