Last fall I purchased a wondrous curiosity of a book at the Oxford Fire Company’s annual antique sale. Published in 1945, Emily Post’s Etiquette, The Blue Book of Social Usage was an item not to be passed up. I had planned to read the antiquated 654-page bible of good manners throughout the winter and write an article in the spring with a modern twist on social gatherings that almost always revolve around food. While we may no longer live in a society where coat checks and chaperones exist, nor may we shine the silver service for afternoon tea, or spend hours meticulously arranging full table settings for multiple courses with extensive silverware, I felt there would be some timeless advice hidden within the pages that I could expose.
My eagerness to read it was elevated when I thought about its probable contents – memories of my Nana arriving in white gloves and a mink coat for Christmas dinner popped into my head rather unexpectedly when I picked up the book, and it spawned a bleary-eyed moment. I felt that if I perused the pages, I would somehow have a deeper understanding of the social world my grandmother navigated. Born in 1902, she was quite a lady and an exemplary hostess to which I would bear witness on many occasions. As I handed my money to the vendor I whispered “Nana…” under my breath and held the book tightly to my chest.
All things considered, when the pandemic hit, I put the book down in favor of writing other articles. After all, with social events like birthdays, anniversaries, weddings and graduation parties cancelled, it seemed irrelevant to write about common sociability standards for such occasions. However, as time moves us deeper into a changed and ever evolving society, I thought that this book may bear some pertinency after all – perspective is a masterful tool of an adaptable mind, and those who adapt tend to prosper.
I would never imply or pretend to have the mastery of etiquette that Emily Post was famous for, but I would like to share a few tidbits from her book that may help guide us through what has become an ever-changing list of complex social rules of engagement. I have also included a few 1945 quotes from Emily Post that potentially invite a new perspective on our treacherous journey of social etiquette in the time of pandemic.
Chapter 1 – The True Meaning of Etiquette
Her lengthy definition has a practical ring to it as she describes “correct” as too fixed of a synonym and has a preference for the term “common sense.” She states: “…I wish that those whose minds are focused on precise obedience to every precept would ask themselves: ‘What is the purpose of this rule? Does it help to make life pleasanter? Does it help the social machinery run more smoothly? Does it add to beauty? Is it essential to the code of good taste or to ethics? If it serves any of these purposes it is a rule to be cherished; but if it serves no helpful purpose, it is certainly not worth taking very seriously.” (Post, 1)
A simple demonstration of this may be to think about the societal use of “please and thank you.” Often used at the dinner table and for the acknowledgement of a friendly door held open, both of these words spoken at the right moment make that moment a more pleasant one.
“Etiquette, if it is to be of more than trifling use, must go far beyond the mere mechanical rules of procedure or the equally automatic precepts of conventional behavior. Actually, etiquette is most deeply concerned with every phase of ethical impulse or judgement and with every choice or expression of taste, since what one is, is of far greater importance than what one appears to be.” (Post, 2)
Emily Post, born Emily Price in 1872, was a Maryland native born in Baltimore. Known for advising the public on social customs and civil pleasantries, she made a living on etiquette expertise. Although born into wealth, her writings at times reflect an egalitarian quality. Despite her social status one could argue she ultimately wanted everyone to be measured in their behavior and live in a society whose daily interactions were marked by moments of pleasant civility and respect for others.
Gathering around food makes up a very large portion of our social interactions with each other and for the most part this cultural custom has been curtailed. While we may not be gathering in large groups and sharing meals, there are still small and meaningful occasions in which food may be a centerpiece. Disposables may have replaced silverware and Clorox wipes have been substituted for the finger bowl, but tact and grace are always in vogue.
So, with Emily Post on my mind, here are some points to consider if you should choose to entertain guests:
For the Host/Hostess
- If you decide to host a small and more intimate get together, know your guests well and do what you can to make them feel comfortable. This has always been the general sense of a host’s timeless position.
- Experts say outside is best, and autumn is a cooler time of year to share company in an outdoor setting. Visiting with close friends and family on a deck, patio or in a lovely backyard may be agreeable – or perhaps a local park would suit you for a short, friendly visit.
- Make pandemic friendly food individualized and user friendly with disposable tableware and hand sanitizer within reach.
- Provide ample space. I won’t elaborate.
- Always have a non-alcoholic drink to offer guests. “This is in fact an exaction of good taste which should be underscored, since lack of consideration for those who for one reason or another do not – or cannot – take alcohol is always a source of uneasiness to such abstainers.” (Post, 131)
- If you are invited to attend a gathering and are uncomfortable, it is okay to say no. “Of course, the obvious point to be made is that frankness must be adjusted to courtesy by means of the warmth of one’s manner. It is quite amazing how frank we can be when our manner is sympathetic, eager, or appreciative. We can say “no” and make it as nice as a “yes.” (Post, 133) Whether you are a “yes” or a “no,” please RSVP. What does RSVP mean? It is from the French phrase “Répondez s’il vous plaît,” meaning “please respond.”
- Be an example of excellent table manners. “Good table manners avoid ugliness.” (Post, 458)
- Be timely. “Fifteen minutes is the established length of time that a hostess may wait for a belated guest. To wait more than 20 minutes, at the outside, would be showing a lack of consideration of many for the ease of one. When the late guest finally enters … it is she/he who must go up to the hostess and apologize for being late.” (Post, 354) It’s also a good idea to not overstay your welcome.
- A thank you note should be simple, modestly clever and never pedantic. An example (from page 515):
It was hideously dull and stuffy in town this morning after the fresh coolness of Strandholm. The back yard is not an alluring outlook after the beauty of your garden. It was good being with you and I enjoyed every moment.
A modern version:
Your kind invitation to visit with you in your beautiful garden was a bright spot in my week. I had a wonderful time catching up and thoroughly enjoyed watching your backyard birds flitting about.
Miss you already,
As interaction between guest and hostess is a delicate balance, it is best to play your part well.
In all kinds of social interactions these days it is good advice to keep in mind the Emily Post principles of etiquette: consideration, respect and honesty. This rings true for even the small fragments of social interplay we encounter daily, such as a trip to the grocery store.
Emily Post descendants carry on her message through the Emily Post Institute. According to the Posts, “though times have changed, the principles of good manners remain constant. Above all, manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. Being considerate, respectful, and honest is more important than knowing which fork to use. Whether it’s a handshake or a fist bump, it’s the underlying sincerity and good intentions of the action that matter most.”
The Emily Post Institute (emilypost.com) is a terrific resource for etiquette for the modern world and is certainly more updated than the quotes I have shared with you from her 1945 publication. However, these quotes and tidbits I have shared do illustrate a generational wisdom on how basic manners help a society function at its best. There is also a certain level of elegance that accompanies good manners, and we could all use a little beauty right now.
Etiquette did help me gain a little perspective on the social dynamics of 1945. I had flashbacks of tomato aspic on silver trays, reminisced about Nana’s explanations of the difference between a gimlet and a martini and its role as an aperitif, had a recollective glimmer of her fine pastel lacy linen cocktail napkins, and was roused by memories of the use of a silver service for afternoon tea. These lessons and experiences have been carefully filed away for a possible vintage reawakening, if society decides what is old is new again. Until such a time, I’ll hold these memories dearly.
As we move forward into the great unknown, where sticky social situations may cause uneasiness, I will leave you with one final quote from the chapter on “What we contribute to the Beauty of Living:”
“The motive of real tact is kindness.” (Post, 591)
Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.