Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Spinster Etiquette

This subject is very near to my heart, as in doing research on spinsters, I discovered that I have been a spinster for years now and didn’t even know it! So I am very grateful that I no longer have to follow any of these stupid rules.

Spinster is a word that means “one who spins,” like, spins wool for thread because what else could you possibly do if you aren’t married. Interestingly, it was a legal term for any unmarried woman until the early 1900s and you sometimes see it as a designation on marriage documents. From the early 1700s, it’s common use was a woman who was unmarried beyond the normal age for it.

Spinsters created a great problem in etiquette for a long time, because in many ways, they had to be treated like a young girl.

Edith Ordway’s Etiquette of To-day from 1918 instructs spinsters:

Even the spinster of recognized professional standing finds herself somewhat restricted in social pleasures. She cannot go out socially with one man more than occasionally; she has little pleasure in going unattended; she can entertain but infrequently and in a small way, if at all, and never without an older married woman to assist her. She may, however, have her regular afternoon or evening “At Home,” provided she has with her this friend; and with that friend present, she may entertain a gentleman caller until ten o’clock in the evening, but she may not offer him cigarettes, nor any beverage but tea, coffee, chocolate, or lemonade.


However, a 1901 etiquette book, by Annie Randall White Twentieth Century Etiquette gives “elderly girls” a bit more leeway:

When a lady passes the age of thirty and has not yet married she is entitled to a matron’s freedom. This is also in a measure true when one has reached the age of twenty five. She is now considered able to judge for herself and knows when to shun the temptations of the world. She however cannot do everything she might wish to without violating some rules of etiquette. In traveling she should either be accompanied by her father brother or a lady friend and should be especially particular regarding her dress. So many charming women are single from choice either because their sweetheart died young or because of the giving up of one’s life to become the matron of the father’s home that to them should be accorded all respect due to a married woman. Many of our bachelor girls live together and are the happiest people imaginable It takes a very superior woman to be an old maid.

It was actually not uncommon to glorify old maids- an editorial called “Honorable Often to Be an Old Maid” in Peterson’s Magazine argued that marrying a man you do not love in order to have a home, security, and to escape being an old maid was a perversion of the sacred institution of marriage.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that spinsters weren’t stigmatized. A 1932 issue of the Vassar Miscellany News quotes another article from The Forum in which the author Ellis J. Ballinger argues that women’s colleges are “booming spinsterhood, encouraging marriage failures.” He suggests appointing a national marriage bureau to make matches and recommends bringing in beauty, style, and etiquette experts to the colleges to teach those girls how to catch a man. In the end, he says, if after all this, a woman chose to be a spinster “I am sure that she would be a happier old maid than the kind we are turning out today.”

Another fun tradition for friends of spinsters was to throw an “Old Maid’s Party,” apparently a New England tradition in which on a woman’s 25th birthday, all of her friends would come over with tea and cakes and genealogy charts to find the old maid the perfect husband. They might even play the card game “old maid.” Charming.

Thankfully, these days, old maids can pretty much do whatever they want, except avoid questions about when they are planning on getting married.

The Care and Keeping of Wedding Attendants

While I appreciate the trend for tasteful bridesmaids dresses, the world seems less rich without dresses like this.

While I appreciate the trend for tasteful bridesmaids dresses, the world seems less rich without dresses like these.

Etiquette has nothing to say about how many wedding attendants you have, whether they are the same gender of the half of the couple they are standing up for, what you ask them to wear, all of that is optional and completely up to you, no judgments.

However, if you do have attendants, here are some things to keep in mind.

  • The only job of an attendant is to wear what you tell them to wear and stand up with you during your ceremony. While showers, bachelor/ette parties are duties that are traditionally and frequently arranged by the wedding party, they are absolutely not required and you can’t throw a fit if your attendants choose not to do so for whatever reason.
  • In the US, you can ask that the wedding party cover the cost of their attire/hair/make up even if you are picking it out. But you should be upfront about the potential cost and be understanding if someone needs to drop out because they can’t afford it.
  • Special gifts for the wedding party aren’t required, but they are very nice. A big thank you IS required.
  • Remember, these people are doing you a huge favor and you need to treat them respectfully throughout the whole process.
  • During the ceremony, you can have them perform certain duties such as holding the bouquet/rings and helping to arrange the dress before walking down and then back up the aisle.
  • Did you know that traditionally the groomsmen other than the Best Man were called Ushers and they would actually help usher guests to their seats before the ceremony?
  • While you can make your attendants wear pretty much anything you want, you should take their thoughts and feelings into consideration.
  • You can expect that you attendants show up on time and ready to go for the rehearsal and on the wedding day itself.

Now it is not unreasonable that you will want help and support from the people who are supposed to be your best friends and that you will want them to go above and beyond what etiquette requires of them. You just need to talk to them before they agree to be part of your wedding party and see what their expectations and abilities are and if they align with what you want and need. See this really excellent post about the management of a wedding party on Offbeat Bride for more ideas.

Help! My Bride Wants Me To Participate In Cultural Appropriation!


Ok seriously what is up with this Orangina? [Via]

Dear Uncommon Courtesy,

My friend asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding, which I’m really excited to do. However, she wants all of us to wear kimonos. She loves a lot of Japanese culture and spent some time there, but neither she nor the groom have any Japanese heritage, and to me this sort of feels like cultural appropriation. How do I deal with this, given that I’ve already agreed to be her bridesmaid?


Hopefully Staying Respectful


The Emily Post Institute lists the top responsibility of a wedding attendant as “pay for their wedding attire and accessories,” though they say nothing of who gets the choose said attire. The general protocol is that it’s the bride’s choice, though a polite bride should always take her attendant’s opinions into account.


Victoria: Maybe we should first explain what cultural appropriation is and why it’s bad.

Jaya: Yes. But that is so difficult! For a lot of people I think there is a huge grey area between enthusiastic cultural exchange and one-sided cultural appropriation, which is where these issues happen. To this bride, I’m sure this is a way to honor her love of Japanese culture. But to others, it may come off as unfair appropriation.

Victoria: True.

Jaya: To me, it involves this idea of someone in a more privileged position utilizing an element of a marginalized culture without experiencing or understanding that marginalization. This is a good post on it, and I like this quote in particular: “It’s a matter of telling people that they don’t wear things in a vacuum and there are many social and historical implications to treating marginalized cultures like costumes.” Here’s another good conversation about it. This is not to say there can’t be any cultural exchange, just that if you’re doing it, you have to work for it, not just use it however you want because it “looks cool.” What that “work” looks like will depend on a number of variables, but it has to be there.

Victoria: Right, a big part of this is using important cultural symbols as “decoration.” For instance, I think it would be fine if the bride were Japanese and asked her non-Japanese bridesmaids, or guests, to wear traditional Japanese clothing. Because in that instance she is asking people to share her culture with her.

Jaya: Definitely. I’ve been to weddings like that, where one of the couple is of another culture than the majority of the guests, and asked everyone to dress up in that culture’s “traditional” clothing.

Victoria: So what do you do if the bride wants you to participate in this?

Jaya: I think she should first ask the bride why she’s doing this, and then maybe explain her reservations.

Victoria: Absolutely, and explaining is important. I feel like awareness of cultural appropriation is still, unfortunately, new. Some people need it spelled out for them.

Jaya: I think a lot of people really are convinced doing things like this are nice ways of being “colorblind” and “international,” not realizing that glosses over so many issues. I can see how it happens though. Maybe this bride spent a few years living in Japan, fell in love with a culture (as so often happens) and now feels this connection that she wants to incorporate, not seeing how it comes off.

Victoria: Yeah, it’s a nice thought, but no. The only way I can see an event like that working as “international” is if you invited guests to wear traditional clothing from their culture, if they wanted.

Jaya: That would be nice. But yeah, maybe HSR can suggest alternatives. Serving Japanese food is always a great option, or incorporating a reading from a Japanese writer or poet.

Victoria: Oooh totally! But if the bride is still being stubborn, I think you are well justified in bowing out as an attendant.

Jaya: Yes, this is bigger than the bride putting you in a dress you don’t like. If it goes against your belief system and makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it. Maybe it’ll shock the bride into realizing what she’s doing. Or maybe she’ll flip out and not want to be friends anymore.

Victoria: Yeah, that is for sure a risk you will be taking. But why would you want someone who is that insensitive as a friend anyway?

Jaya: Haha oh no! Man, the line is so thin though, especially with things like westerners connecting to traditinally non-western cultures or even religions. Though that is no longer etiquette. Unless socio-political interactions are etiquette. Which, sorta?

Victoria: Everything is etiquette to a certain extent.

Jaya: Ugh, just don’t treat another culture’s regular form of dress as a costume.

Victoria: That’s what this boils down to! Even if that culture is really important and meaningful to you, it is still likely just a costume to you. We should also mention that this applies for things like Halloween as well.

Jaya: Yess. Unless someone from that culture is asking you to wear it, maybe don’t do it. Like, I went to my Indian cousin’s wedding, so I wore a sari. But if you invited us over to your house for a party and asked us to dress like Native Americans for fun, I would not come to your house.

Victoria: Omg, I wouldn’t come to my house if I did that.

Can We Actually Bring These Toasting Puns Back?

g1327246262239310722While researching toasting etiquette I came upon a book called The Perfect Gentleman, Or, Etiquette and Eloquence: A Book of Information and Instruction … Containing Model Speeches for All Occasions … 500 Toasts and Sentiments for Everybody … to which are Added, the Duties of Chairmen of Public Meetings. Apparently they didn’t have editors in 1880, but in it is contained what might possibly be my favorite list to ever be listed: toast puns.

In a chapter titled “Toast-Master’s Companion,” the author argues “there is nothing in which men more conspicuously show their wit or their want of it than in giving toasts at public dinners.” But of course, showcasing one’s wit can be daunting, so the book offers toasts for various occasions. Patriotic toasts (“America: The birthplace of liberty and the asylum for the oppressed of every land”), Military Toasts (“An Army to stand, but not a Standing Army”) and toasts to drinking in general (“Old wine and young women”). But none of these are more glorious than the list of “Toasts for All Professions,” which is just a slew of puns about various jobs.

  • The Surgeon—A man who bleeds for his countrymen.
  • The Glazier— Who constantly takes pains (panes) that other people may see clearly.
  • The Baker— May he never be done so much as to make him crusty.
  • The Printer— May his form be well locked up in the arms of a charming wife. May he never know what it is to want a quoin.
  • The Tinker— A devout man whose life is spent in a pilgrimage, to mend the mistakes and repair the wastes which other people have made.
  • The Fireman— The sentinel of our homes may he burn only with ardor to protect the property and life of the city. May the flames of dissention never find fuel in his heart.
  • The Fire Department— the army that draws water in stead of blood and thanks instead of tears.
  • The Carpenter— May he have a warm house and good boarding.
  • The Actor— A bumper every night.
  • The Plumber— Though his business is to furnish mankind with the dumb blessings of light and water, may he be a good spouter and easily turn his lead into gold.
  • The Blacksmith— In every speculation may he always hit the nail on the head.
  • The Banker— May he always draw upon content for the deficiency of fortune
  • The Road maker— A highwayman who deserves well of his country.
  • A Card maker— May he often turn up trumps.
  • A Goal Merchant — May his customers ever be grate full.
  • An Auctioneer— By knocking down may he ever rise in the world.
  • The Distiller— May he never be out of spirits.
  • The Coach maker—May all his wheels be those of fortune.
  • The Painter— May he have a good pallet and plenty to gratify his taste.
  • Every Man’s Wife— May the lightning of her eye never cause him to be afraid of thunder.
  • The Saddler— May he sit upon a soft cushion and never have the misdeeds of others saddled upon him.
  • The Book keeper— May he faithfully keep his books and may his books keep him.

All italics original and perfect. Remember these for the next time you dine with the Card Maker in your life.

How To Propose A Toast

Me as a bridesmaid drinking to my friend's health. [Jennifer May Photography]

Me as a bridesmaid drinking to my friend’s health. [Jennifer May Photography]

I LOVE proposing toasts. I do it at pretty much every meal I don’t eat alone, whether it’s a simple “cheers” with whatever glasses we have, or saying thanks to the hosts for having us together. According to my research, that latter move is in no way correct, but whatever, I’m grateful and I like clinking glasses and making eye contact.

So how do you toast a nice occasion? First, a bit of history. According to Service Etiquette by Oretha D. Swartz, the tradition of toasting goes back to “ancient times, when a piece of toast was placed in a goblet with the mead, or any alcoholic brew. When it became saturated, the toast sank to the bottom goblet, and after someone challenged ‘Toast!’ it was necessary to drain the goblet in order to get the toast.” Is this real? This sounds apocryphal, but The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette has a similar story. I’ll take it.

Swartz continues with some modern (it was written in 1988 but not much has changed) toasting etiquette tips. Nowadays it is not necessary to drain your glass; take a sip or two so that more of your beverage is available for future toasts. At formal occasions toasts may be made with champagne, but just use whatever drink you have on hand. If you happen to be served wine but don’t drink, Swartz recommends just touching the glass to your lips, since not participating in a toast is incredibly rude. However, I think it’s fine to just use whatever else you may be drinking, and give the wine to someone else.

Amy Vanderbilt notes that the best toasts are short and sweet, so if you are asked to toast a newly-wedded couple, a holiday dinner, or other celebration, simply honoring those who the party is for and saying how thankful you are to have everyone together is nice. A toast does not need to turn into a speech, unless you’ve been requested to prepare one, which is a whole other can of worms we can talk about later (or never because oh boy, public speaking).

Nearly all the etiquette books I’ve found mention that you are not supposed to drink a toast to yourself, lest you come off as self-congratulatory. I personally could not care less, but just be aware that some people might. In the event that someone is toasting to you but you still want to drink, you can respond “Thank you, and here’s to you all,” in which case you’ve flipped to toast onto them and technically are the only person in the room allowed to drink, you sneaky minx.

Now, some toast notes:

  • At a wedding, the first toast is traditionally given by the best man. However, I can’t think of the last wedding I went to that specifically followed this rule. Toasts were given in all sorts of orders by the couple’s parents, bridesmaids, siblings, etc. We may be able to retire this one.
  • Swartz says it’s traditional to toast the bride at a bachelor party, gentlemen.
  • If you feel an imminent toast, be sure to top your glass and the glasses of those around you, as it’s rude to toast with nothing.
  • According to Debrett’s, “port is never drunk before the Loyal Toast,” which is a toast to the head of the state. In this ceremony port is apparently passed to the left, and if you miss the decanter, you have to pass your glass to the left in hopes it catches up because the decanter can never be passed to the right.
  • If you’re going to be traveling abroad, learn the common toasts in those countries.
  • When I studied abroad in Italy I was taught you’re supposed to make eye contact with everyone at the table while toasting otherwise it’s seven years bad sex. It seems that many cultures have a similar superstition, so may as well play it safe.