Monday, November 15, 2010

Etiquette Books: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

No doubt these ladies are following myriad etiquette rules in "Luncheon" by C.D. Gibson (1898).
Who determines how you act? What you say? What you wear? 
You? Your friends? Your mother's voice in your head?
At the turn of the last century, society largely dictated what was and was not appropriate in all areas of life — especially for women in the middle and upper classes. That was true about what women wore ("Dress for comfort, not fashion"), what women said ("Never take a man to task about anything"), and where women went ("Never visit unfavorable cabarets"). Above all, society taught conformity and propriety.
Volumes of etiquette proliferated — most filled with advice for women and girls. Sure, men were told which fork to use first at a formal dinner party and when to tip a hat to a lady, but for the most part, Etiquette's rules rested on women's shoulders. That was particularly true for young women. After all, reputations were at stake: All a young woman said and did and wore reflected on her and her family.
There were letters to write, neighbors to visit, calling cards to leave (the number of rules regarding calling cards alone is mind-boggling), books to read and books to avoid, household skills to learn, conversational tips to use, dances — and church — to attend, boys to meet and date and wed. It was enough to make a girl's head spin — or perhaps to make her fury at the few accomplishments to which she was to aspire outside of marriage and child-rearing. 
Here's a typical piece of advice (Etiquette, 1923): "The dainty smiling wife who sends her husband cheerily on his way each morning makes the machinery of the world he contacts move more smoothly. At night she is ready, unruffled and dainty to greet him and presents a charming appearance whenever they go out." 
Hmmm. Or should I say hmmpffff? 

(Stay tuned for Etiquette Books, Part 2.)

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