Emily Post's 'Etiquette', 1922
Emily Post's name became synonymous with etiquette for most of the 20th century after the release of her definitive guide to good manners.
Oh dear, which fork am I supposed to use? It seems have forever been concocting rules about what to do and not to do in social situations, and thinking badly of others for breaking or not knowing those rules which aren’t written down but everybody else seems to know, and which are either engraved in stone or change by the day, and often wind up becoming exclusive: if you know, you’re in and if you don’t, you’re not. So many forks.
If only we had some sort of guide, a gracious hand gently chaperoning us through the minefield of social customs and mores, leavened with common sense, egalitarianism, and just a soupçon of dry wit, helping us all to be at our best and at our ease in any situation, better company, and better versions of ourselves and our societies.
A document that changed the world: “Etiquette in Society, in Business, and at Home”, written by Mrs. Emily Post, 1922.
I’m Joe Janes of the University of Washington Information School, and when you think of “etiquette” – the word comes directly from the French for “ticket” – you likely think of other words like “manners” or “decorum” or “civility” (living in a city), a code of appropriate, proper, correct, polite behavior and deportment, the “right way” to do things; in short, the rules. It might also bring to mind situations where you felt awkward or out of place, uncertain or unaware of what to do and afraid of making a mistake; in short, a clod. And forks, somehow forks always come up.
As ever, guides to such things go way back: Confucius wrote about social relationships, Renaissance books of courtesies (how to behave at a royal court), even a 3rd millennium BCE Egyptian work stressing the importance of virtues like kindness, truthfulness, not speaking down to others, and laugh at the boss’ jokes, really. Table manners come up in Eccleasticus, don’t wolf your food and don’t reach for anything first. Manners and behavior have been studied from sociological, anthropological, hygienic and even evolutionary perspectives, and consider for just a moment the various situations and places where a particular kind of etiquette can be involved: going to a movie or concert or religious service, while driving or walking, at work, even on an escalator, or in sports; winning a point in tennis with a ball that hits the net cord and bounces funny should prompt a brief wave/fauxpology, which nobody believes but if you don’t do it people get tetchy. And for those of you who’ve not experienced a men’s restroom, if there’s only one person in there and you take the urinal next to them, it’s weird.
So, it’s everywhere; lucky we are then to have had a guide, in the personage of Emily Post, whose name became synonymous with etiquette for most of the 20th century as the phrase “according to Emily Post” took hold. She had exactly the kind of upbringing you would expect from an etiquette maven. Born in Baltimore likely in October of 1872, to an architect who designed luxury communities and the daughter of a coal baron, educated first at home and then at Miss Graham’s finishing school; married at 20 to a stockbroker she met on the night of her debut in society, living in Washington Square with a country home. Idyllic. Until, that is, she dumped and divorced him in 1905 because he was being blackmailed for affairs with chorus girls. These things happen in the best of families.
She took to writing once her sons went off to boarding schools; newspaper and magazine articles, a few novels and a travel book about a road trip to San Francisco. Over her lifetime, the story of how she came to write The Book of Etiquette grew grander, that she had to have her arm twisted by the editor of Vanity Fair repeatedly after he casually suggested it at a dinner party; she said she thought the topic was boring and beneath her. That’s a great story, though not entirely true as we know from a letter to her literary agent 9 years earlier asking him to get her a gig writing a column on the subject, which she got.
A little context is important here; this dinner party takes place in early 1920: World War I and the flu pandemic have just ended, Prohibition has just started, women are on the cusp of earning hard-fought voting rights, and many groups of people are searching for the right ways to find their way in the world: recent immigrants, returned soldiers and their wives looking to further their careers and family situations, and the nouveaux riches who wanted to look a little less nouveaux. The then-current standby book is a fusty and musty two-volume tome that presupposed wealth and status and was filled with lots of piddly rules and details, and books of etiquette had been pouring out and very popular for decades. Writing something new and fresh would be a public service, Emily, how about it?
Though her sons tried to talk her out of it, she did. Writing in longhand at her father’s drafting table, she drew on examples and experiences from her own life, reaching out to friends and even strangers for their perspectives, working every day except Sundays, organizing and categorizing, and eventually delivering a quarter-million word manuscript in early 1922, yielding a 627 page book, bound in royal blue, and selling for a rather grand $4 (upwards of $50 today); word of mouth cut through the glut of competitors and it sold far beyond the publisher’s modest first print run of 5,000 copies, getting to 50,000 and a second printing within 6 months, along with syndication rights. By the time she died in 1960 it had gone through 89 printings in 10 revised editions.
In form, it’s often described as a “manual” which is sorta right – that connotes a kind of reference with rules, or instructions like for a car or appliance, not necessarily meant to be read straight through. There are “rules” here, though not laid out as for a sport or game, these are the kind that are enforced by withering stares or whispers leading to social ruin, literally “unspoken” but nonetheless expected to be known.
Emily throws open the French doors and lets everybody in on the secrets, and for my money, her book was a hit resulting from two sources of genius: she made it accessible and she made it fun. Her fiction background came in handy, as the book is populated with a wide cast of characters from the snooty Gildings to the understanding Kindharts, grandiose Mrs. Worldly and the Richan Vulgars, among others. The juicy dedication adds a little guessing-game fun too: “To you my friends whose identity in these pages is veiled in fictional disguise it is but fitting that I dedicate this book”.
There’s tons of advice and warnings and guidance and whatnot on dozens of matters many familiar today: introductions, social occasions and invitations, weddings, funerals, writing letters, as well as the arcana of debutante balls, paying calls, chaperons, afternoon teas and summer homes. However, a lot of it boils down to a couple of simple basics: Make the other person comfortable, put them at their ease. She had no patience for put-on airs, rudeness, pretention, and what she termed “the omniscience of the very rich”.
One of her central concepts was “Best Society” which sounds very la-di-da but she casts it egalitarian tones: “Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth; but it is an association of gentle-folk, of which… charm of manner… and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members”
Ever seeking broader audiences – her daughter-in-law once remarked she always sought to be the center of attention – Emily became a radio star, appearing on multiple programs and networks several times a week throughout the 1930’s. Pearl Harbor knocked Emily and many others off the radio, understandably, though her column continued to thrive with 5 million readers and she produced a “War-Time Supplement” for a 1942 edition, highlighting necessary and sensible changes to conventions and behavior, reinforcing that “etiquette is not a fixed subject”: approving of women writing anonymous letters to soldiers, managing rushed weddings and honeymoons, hospitality without waste with smaller portions at mealtime, and carrying your own saccharin with you in time of sugar rationing.
More poignantly, don’t pepper returning veterans with questions about the war, getting a job, being home – let them raise the topics themselves when they’re ready. And in a special section on espionage, she warns against unfounded or hasty suspicions or accusations of foreigners, advice that sadly fell on too many deaf ears. A later postwar revision urges consideration for disabled veterans in a section called, typically frankly, “How to Treat Them”: “What are we going to do and say when they leave the hospitals and take their places in the world for which they have given so much?…don’t stare, don’t point, don’t make personal remarks”. It all worked, thousands of copies sold weekly during and after the war, and it was one of the most requested books for USO clubs.
Life magazine twice named her one of the most important Americans of the 20th century, another put her second to Eleanor Roosevelt as most the powerful woman in America in 1950, she was on a postage stamp in 1998, heck, she was in a Jeopardy! clue last night, and though I have to officially frown on this, Etiquette was reportedly second only to the Bible as the most stolen book from public libraries.
Etiquette is, a century on, in its 19th edition, now overseen by two of her great-great-grandchildren, and the Emily Post Institute continues her tradition of adapting and translating for the times, dispensing wisdom on unfriending, how to celebrate major Jewish and Islamic holidays, online gaming (trash talking is ok in the spirit of fun), “please” and “thank you” in sign language, social social distancing, and, God help us, Zoom meetings. Their podcast “Awesome Etiquette” is worth a listen.
We must now return to the most pressing matter: forks. Emily’s New York Times obituary has you covered: “If you picked up the wrong fork, there was a possibility that your hostess was wrong in having too many forks.” Ever gracious, ever trying to put everyone at their ease, she would have loved that.
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- Miller, Laura. “To the Manners Born.” Slate, April 19, 2017. https://slate.com/culture/2017/04/how-emily-posts-descendants-are-shepherding-her-legacy-into-a-cultural-landscape-hostile-to-the-very-idea-of-etiquette.html.
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- The New York Times. “Emily Post Is Dead Here at 86.” September 27, 1960.
- “The Rules of Etiquette: Emily Post | National Postal Museum.” Accessed July 22, 2023. https://postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibition/women-on-stamps-part-3-literature/the-rules-of-etiquette-emily-post.
- Time. “The Surprising Lesson About American History Hidden in Emily Post’s ‘Etiquette,’” October 25, 2019. https://time.com/5710240/emily-post-history/.