Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Travel in 1920

With peak summer vacation time coming to a close (if you’ve been wondering why we haven’t been posting much lately, it’s because we’ve been on vacation!), I thought it would be a good time to check in with Emily Post and see what she had to say about traveling in the 1920s.

Some pretty solid advice:

  • On trains (the main type of public transport at the time, most advice applicable to airplanes today), don’t eat smelly food (or smoke cigars) that are going to disturb other passengers. She mentions bananas specifically.
  • Keep your children occupied so they don’t disturb other passengers.
  • When traveling by boat to Europe (ie a cruise today), unless you are very wealthy and have many friends also traveling on board with whom to arrange a dining table, you should sit where the steward puts you and make conversation with your dining companions throughout the trip (a good story for another day is the time when Jaya and I were on a cruise with two other girls and the other four people at our dinner table basically did not talk to us the entire time!)
  • Don’t bother people with incessant talking when it’s clear they are not in the mood to talk. Try out a few remarks, but if they go back to their book, you need to go back to yours.
  • Don’t be an ugly American when traveling abroad (it’s impressive this was a problem as far back as the 1920s!)
  • Don’t steal from other countries/monuments for souvenirs. And don’t deface historical monuments to leave your mark.
  • Avoid traveling with others and potentially ruining their holiday if when traveling you are frequently in a bad mood, often don’t want to go along with what the group wants to do, get very frustrated with delays or bad weather, or get sick very easily. Don’t go on a boating trip if you get seasick, don’t go on hikes if you can’t walk very far, etc. The good traveling companion is cheerful, gets along with others, knows their limits, and avoids complaining about inevitable discomfort.

Surprising Advice:

  • Ladies do not have to travel with escorts. In fact, if you run into a gentleman of your acquaintance in your travels, you should take care not to spend too many meals with him or talk to him too much lest people start to talk.
  • When registering in hotels, men always write their names as John Smith, unless they are traveling with their wives in which case they write Mr. and Mrs. John Smith. Women always write their names with the honorific, such as Miss Jane Doe or Mrs. John Smith.
  • Wearing ball dresses on board a ship is in the worst taste because it implies that you have nowhere else to wear your best things. The most formal you should be is semi formal.
  • Don’t worry about what to called titled people if you happen to reach those circles while abroad, just call them “you” when you are speaking to them.

Bad Advice for Today:

  • Always tip 10% and don’t occupy a table by yourself if you are only having a simple (ie less expensive meal).
  • Bringing letters of introduction. (Although, I guess, Facebook introductions are kind of the same thing?)

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.

Best Lines in Emily Post’s Etiquette

BAD FORM! Captain Hook has literally nothing to do with Emily Post, but I think they would agree.

Emily Post published her book, Etiquette in 1922 and it was an immediate best seller, partially because it contained excellent advice and partially because it was wittily written. Some of Emily’s witticisms remain so today while some are humorously outdated. I’ve combed through the first half of the book and pulled out some of my favorites (there may be a follow up with the second half of the book…let me know in the comments if you want more!)

  • “Saccharine chirpings should be classed with crooked little fingers, high hand-shaking and other affectations. All affectations are bad form.”
  • “Who does not dislike a “boneless” hand extended as though it were a spray of sea-weed, or a miniature boiled pudding? It is equally annoying to have one’s hand clutched aloft in grotesque affectation and shaken violently sideways, as though it were being used to clean a spot out of the atmosphere. What woman does not wince at the viselike grasp that cuts her rings into her flesh and temporarily paralyzes every finger?”
  • “Nothing is so easy for any woman to acquire as a charming bow. It is such a short and fleeting duty. Not a bit of trouble really; just to incline your head and spontaneously smile as though you thought “Why, there is Mrs. Smith! How glad I am to see her!””
  • “Whether in a private carriage, a car or a taxi, a lady must never sit on a gentleman’s left; because according to European etiquette, a lady “on the left” is not a “lady.” Although this etiquette is not strictly observed in America, no gentleman should risk allowing even a single foreigner to misinterpret a lady’s position.” [Ed: Heaven forbid!!]
  • “Why a man, because he has millions, should assume that they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, is something which may be left to the psychologist to answer, but most of those thrown much in contact with millionaires will agree that an attitude of infallibility is typical of a fair majority.” [Ed: Eat the rich!]
  • “Not so many years ago, a lady or gentleman, young girl or youth, who failed to pay her or his “party call” after having been invited to Mrs. Social-Leader’s ball was left out of her list when she gave her next one. For the old-fashioned hostess kept her visiting list with the precision of a bookkeeper in a bank; everyone’s credit was entered or cancelled according to the presence of her or his cards in the card receiver. Young people who liked to be asked to her house were apt to leave an extra one at the door, on occasion, so that theirs should not be among the missing when the new list for the season was made up—especially as the more important old ladies were very quick to strike a name off, but seldom if ever known to put one back.”
  • “In a ball dress a lady of distinction never leans back in a chair; one can not picture a beautiful and high-bred woman, wearing a tiara and other ballroom jewels, leaning against anything. This is, however, not so much a rule of etiquette as a question of beauty and fitness.”
  • “Acceptances or regrets are always written. An engraved form to be filled in is vulgar—nothing could be in worse taste than to flaunt your popularity by announcing that it is impossible to answer your numerous invitations without the time-saving device of a printed blank.” [Ed: Oh man, aren’t you glad we can just text now?]
  • “But the “mansion” of bastard architecture and crude paint, with its brass indifferently clean, with coarse lace behind the plate glass of its golden-oak door, and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: “Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation.”” [Ed: I am absolutely bringing back the term “vulgarian.”]
  • “Be very careful though. Do not mistake modern eccentricities for “art.” There are frightful things in vogue to-day—flamboyant colors, grotesque, triangular and oblique designs that can not possibly be other than bad, because aside from striking novelty, there is nothing good about them.”
  • “The fact that you live in a house with two servants, or in an apartment with only one, need not imply that your house lacks charm or even distinction, or that it is not completely the home of a lady or gentleman.” [Ed: But Emily, can my home be the home of a lady if I have NO servants? Asking for a friend.]
  • “The garden party is merely an afternoon tea out of doors. It may be as elaborate as a sit-down wedding breakfast or as simple as a miniature strawberry festival.” [Ed: Nothing about a miniature strawberry festival sounds simple.]
  • “If your house has a great Georgian dining-room, the table should be set with Georgian or an earlier period English silver” [Ed: Obviously.]
  • “As soon as the guests are seated and the first course put in front of them, the butler goes from guest to guest on the right hand side of each, and asks “Apollinaris or plain water!” and fills the goblet accordingly. In the same way he asks later before pouring wine: “Cider, sir?” “Grape fruit cup, madam?” Or in a house which has the remains of a cellar, “Champagne?” or “Do you care for whiskey and soda, sir?”” [Ed: This is funny because the book was written during Prohibition, and you don’t really think, when thinking about Prohibition, about the consequences for etiquette- what do you do with all your different wine glasses and what do you serve with a fancy dinner?]
  • “A guest helps himself with his fingers and lays the roll or bread on the tablecloth, always. No bread plates are ever on a table where there is no butter, and no butter is ever served at a dinner.” [Ed: A dinner with no butter sounds really sad to me. Not even butter in fancy shapes? Or are fancy shapes nouveau riche?]
  • “Pie, however, is not a “company” dessert. Ice cream on the other hand is the inevitable conclusion of a formal dinner.” [Ed: Ice cream had literally JUST been invented, so I will give them a break here.]
  • “No matter where it is used, the finger bowl is less than half filled with cold water; and at dinner parties, a few violets, sweet peas, or occasionally a gardenia, is put in it. (A slice of lemon is never seen outside of a chop-house where eating with the fingers may necessitate the lemon in removing grease. Pretty thought!)”

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”



Dorothy Parker Reviews Emily Post

If you’ve been reading Uncommon Courtesy for a while, you’ll notice we talk about Emily Post a lot. Obviously a lot of that is because Emily Post is pretty much the first name in etiquette (apologies to Miss Manners). Part of that is because of her ubiquitousness, but also because her original Etiquette holds up so well as an entertaining read.

Dorothy Parker, as a staff writer for The New Yorker in 1927, thought so too and wrote a really wonderful review of that year’s edition of the book. She saw it as a story (Emily Post was originally a novelist!) as much as a series of instructions, noting that the addition of a repeating set of characters “gives the work all the force and the application of a morality play.” Legend has it that the Mrs. Worldlys and Mr. Gildings of the book were based on the real people of upper New York society that Emily Post knew.

While she loves the “sprightliness of Mrs. Post’s style,” Parker finds fault with the person who perfectly follows every rule of the lengthy tome.

Those who have mastered etiquette, who are entirely, impeccably right, would seem to arrive at a point of exquisite dullness. The letters and the conversations of the correct, as quoted by Mrs. Post, seem scarcely worth the striving for. The rules for the finding of topics of conversation fall damply on the spirit. “You talk of something you have been doing or thinking about–planting a garden, planning a journey, contemplating a journey, or similar safe topics. Not at all a bad plan is to ask advice: “‘We want to motor through the South. Do you know about the roads?’ Or, ‘I’m thinking of buying a radio. Which make do you think is best?’”

I may not dispute Mrs. Post. If she says that is the way you should talk, then, indubitably, that is the way you should talk. But though it be at the cost of that future social success I am counting on, there is no force great enough ever to make me say, “I’m thinking of buying a radio.”

Of course, this is part of what we are trying to accomplish in our discussions on etiquette here on Uncommon Courtesy, exactly how to find the balance between the perfectly polite while still retaining your personality and meshing all the different ideas that people have about etiquette with what is generally considered to be correct. Anyway, go read the whole essay, it’s fantastic.