September 28, 2013 10:17:54 PM
On a recent visit I had with my daughter, she showed me a prized possession she had just bought at a book sale, an old copy of Emily Post's Etiquette book, autographed by the author. We had some laughs reading some parts of it that were rather quaint, and I decided that when I got home, I would get out my own old copy and see how things have changed in these many years since I bought it.
And change they certainly have! Once the book seemed second only to the Bible and was the Authority on polite society. Today some of its assumptions are downright funny. In the section on the well-appointed house, I read:
"A gem of a house may be no size at all, but its lines are honest, and its painting and furnishing in good taste. As for its upkeep, its path or sidewalk is beautifully neat, steps scrubbed, brasses polished, and its bell answered promptly by a trim maid with a low voice and quiet, courteous manner, all of which may very well contribute as unmistakably to the impression of 'quality' as the luxury of a palace whose ... door is opened by the smartest of footmen."
Footmen, indeed! The stratum of society most people find themselves in today is high indeed if there is a servant at all or sometimes even a cleaning service. We have become more democratic to be sure and more self-sufficient; but, thank goodness, there are more helpers in the form of washing machines and vacuum cleaners than were accounted for in old etiquette books.
"Trousseau" is defined as "a little trusse or bundle" that a bride carries with her to the house of her husband. Trousseau requirements in earlier days sometimes demanded one to three dozen fine quality sheets, as well as the same number of undersheets (half these quantities for double beds); two pillowcases and one small pillowcase to match each double sheet; three blanket covers; two pair of blankets (summer and winter) for each bed; two to five dozen finest-quality linen, large face towels, deep-fringed or embroidered and monogrammed, and the list goes on.
Now, I am used to seeing a plethora of wedding gifts for young couples, but for the above list to be a requirement astounds me. Modern appliances do indeed modify what once was considered necessary. There are still people who have such amenities, but a Great Depression, sandwiched between two world wars and followed by other conflicts, have conspired to level society off a good bit for most of us.
Manners have become more casual, too. Women in the workforce are the social norm today, and manners have morphed into more practical considerations. However, I still like to have a gentleman open a door for me, and I don't feel put upon to serve someone a cup of coffee.
Times do change, especially dress codes. I have been auditing a class at The W; and, while I am not shocked, I have noticed a great deal more freedom in the students. They dress far more casually than in my day when, if we wore shorts on the front campus, they had to be covered by a raincoat. Today there is no limit to how short the shorts can be, and students bring their coffee, drinks or snacks with them to class. That's fine by me, as long as I don't have to see jeans sagging around the hips as if they are about to fall off.
Of true importance
Actually, I do believe that the requirements of etiquette rest more on considerate behavior than lists of possessions or rules of behavior. I do believe that such things are important, and they certainly show that one knows how to "play the game," but the gist of good manners is how one makes others feel. I offer a couple of examples:
Years ago, in a simpler age, I read about a man, the Great Impostor, who descended on Hollywood, billing himself as a fabulously rich Middle Eastern prince. He soon had Hollywood falling at his feet and practically clamoring to entertain him. Actors June Allyson and Dick Powell hosted a dinner for him. When the salad was served, he mischievously began eating his with his fingers. There was silence for as long as it to took the hosts to gulp. Then they, too, and all the other guests ate their salads with their fingers as well.
I had such an experience as a child when I lived in Washington. I was younger than seven, because my only sibling had not yet been born, and our little family of three had been invited to have supper with a congressman, who will remain anonymous, and his wife and daughter, who was a couple of years older than I.
Now, at home my mother allowed me to crumble my crackers in my soup, probably in an effort to get me to eat the soup. She did stress that I was not to do that in public. Of course, I forgot. I crumbled my crackers, and the other little girl promptly exclaimed, "Look Mama! She's crumbling her crackers in her soup!"
I was mortified. I blush to this day, remembering my gaffe. But I am older and wiser now, and I realize if the congressman's wife had been really polite, she would have crumbled her crackers, too. After all, as someone has wisely observed, "What are good manners, anyway, but living by the Golden Rule?"
Betty Boyls Stone is a freelance writer, who grew up in Columbus.