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What I Learned from Emily Post's 'Etiquette' (1922)
A book from 101 years ago can be as strange as science fiction—but not without its comforts
The most fascinating book I’ve read in 2023 was published 101 years ago. Not many books get more interesting as they age, but it does happen sometimes.
That’s certainly true of the 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette—the book that’s kept me up late in recent days. I just can’t put it down. Etiquette presents a world as unrecognizable as Dune and as anxiety-provoking as those Mission Impossible stunts.
Who can follow all the rules and requirements that Ms. Post sets down in this big book? Certainly not me. Not since the Book of Leviticus has so much been demanded over so many details—and in such vehement terms. The only thing missing is fire and brimstone.
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I discovered Etiquette (1922 edition) in the least likely way. Joan Didion recommended it in her book The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)—which narrates her struggles in the days following her husband’s death.
Didion consulted many experts on mourning and grieving in the aftermath, and decided that Emily Post had the most practical advice of them all. Although Post’s book was about manners and formalities, it betrayed a genuine understanding of what dying and grieving are all about.
Didion suspected that this was because people confronted death more immediately in those days. When Emily Post published Etiquette in 1922, most people died at home and everyone in the neighborhood had firsthand experience of it. Just a few years before, a flu epidemic swept through the US, and many suffered losses in their own families. Still others had died—or saw it up close—in World War I. This was an education in mortality that Post and her readers had gained, and few of us (fortunately) can match.
But even before I read Joan Didion’s book, I was quite familiar with Emily Post, at least by name. That’s because my mother owned a shelf full of books on etiquette and manners, and cited them frequently—especially those written by Post.
As I recall it, Post’s Etiquette was up on the shelf next to the family Bible. And it would be hard to say which of those two guides to behavior Mom knew better.
This might surprise some people. My mother was a Mexican-American telephone operator with little education, and no opportunities to mix in high society.
Why would she read etiquette books?
But if you knew my mother, this would all make perfect sense.
She felt deeply how deprived her upbringing had been. She grew up in poverty and her mother died when she was just nine. Her father was a tough hombre, and you could hardly imagine a less supportive environment for a young girl to come of age.
But my mom had fierce pride and didn’t want anyone to pity her—or look down on her in any way. So she worked hard to add some polish and sophistication to her demeanor.
In practice, this led to two obsessions.
First, she didn’t want anyone to guess her lower class origins from her language. So my mother studied books on grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, and all the rules of the English language. She had stacks of these books, and often tried to get me to read them too.
As a teenager, I had zero interest in reading grammar books in my spare time. That said, I probably should have paid more attention to them. It might have accelerated my learning curve when I started writing some years later.
Mom’s other obsession was etiquette. She aspired to the highest levels of propriety and delicacy in manners. In a world in which she was at the bottom, she was going to convey the image of someone at the top.
She owned so many of these books. And she studied them carefully. But when would she ever get a chance to put all this learning into practice?
(There’s an amusing postscript to this: Years later, my older brother was named as head of the National Endowment for the Arts. Mom got invited to the White House for the ceremony. Afterwards she announced that the people she met there should have consulted her on proper etiquette—she had noted many lapses.)
But long before this, I realized that Mom knew this stuff cold—like Colonel Sanders knows chicken or Miley Cyrus knows wrecking balls. Any time I had questions about proper behavior, I turned to her as my infallible oracle.
But now that I’m studying Emily Post’s Etiquette from 1922, I’m wondering what in the world she could learn from passages such as this.
I’ve traveled in snootier circles than my parents, but this stuff is well above my pay grade. I’ve even made the unforgivable sin of pronouncing valet as vallay.
Or at least I might pronounce it that way if I ever had occasion to use the word. But I have a hard enough time finding a reliable plumber, let alone a valet. I lay out my own studs and braces, and never whisper a complaint.
But this sense of shock is precisely what makes Emily Post’s book so fascinating. Just a few years later, anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote Coming of Age in Samoa, but the world she described in her ethnography is not half as strange as the formal settings dissected by Ms. Post in her capacious book.
Even in my own field of music, Post teaches me rules I never knew existed. For example, I now have learned that “one must never ask people to go to a place of public amusement and then stand in line to get seats”—a gentleman simply must buy tickets in advance for everybody! And more rules for nightlife ensue. For example, “a lady never sits in the aisle seat if she is with a gentleman.”
But those are trifling matters compared with the ultimate test for a man—namely a visit to the opera house. Post writes:
“Excepting a religious ceremonial, there is no occasion where greater dignity of manner is required of ladies and gentlemen both, than in occupying a box at the opera. For a gentleman especially, no other etiquette is so exacting.”
I’ve been slumming at the opera all my life without knowing it. I’m supposed to wear a high hat and white gloves—even if I don’t have a box seat. But if I’m in the box, the responsibilities accumulate:
Once again, I can’t help thinking about my mother—and breathing a sigh of relief that I never went with her to the opera. I would have embarrassed her by my clumsiness with the curtains, and she would have chided me for sitting next to her in the box. And—heaven forbid!—if I’d made the ultimate mistake of striking up a conversation with a lady in the adjacent box, my allowance would have been docked for a month.
On another page, I’m told all the things I can’t say at social gatherings. But what kind of prig would use any of these phrases?
I don’t own a dinner bell. But if I did, I would never refer to its “tintinnabulary summons.”
I’m not being entirely fair to Emily Post. Her advice also encompasses people who don’t hire valets and hang out in opera houses. So I was relieved to learn, for example, that “bachelors, unless they are well off, are not expected to give parties; nor for that matter are very young couples.” I was also comforted to know that parents can “invite to a party any children whom their own children know at school”—without consulting the Social Register first.
Once you get beyond the pomp and ceremony, there’s a lot of decency and compassion in this book. That’s probably why Joan Didion was so comforted by chapter 24 on funerals. She had read every possible kind of book on death, from A Grief Observed to The Merck Manual, but admired Post most. Didion writes:
The tone, one of unfailing specificity, never flags. The emphasis remains on the practical. The bereaved must be urged to "sit in a sunny room", preferably one with an open fire. Food, but "very little food", may be offered on a tray: tea, coffee, bouillon, a little thin toast, a poached egg. Milk, but only heated milk: "Cold milk is bad for someone who is already overchilled." As for further nourishment, "The cook may suggest something that appeals usually to their taste—but very little should be offered at a time, for although the stomach may be empty, the palate rejects the thought of food, and digestion is never in best order."...
A friend should be left in charge of the house during the funeral. The friend should see that the house is aired and displaced furniture put back where it belongs and a fire lit for the homecoming of the family. "It is also well to prepare a little hot tea or broth," Mrs. Post advised, "and it should be brought them upon their return without their being asked if they would care for it. Those who are in great distress want no food, but if it is handed to them, they will mechanically take it, and something warm to start digestion and stimulate impaired circulation is what they most need."
There is something arresting about the matter-of-fact wisdom here, the instinctive understanding of the physiological disruptions...As I read it, I remember how cold I had been in New York Hospital on the night John died...Mrs. Post would have understood that. She wrote in a world where mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view.
These are the moments when we need guidance—and by implication, books of etiquette—the most. Call them rites of passage or whatever you will, certain events in our life catch us unawares and unprepared. If we live in a healthy society, there is some accumulated wisdom to fall back on, and it guides us when our own efforts fall short.
I once felt that etiquette was just a tool to impose class distinctions. And maybe it is (although certainly less nowadays than in my mother’s day)—but it’s also something else. Or at least can be. Etiquette fills the gap for us when we are at a loss, when our familiar day-to-day ways offer no help. We need that, especially in our most vulnerable moments. The ‘rules of the game’ are like the steps of a ritual. And the older I get, the more I grasp how significant our rituals are. And how much we lose when they disappear.
So I will excuse Emily Post for all her regulations about opera boxes. I will cut her some slack for her obsession with valets. Sometimes we do need a nudge from the past, with its practical know-how. And at my age, I don’t have Mom to consult anymore. But at least I have a book she would have trusted.