Thank Goodness, Wait, Worrying About Reputation Is Still A Woman’s Responsibility

Joan-Jett-4The more I read old etiquette books, the more I realize just how much was in the wheelhouse of etiquette. I never thought that “leaning awkwardly when sitting” was a matter of manners, but at its broadest, etiquette is just about how to live your life as nicely as you can. In a lot of ways that’s good, but of course, we are all products of our time, and etiquette rules are always heavily influenced by prejudice and respectability politics.

Take this chapter in No Nice Girl Swears, called “You’re The First Man I Ever Kissed.” It’s a cheekily-written guide for women on how to flirt, date and socialize with men while maintaining one’s reputation. Author Alice Leone-Moats at least recognizes that “petting” is a pretty natural part of human interaction, and that doing it well is a matter of what you can get away with. Still, the fact is that it’s something you have to “get away with.” “Anyone will admit that in the long run a reputation for being a heavy necker doesn’t really add to a girl’s popularity,” she writes, striking a clear difference between giving into romance and “petting for petting’s sake.” Of course, a man’s reputation is never sullied no matter how much he pets or for whose sake.

The etiquette rules here become a woman’s line to walk, finding a way to “keep a man on the string and yet never let him get an opportunity to make a direct pass.” She goes on to explain how to defer a physical pass in the back of a taxi, to rarely dine with married men (even if you have the wife’s permission), and to always act like it’s your first time in a man’s apartment, no matter how many times you’ve been there. Which seems like it would inspire more awkwardness than anything. “Ooh what a lovely home!” “Janet you’ve been here at least a dozen times before.” “HOW YOU JEST, DEAR BOY, MY WHAT A FETCHING RUG.” But it is the woman’s job to ensure nothing bad happens. She is the enforcer of boundaries. A “no” must be pressed rather than a “yes” offered, and if something does happen it’s on the woman. She either should have fought harder or not gotten herself into that situation in the first place. And if this sounds familiar, well, not much has changed.

There’s a wistfulness to the chapter, as if Leone-Moats wishes she didn’t have to write it. “Of course it seems all wrong that in this world appearances count for more than actions, but it has always been so and we can do nothing but accept it.” It’s the ultimate double standard–consent to making out in the back of a cab and your reputation is ruined, don’t consent and you get taken advantage of, and your reputation is still ruined. Better to hold in your desires for the sake of propriety than not and subject yourself to judgment and, possibly, violence. It’s a decision no woman should have to make, and certainly should not be a matter of etiquette. Unfortunately, it’s still a matter of survival.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: The Guest Card

Things that are only possible with this many servants.

Back in the day, for a certain level of hostess (ie with a huge house and a lot of servants), guests would have quite a lot of options during their stay- whether they would have breakfast in their rooms (if you haven’t noticed, on Downtown Abbey, it is only married women who are allowed to have breakfast in bed), what they would like for breakfast, etc. Usually the hostess would ask these questions naturally during the first day of the stay. But the truly chic hostess would leave a little card in the guest’s room for them to fill out before dinner:

What time do you want to be awakened? …………………..
Or, will you ring? ……………………………………
Will you breakfast up-stairs? …………………………..
Or down? …………………………………………….

Underscore Your Order:

Coffee, tea, chocolate, milk,
Oatmeal, hominy, shredded wheat,
Eggs, how cooked?
Rolls, muffins, toast,
Orange, pear, grapes, melon.

At Bedtime Will You Take

Hot or cold milk, cocoa, orangeade,
Sandwiches, meat, lettuce, jam,
Cake, crackers,
Oranges, apples, pears, grapes.

That’s even nicer service than any hotel I’ve ever been to! Of course, this sort of thing was super rare and in no way would be expected today.

In a related note, grand houses also used to have “guest books” just like you would see in a fancy B&B or a historical site, in which all the guests would write their names, the date of their visit, and some comments. This was a way for the family to look back on who had visited them and when (a must for frequent hosts!) and a nice momento. These are great resources for historians today, as well.

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.