How To Set Up A Guest Room

This is Emily Post's ideal guest room. I can't say I love her taste in curtains!

This is Emily Post’s ideal guest room. I can’t say I love her taste in curtains!

So these days, it seems like most people don’t have a dedicated guest room. Usually if there is an extra room, it’s an office with a fold out couch or something similar. I wonder sometimes what percentage of people “back in the day” really had a proper “guest room.” We did when I was very young and had a big house, but when we moved to a smaller house we didn’t anymore. Did people really have more overnight guests “back then”? I have so many questions.

These days, you make do with what you have, but if you lived in Amy Vanderbilt and Emily Post’s worlds, you have a guest room and they had some adorable, now somewhat outdated advice about what to put in there. So really, this post is mostly etiquette history, as you can certainly follow this advice but it is in no way expected.

The Basics:

  • A relatively comfortable bed. Emily Post suggests sleeping on it yourself once. Amy Vanderbilt suggests that you have two twin beds that can be pushed together (she is very concerned about couples that prefer to not sleep in the same bed???) That bed should have plenty of blankets and pillows as well.
  • There needs to be a light near to the bed that is bright enough to read by.
  • A working clock (though with cell phones these days…)
  • Hangars in the closets and empty dresser drawers so the guest can actually unpack.
  • Good curtains or shades to keep the sunlight out.
  • A pitcher of water and a glass

The Extras:

  • Flowers in a vase
  • Lots of books!
  • A desk with pens, writing paper, envelopes, and stamps (clearly in the days before email!)
  • Snacks for the guest to eat before bed
  • PJs and a bathrobe
  • A full length mirror
  • An array of toiletries for the bathroom
  • A hot water bottle (they specifically mention this for women- I wonder if it has to do with cramps more than keeping your toes warm.)

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Do That Anymore:

  • Emily suggests having a candle and matches. In case of an emergency, fine. BUT she also suggests that some people like to keep a candle burning all night. NO!
  • Both etiquette mavens also recommend having ashtrays and matches for smokers- not so much a necessity today (even if your friends smoke, I can’t imagine allowing them to smoke in the house.)
  • The pull cord for servants should be next to the bed (as if, Emily Post!)
  • Breakfast trays! (Maybe this was easy with lots of servants, but I am not running a hotel!)
  • A swimsuit if you have a pool (so unlikely that anyone would be able to have enough sizes of swimsuits for this to be practical!)
  • A radio (so quaint!)
  • A turned down bed (this is the maid’s doing, but I guess it doesn’t really take any time, so you COULD do it. Theoretically.)

But seriously though, nobody expects that their host provide them with a hotel room. And if you do have a real guestroom, I imagine that your guest will be so thrilled to be sleeping on an actual bed instead of a sofa or an air mattress that they won’t care about the other stuff. Just make sure that the sheets are clean (always always change and wash sheets between guests, come ON!) and the room is also clean and reasonably tidy and you are fine.

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 Follow These Crazy Dating Rules

Via Random_fotos

Pheasants make very romantic gifts Via Random_fotos

I think I have only been on one date in my life. I was 16, he was the 19-year-old half-brother of a friend, and we saw Master and Commander and then got pizza. It all happened because he asked me. He straight up asked me. Ok we had been making out on my futon at a party, but afterward he asked if I wanted to go out sometime, and I said yes, and then we went on a date. And even though that was the only date, how fantastic is it that he could just ask and I could just go? Obviously this was not always the case because if not for an elaborate system of rules, someone might get the wrong impression.

Dating as we know it did not even really exist in more western culture until the 1920s, when first-wave feminism and cars collided to pretty much invent the modern teenager. You could get a lot more necking done in the backseat of a model T than on your parent’s porch, and young people in general were rebelling against the Victorian models of etiquette and decorum solidified by their parents. Furthermore, with more women entering the workplace, the idea of what marriage meant was beginning to change. Women began looking for a friend and companion with sexual chemistry in a potential husband, not just someone to provide a house.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before the radical drunks of the ‘20s, there was courtship. You’ve probably read about it in a Jane Austen novel. A man and a woman of the same social circle are introduced formally, the man makes clear his intentions to woo this woman, and after some supervised interaction they agree to plan a wedding. Romance was not really in the picture the way we experience it today. Cassell’s Hand-Book of Etiquette (1860) states “According to the strict code of our forefathers a gentleman should ask the consent of the parents or guardians before he endeavours to win the affections of the young lady.” Because of that, “parents should be very careful whom they receive as intimate friends,” especially if they have daughters. (However, it was not just men who were in danger. Men should “beware the lady of unmeaning attentions.”)

Once a man decided he wanted to woo a lady, there were a few options. He could hang out at her house. He could hope to run into her at a ball. He could take her out with a chaperone (more on that later). He could also send her gifts of fruit and flowers, though according to Cassell, “in fashionable life, game is almost the only present that acquaintances make of each other.” For the love of god, why has nobody brought me a “Thinking of You” pheasant?

Later, if he wanted to propose, he could do so in a handwritten letter, provided he had received permission from her father first.  However, Gertrude Elizabeth Campbell mentions in her 1893 book Etiquette of Good Society that “it is said in the olden times of [England], the women made the advances, and often became the suitors.” She also mentions that “In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it seems to have been the height of gentility to hold the lady by the finger only.” In case you wanted to go retro on your next date.

Anyway, back to the more modern age of 100 years ago, when “dates” began to be a thing. How do you know when you’re ready to date? How do you ask someone on one? How do you know when it’s over. Various etiquette books over the years had advice, though some rules are unbreakable. Putnam’s 1913 Handbook of Etiquette says “is it necessary to state that a young lady who desires to hold an enviable position in smart, ceremonious society does not, whether motherless or not, go to restaurants alone with young men for any meal?” Surely it is not!

By the 1950s things had changed even more. Amy Vanderbilt says that parents know when their boy is ready to date when “his shoes will be shined to a glassy polish” and he starts paying attention to all of his ties. However, Vanderbilt offers no advice on just how this boy will ask a girl on a date, saying they “bungle through somehow in the early years of dating, eventually acquiring a certain polished technique only experience can bring.” Great. Once he does ask her on a date, it is the girl’s responsibility to signal when the night is over. To do this, “She places her napkin unfolded at the left of her plate, looks questioningly at her escort and prepares to rise. If he suggests they linger she may do so if she wishes. However, her decision must be abided by.”

Even if you were an adult with a career and your own place, some old rules still applied. Vanderbilt wrote in 1952, “A career girl, from her twenties onward, can accept such an invitation [to a single man’s house] but should not stay beyond ten or ten-thirty. An old rule and a good one is ‘Avoid the appearance of evil.’” No word on what to do with your napkin if you’re a career girl in a bachelor’s pad; we’ll get back to you on that.