Thank Goodness Prohibition Happened And Gave Us These Modern Drinking Habits

As much as the idea of prohibition seems ridiculous to me now, over the years I’ve come to appreciate the fact that it was enforced in America from 1919-1933. In the 1820s, Americans drank about four gallons of 200 proof alcohol per capita.That is far too much alcohol, you guys! Yes, banning it and sending unregulated production underground was not a good idea, but it basically halved our alcohol consumption once it was legal again. Plus it paved the way for all sorts of innovation in cocktails since the bootleg liquor was so gross. It wasn’t for nothing.

In Perfect Behavior (a parody etiquette guide published 1922) by Donald Ogden Stewart, the chapter “The Etiquette of Dinners and Balls” suggests some opening lines to get conversation going. For instance, when cocktails are served, you may remark on how terrible the gin is, and then offer the tidbit “Senator Volstead [of the Volstead Act, aka The National Prohibition Act] was born Sept. 4 1869.” Stewart also jokes about alcohol consumption in “Etiquette for Dry Agents”:

In spite of the great pride and joy which we Americans feel over the success of National Prohibition; in spite of the universal popularity of the act and the method of its enforcement; in spite of the fact that it is now almost impossible to obtain in any of our ex saloons anything in the least resembling whiskey or gin,– there still remains the distressing suspicion that quite possibly, at some of the dinner parties and dances of our more socially prominent people, liquor–or its equivalent–is openly being served. . . .The main difficulty has been, I believe, that the average dry agent is too little versed in customs and manners of polite society. It is lamentably true that too often has a carefully planned society dry raid been spoiled because the host noticed that one of his guests was wearing white socks with a black tie, or that the intruder was using his dessert spoon on the hors d’oeuvres.

That’s just some beautiful backhanded insulting right there. He goes on to suggest that we need to attract a higher class of dry agent, which may be difficult, given that most preparatory schools teach young men to frown upon “pussyfooting and sneaking.”

Some etiquette books of the time suggested hosts obey the law and serve nonalcoholic drinks at parties, but according to Spirits of Defiance: National Prohibition and Jazz Age Literature, 1920-1933, most people treated hosts who didn’t serve alcohol as “uncouth, emasculating, or even cowardly.” Perfect Behavior suggests that alcohol consumption was a bit of an open secret. When I worked at the New-York Historical Society we presented an exhibition on beer and brewing in New York. During prohibition, many breweries were forced to close or make non-alcoholic malt tonics. One brewing company found a way to help get alcohol into the hands of consumers with a sneaky advisory on the label: “Caution: Do not ferment, do not add yeast, or you will create beer.”

If our depictions of the Roaring 20s are to be believed, Prohibition just made alcohol cool, along with creating a culture of concealment and necessity. If there was alcohol around, you better drink as much as you can, because you don’t know when you’ll be drinking again. According to No Nice Girl Swears by Alice-Leone Moats (published in 1933), this actually meant that learning how to deal with drunk people became part of common culture. “When our mothers came out, learning to handle a drunk was not an essential part of a debutante’s education,” she wrote. “Now every girl has to be capable not only of shifting for herself, but, more often than not, of looking out for her escort as well.” This was doubly true because most speakeasies were co-ed, whereas before prohibition bars and saloons had been strictly for men. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “Enforcement of the Volstead Act diminished the prominence of all-male saloons and unintentionally encouraged the development of more expensive speakeasies patronized by men and women. After repeal, heterosocial drinking patterns persisted.”

Prohibition may have also created one of my favorite types of get togethers–the cocktail party. Now merely having alcohol was cause for celebration, and guests may be so excited by it that a sit-down dinner is not required. “Cocktail parties have become the line of least resistance in entertaining. They are convenient for the person who must get 50 or 60 people off the list of obligations and prefers to do it at one fell swoop, saving money at the same time. It certainly isn’t much trouble; all you need is a case of synthetic gin and a tin of anchovy paste. The greater the number of the guests, the smaller and more airless the room, the stronger the gin, the more successful the party. But if you give one, you must be prepared to have your friends on your hands until two in the morning, as they will invariably forget their dinner engagements and stay on until the last shakerful is emptied.”

Nowadays if you drink alcohol, things like cocktail parties, women in bars, and heterosocial drinking are all taken for granted. So is the idea that, even if you get completely shitfaced, you should probably be a little discreet about it. And for that we have Prohibition to thank! Just please, never again.

How To Eat Cake at Versailles

Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake” but she might have said “let them follow the rules” because there were a lot of rules to follow at Versailles. For the king and queen as well as the courtiers.

Seating arrangements: whether or not you were allowed to sit in the presence of the king and queen was determined by your rank. The king and queen sat in armchairs along with any visiting monarchs, the brothers or children of the king were allowed chairs with no arms, other very high ranked people were allowed stools. Everyone else had to stand.

Around the Palace:

  • Courtiers were not allowed to knock at doors. Rather, they used their little fingers to “scratch” at the door to be let in, with some people growing out their pinkie nail for that purpose.
  • Courtiers were also not allowed to open doors. An usher had to open the door for them.
  • Men and women weren’t allowed to hold hands or link their arms together (this probably would have been impossible anyway, due to very large skirt size at the time), so they had to stroll through the gardens with their arms out at 90 degree angles (like you do in your driver’s test to prove you know the arm signals for left, right, and stop) and the lady’s arm resting on top of the gentleman’s.

A very public life: Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, as king and queen were subjected to close public scrutiny at all times. Every morning, Marie Antoinette (and the king in his own room) had to go through a ceremony called a levee in which she was awoken and washed and dressed by her courtiers in front of anyone with a high enough rank to be allowed to enter. The couple also had to eat dinner publicly during the Grand Couvert. Anyone of rank could crowd into the room to gawk at the king and queen, as long as they were dressed properly, ie men had to wear swords (luckily you could rent one if you forgot yours!). Marie Antoinette hated this ritual so much that she would pick at her food and have her real dinner sent to her rooms later.

Part of the reason etiquette was so important at Versailles was that the French kings brought all of their nobles to court to keep an eye on them and prevent them from developing their own power centers in their home regions and becoming a threat to the monarchy. The king also used the elaborate and constantly changing etiquette to keep the courtiers in check and on their toes. If you followed all the rules and did everything splendidly, the king might take notice of you and allow you more and more access to him. With that access came influence and power. If you did something to disgrace yourself, the king wouldn’t even “see” you if he passed you, thus you ceased to exist as far as any political influence went.

Time To Bring Back These Cleanliness Tips

Personal grooming is a large part of modern etiquette, which is something I have mixed feelings about. We’re always taught not to judge a book by it’s cover, but nobody wants to read a book that clearly hasn’t showered in four days. And then you get into the hole of realizing our cleanliness standards stem from the rich, who’ve had the most access to baths/perfumes/other grooming tools, and having access to hot water is already a hurdle in so many places, not to mention dental care and other things we consider “basics,” and okay I’m getting ahead of myself. Our cleanliness standards may have gotten a little too elaborate, but yes, everyone likes someone who makes the effort to bathe regularly.

The New York Fashion Bazar Book of Etiquette has some tips on how to achieve cleanliness, many of which sound pretty good today. Wash at least your face and hands every day, change your underwear often, and don’t forget to clean your underarms. But remember, “In the street cars, railways, omnibuses, and at churches and theaters the vast numbers of unwashed persons make themselves odious to their neighbors, and often a well-dressed man or woman is quite as disgusting as those whose outward garb show their low grade of life,” so have some chill.

However, the book does a strange thing in advising against soap. “Soap is not a good cosmetic for the face and hands,” author Sophia Johnson writes, “but alcohol stimulates the skin and invigorates the glands and muscles of the body.” Alcohol is apparently especially helpful for the elderly–the young need only use water.

As the book goes on it increasingly sounds as if it’s written by that general in Dr. Strangelove who is worried about fluoridated water sapping his fluids:

All places of resort unless well ventilated are filled with the poison of human breaths and the noxious exhalations of the body and no one who understands the science of health can doubt that many lives are shortened by the injurious atmosphere of fashionable assemblies churches and theaters

American Etiquette and Rules of Politeness takes a bold pro-soap stance, and also advocates for the vigorous use of a “flesh-brush.” And looking to remove your freckles? Just wash your face with a mixture of horseradish and buttermilk. There is one grooming tip I’d advise we all remember, and that is that any perfume must be used in “moderation.” “Perfume which may be agreeable to one is perhaps offensive to another,” author Walter Raleigh Houghton reminds. So please, lady on the subway that smells like fermented baby powder, lighten up.

Thank Goodness Bicycle Etiquette Is Not This Sexist Anymore

Why we don't have bicycling cowboys I'll never know. [Etiquette and bicycling, for 1896]

Why we don’t have bicycling cowboys I’ll never know. [Etiquette and bicycling, for 1896]

“Every advanced step toward a more perfect civilization requires some modification of the laws of society. Social intercourse varies under different conditions, but when an entirely new order of affairs presents itself a new code of etiquette is necessary. The question is naturally asked: Who is the authority for the establishment of social laws, and in the absence of precedent why is not one way just as good as another.”

This quote is attributed to something called Bearings, “the recognized authority on cycling matters,” as quoted in Etiquette and Bicycling, for 1896. It is the best summation about etiquette I think I’ve ever seen. Please apply this as you want, but today this is applied to the emergence of bicycling culture. In 1896, it was a total gamechanger, allowing people to travel through surrounding areas instead of staying in their towns, and emancipating women from “slavish conventionality in both dress and conduct.” Well, maybe not. Women were still “ladies,” and despite the ability to cycle about town, there were still a lot of rules to adhere to.

An unmarried cycling woman had to be chaperoned by a married woman, and married women had to be accompanied by their groom or another woman. Occasionally, married women trained had a “servant trained in the art” in order to adhere to this convention. And though women were reminded that “modesty is becoming at all times,” bloomers were acceptable.

Things were much different for experienced “wheelmen,” though the book admits that one of the draws of cycling was it was something men and women could do it together. It was therefore customary that men hold the handles as a woman mounts her bike, from the left with her right foot on the pedal. The book argues, “Let the new woman prate as much as she please about her independence of man, but she is the first nevertheless to rise up in indignation if any of the same old time chivalry is omitted.” Therefore, the author concludes, the man will do everything in his power to make the woman comfortable. This would be hilarious if I hadn’t met men who still think this way.

Men were still supposed to be hyper-aware of their female biking companions once riding, and women were pretty much expected to be complete idiots about the whole endeavor (“it is difficult for a man and almost impossible for a woman to ride without an instructor”). A man shouldn’t dare go ahead of a woman on a narrow road, or he may “get a long way ahead of his companion without knowing she was in distress.” He should ride on the left side of a woman so he could give his right arm in assistance, and the author makes a special point to say that all women deserve assistance, “handsome or otherwise.”

Okay, this is getting exhausting. How about some general ideas for bicycle etiquette? Social Etiquette, Or, Manners and Customs of Polite Society by Maud C. Cooke says that bikes are welcome in houses of worship, so “don’t absent yourself from church to go wheeling.” Also “don’t leave your bicycle in the lower hallway of your flat house,” which is absolutely applicable today. Pass on the right, and don’t speed down hills with curves at the bottom. However, she does advise “sweaters worn like a Chinaman’s blouse are almost indecent.” Whatever that means.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to do that Anymore: Gift Giving

Rhett Butler shows he’s a cad by giving inappropriate gifts.

Obviously, people give each other gifts all the time, so this not truly “thank goodness we don’t have to do that anymore,” but there used to be a lot more RULES about these things that we don’t really have to follow anymore. These rules mainly pertain to gifts given by a man to an unmarried woman (because sexism! And maybe women weren’t really supposed to give gifts to men and this was so well known no one even had to write it down.)

Social Life (1896) by Maud Cook gives these rules about gifts to an unmarried woman:

  • The only acceptable gifts for a gentleman to give a lady are flowers, fruits, and candy (despite how expensive these items can be made to be). Since these are perishable items, they leave no obligation upon the lady.
  • However, if the lady and gentleman have been talking about a book or musical composition that she does not possess, he may offer to send her a copy and she may accept.
  • If inappropriate gifts are given, the lady may say “I thank you for the kindness but I never take expensive presents;” or, “Mamma never permits me to accept expensive presents.” Or her mother might discover the gift and send it back saying “I think my daughter rather young to accept such expensive gifts.”
  • After an engagement, the rules would slacken, but real, expensive, useful gifts were supposed to saved until after the wedding.

In the 1920 Etiquette, Emily Post gives a list of rules that an engaged couple must follow about gifts:

  • If the man is saving money so that they may get married, he shouldn’t waste his money sending flowers and other little gifts.
  • A woman may accept all presents except: wearing apparel, a car, a house, or furniture.
  • Basically, a man should not provide his future wife with any real useful objects until after they are married and it becomes his duty to take care of her. For example, a fur scarf would be a fine gift as it is a mere ornament, but a fur coat would not be because it is a useful piece of clothing.
  • If an engagement is broken, all gifts must be returned.

My 1954 copy of Etiquette For Young Moderns is unusual in that it has rules for the girl giving gifts to the boy:

  • For both genders, it is suggested that gifts not be too expensive or too personal.
  • Girls should be especially careful not to give a gift more expensive that what he is giving her AND she shouldn’t give the gift first.

In Sex and the Single Girl (1962), Helen Gurley Brown says: “Don’t give expensive presents to men. Madness!” And also highly encourages women to get expensive presents from men. She also thinks it’s fine to be someone’s mistress, so take all advice with a grain of salt.

In my 1967 copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s etiquette book her rules for unengaged people very strict:

  • A man’s gift to any girl (other than a relative) must be impersonal until an engagement is announced. The idea is to not imply intimacy or be so expensive that people talk about the girl.
  • Acceptable gifts: scarf, gloves, handkerchiefs, small things for the house such as a cocktail shaker or toaster (if she lives alone). Unacceptable gifts: dress, hat, underthings, stockings, or fur. Books are fine, but not a particularly expensive book or set of books.
  • A man who visits a woman’s home frequently might restock her liquor cabinet but would never insult her by trying to pay the grocery bill or anything.
  • If a girl receives an inappropriate gift she should return it to the giver and tell him “I know you didn’t realize it, but I couldn’t possibly accept such a gift from you, much as I appreciate your kindness in wanting to give it to me. A little present would be better.”
  • “To do anything that puts a girl in untenable position is to be less than a gentleman”