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”

 

 

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Do That Anymore: Live at Women’s Hotels

Even Don Draper couldn’t get upstairs at The Barbizon.

Did you know that back in the day, some nice young ladies from good families wanted to come to New York City to work or try to be actresses or models but their parents were afraid for their virtue and their safety? Enter women only residential hotels like the famous Barbizon Hotel for Women.

The Barbizon was built in 1927 at 63rd and Lexington. Right away it became extremely popular for young women trying to make it in the big city. Over the years it housed such luminaries as: Joan Crawford, Grace Kelly, Candace Bergen, Ali MacGraw, Cybill Shepard, Rita Hayworth, Liza Minelli, Sylvia Plath (who wrote about the thinly veiled fictional “Amazon Hotel” in The Bell Jar), Lauren Bacall, Betsey Johnson, and “Little Edie” Beale. Part of the appeal was that so many famous women had lived there. It was so popular that in it’s heyday, only about half of all applicants would actually be accepted.

The application process was actually very rigorous, as they only really wanted “nice” girls from “good” families.  You had to submit three letters of recommendation and would be assessed on your looks, dress, and demeanor (meaning did you look nice and have good manners).

Once you were in, you basically got a bright pink nun’s cell. Room were about 9 x 12 feet and outfitted with a single bed, an armless chair, a clothes rack, and a small desk. A very few rooms had a private bath, but most had to share a communal bath down the hall. However, all residents had access to the indoor pool, gymnasium, library, music studio, kitchen, dining room, squash and badminton courts, sundeck, and coffee shop. There was also complimentary afternoon tea every evening (a must for girls on tight budgets!). All this for $12 a week in 1947 and $28 a week in 1963 ($124 and $210 in today’s dollars, respectively). However, there were a lot of rules of conduct that you had to follow:

    • There was a dress code (I haven’t seen this specified anywhere, but one resident referred to always wearing heels and hose)
    • No men above the first floor
    • Parents could be called if you weren’t behaving
    • Parents could also require that their daughters sign in and out in the lobby
    • Liquor was forbidden
    • No electical appliances in bedrooms
    • No cooking in the bedrooms
    • There was no curfew, but the Gibbs Secretarial School did have one for their students who lived at the Barbizon

Presumably there were also a lot of etiquette rules to follow. I would assume that instead of phones in the rooms there were banks of phone booths somewhere, in which case residents wouldn’t want to hog the phone when others needed to use it. The same type of etiquette would go as in any communal living space- being quiet late at night, being quick in the shared showers, and keeping common areas clean. Interestingly, though the Barbizon was most famous for it’s younger residents, there were plenty of older women as well. These ladies were looked down upon by the young girls who felt that still being at the Barbizon after age 25 was a failure. But the older ladies had their own code of etiquette, chatting in their doorways instead of in their rooms and letting long term tenants do their own, eccentric thing. One older lady, in the 1960s, had been living at the Barbizon since the 1930s and was known to play the shared piano every afternoon.

Eventually, the 1960s came to an end and women no longer felt the need to live in such stuffy and cloistered housing. They were more likely to get apartments with roommates, and places like the Barbizon began to fade. In the 1980s, it was converted to a coed hotel, and then was changed and sold a few times, until it’s current iteration as the Barbizon 63, just a normal hotel (although, at least as of 2010, there were still 11 “Barbizon girls” living in the hotel under rent control laws!)

However, a handful of these types of women’s residences still exist such as The Webster Apartments, The Sacred Heart Residence, and the Jeanne D’Arc Residence. For about $1200 a month you get a small room and a variety of amenities (including, at The Webster, breakfast and dinner!). These residences are located in very desirable areas like Midtown and Chelsea, so their prices are actually pretty reasonable. They are usually not for profit organizations that exist to provide semi-temporary housing to students, interns, and women beginning their careers. It’s actually a pretty nice idea when you are just arriving in NYC and don’t really know about the real estate market and how to find a good deal (and you don’t have to commit to furniture and you can leave anytime!). Fortunately for modern women, these residences no longer have the very strict rules that you found at the Barbizon (except for the no men- that’s still very key to their mission statements).

Tell me, do you think you would have liked to live at the Barbizon? Like me, are you sad that you didn’t know that these women’s residences existed when you first moved to the Big City (and these were not just a NYC phenomenon, my mom lived in a similar arrangement in San Francisco in the late 1960s)? Did your mom/aunt/grandma live at the Barbizon and tell you lots of good stories? Let me know in the comments!!