Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Etiquette Books: Part 2

This woman is likely not displaying her best table etiquette in "A Word to the Wise" by C.D. Gibson (1900).
While most etiquette books 100 years ago advised girls and women to be feminine, quiet, attentive and helpful, the books were not of one mind: A few books also expected girls to be smart and hard-working. A rare volume or two advised them to be bold. 
Here's one modern observation from a 1923 etiquette volume*: "There was a time, not so long ago, when a most marked reserve was required between men and women in public. But to-day, with the advent of women into almost every branch of business, art and profession, there is a tendency to loosen this social barrier and create a more friendly relationship between men and women."
While most 1900s advice is amusing to today's girls and women ("Tight clothing spoils the complexion" and "When a girl is. . . in public places, she should never laugh nor talk loudly"), some advice*, even 100 years later, still rings true in 2010: "The young miss of to-day is certainly more thrilled with life and its possibilities than her sister of two or three decades ago ever was. . . . To-day life is shown to her as it is shown to her brother — as something beautiful, something impressive, something worthy of deep thought and ambitious plans."
We can all give thanks for that. Happy Thanksgiving!

* Both quotes from Book of Etiquette, 1923.

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.)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Easy women? Hardly

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Sure, women are increasingly in the spotlight when it comes to elections. But back in 1900, women also made political headlines. In a few states, women already had the right to vote: They could vote in Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming — long before the 19th amendment passed in 1920.
During the election of 1900, Wyoming Congressional candidate John Charles Thompson boasted that the "women who vote [in Wyoming] were the easiest to get, the easiest to keep and the easiest to manipulate." Not surprisingly, women of "The Equality State" united behind Republican Frank Wheeler Mondell, who handily won the election.
Check out the suffragettes heading up the stairs of the state capitol,  Rep. Mondell in the midst of them.