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?)

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Write Letters Anymore, Right Millenials?

Clippy-letterI hesitate to write this, because I am wary of coming firmly on the side of No More Letters. What a shame, right? For a long time in my life I very much romanticized writing letters. I had a wax seal with my initials on it, for gods sake, and for one year in high school decided I’d write all my best friends heartfelt letters for their birthdays instead of getting themselves gifts (I’m so sorry, friends). Even recently I’ve found it comforting to write letters to faraway friends instead of texting or emailing, and I covet my personalized stationery.

However, the last time I picked up a pen and tried to write an extended thought on a piece of paper I think my hand cramped up. I have the handwriting of a 7-year-old on a hay ride, and between trying to make sure anything I write down is actually legible, or being like “Yes Word paperclip I am trying to write a letter, YOU’RE SUCH A GENIUS,” or making sure that after all is said and done the damn paper actually gets to where it’s going (quite a few of our wedding invitations mysteriously never made it to their destinations), the art of letter writing is losing its allure, and I think I might be done. I don’t want to give a definitive answer, but some days I really appreciate Gmail.

But, obviously, writing letters has been a huge part of how people communicated. The Polite Letter Writer, 1860, states, “Had letters been known at the beginning of the world, epistolary writing would have been as old as love and friendship, for as soon as they began to flourish, the verbal messenger was dropped, the language of the heart was committed to characters that faithfully preserved it, secrecy was maintained, and social intercourse rendered more free and pleasant.” Nice, right?

The Polite Letter Writer has a whole guide for many types of letters, but there are some basic rules. First, make sure you spell everything correctly, a rule that gives me heart palpitations because I rely heavily on those squiggly red lines to let me know what I do wrong. Also, “vulgarism in language” suggests you’d be bad company, and “Proverbial expressions and trite sayings are the flowers of the rhetoric of a low-bred man.” So, you know, say what you mean. She then goes on for about ten pages about how to craft your natural writing style, which I’m sure is a lovely skill to have, but it’s all about studying the works of eminent poets but not actually imitating them, and I’d rather just send a Futurama .gif. (Hahah some Baby Boomer just read that and had a heart attack. Sorry guys, sorry for keeping it real.)

Most of the letter writing guides I’ve found follow the same format, and it’s EXHAUSTING. I mean, just look at the Table of Contents for Martine’s Perfect Letter Writer:

letter contents

You don’t even get to ‘How to begin a Letter” until 20 pages in, and that tip is literally start writing two-inches down from the top of the paper. It’s madness. Here are some other outdated tips for writing all day long.

  • If you’re writing a letter to someone you don’t know well, end with “Your obedient Servant.” As you get friendlier you can move up to “Yours faithfully” and even to “Yours very sincerely.”
  • “Honored sir” is terribly antiquated.
  • “Never sent a note to  person who is your superior.”
  • “Postscripts are generally indicative of thoughtlessness, and should be avoided.”
  • “Never write ‘I saw 5 birds’.”

Of course, there’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater (was that too much the rhetoric of a low-bred man?). These books still have good advice, and I’d like to leave you with something that applies whether you’re communicating via written letter or Gchat:

And finally remember that whatever you write is written evidence either of your good sense or your folly, your industry or carelessness, your self control or impatience. What you have once put into the letter box may cost you lasting regret, or be equally important to your whole future welfare. And, for such grave reasons, think before you write and think while you are writing.

Thank Goodness No One Is Making Us Take Snuff

Aside from alcohol, I have never really been one for drugs. And in terms of the way to take drugs, I think snorting anything sounds like the most unpleasant way. Ok, maybe I wouldn’t stick a needle in my arm either, but can anyone tell me they actually enjoy the sensation of a dry, powdery substance going up their nose? This is why I always found snuff so fascinating. We have cigarettes and cigars and dip and patches, so why would you decide that shoving it up your nose is a good idea?!

According to this WHO report, “American Indians were probably the first people to smoke, chew and snuff tobacco, as early as the 1400s (Christen et al., 1982). The Indians inhaled powdered tobacco through a hollow Y-shaped piece of cane or pipe by placing the forked ends into each nostril and the other end near the powdered tobacco. This instrument was called a ‘tobago’ or ‘tobaca’. The word was later changed by the Spaniards to ‘tobacco’.” It also notes, “When smoking was forbidden on British naval vessels because of the fire hazard,sailors turned to chewing tobacco and snuff.”

By the 18th century, it was really popular, and because many Europeans seemed to have nothing better to do with their time, a complex set of social rules was set up around the practice! Women, of course, were to abstain from snuff, and men were not supposed to take snuff in the presence of women. When they did, you were to pinch some in your fingers, bring it to your nose, and inhale quickly. There is debate as to whether it is alright to sneeze afterward. In some places it was popular because of the risque idea that the feeling of a sneeze was akin to that of an orgasm. Other books say it’s incredibly rude. If you were at a party, you were also to use the host’s snuff box, not your own snuff from your waistcoat pockets. The Laws of Etiquette from 1836 also says “as to taking snuff from a paper, it is vile.”

American habits mirrored those of Europe for a while. However, many in the South believed the French and English snuff habits were too precious, and instead began to favor chewing tobacco. But it wasn’t just Westerners using snuff. The Uncivilized Races of Men in All Countries of the World of 1876 describes the snuff practices of South African natives, with the added benefit of doing it in an incredibly racist way! The author writes, “It is considered bad manners to offer snuff to another, because to offer a gift implies superiority; the principal man in each assembly being always called upon to snuff to the others. There is an etiquette even in asking for snuff. If one Kaffir [racial slur for a black person in South Africa, FYI do not use this word] sees another taking snuff he does not ask for it, but puts a sidelong question saying “What are you eating?”

The same thing happened in China, where snuff was presumably brought by Jesuit missionaries. Though initially it was all imported, China began producing snuff in an array of colors and scents. Many of the upper class still prefered imported product. It was so popular they even wrote a song about it, called “Snuff Bottle Song”:

A marvelous plant, the absolutely unique tobacco

And this wonder drug is also not the yabulu

But a special kind of foreign tobacco

Not produced in China but imported from abroad

It is its virtue to clear out one’s blood

To liven up the nostrils, and invigorate one’s spirit

Despite its popularity, in many circles it was still seen as a bad habit. In Charles William Day’s Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society: With a Glance at Bad Habits, published in 1844, he writes:

As snuff taking is merely an idle dirty habit practised by stupid people in the unavailing endeavor to clear their stolid intellect, and is not a custom particularly offensive to their neighbors, it may be left to each individual taste as to whether it be continued or not. An “Elegant” cannot take much snuff without decidedly losing “caste.”


Snuff is not as ubiquitous in America anymore, though you can still find it in most European tobacco shops. It’s also responsible for the name of the “anatomical snuff box,” the little dip in your hand right under your thumb when you hold it taught. However, some suggest there may be a comeback, what with all the public smoking bans happening around the world. Many are right to point out the absence of secondhand smoke when tobacco is taken this way, and the lower risk of lung cancer for the taker, which I guess is better, but I also really hope I don’t have to start putting up with a bunch of people making gross snorting noises around me when I’m out at a bar.

Anyway, if you’re interested in snuff, there’s a competition in Germany where you’re supposed to shovel five grams of it into your nose in a minute. The photos are incredible.

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

Dessert place setting- the finger bowl is on the white doily to the left. [via Wikimedia Commons]

Finger bowls are one of those mainstays of snooty etiquette examples, with people focusing on this one obscure bit of etiquette as a reason it is outdated and unnecessary. Obviously, our whole point with this website is to show how etiquette is still useful and necessary. But it is also fun to talk about things like finger bowls!

So what is a finger bowl? It is essentially a little bowl of water that you dip your fingers in to clean them at the dinner table.

Some reference books claim they have been used on and off from medieval times until now, but I can barely find any references to them in etiquette books before 1900. So I believe finger bowls as we imagine them must have been a late Victorian/Gilded Age invention.

Finger bowls are always served with the dessert course. In fact, as the change of plates and silverware for the dessert course is brought out, the finger bowl is actual on top of a doily on top of the dessert plate. The diner then removes the finger bowl from the plate and places it (and the doily!) to the front and slightly left of the place setting. However, if there is no silverware on the plate with the finger bowl, it signals that there is no dessert and then the finger bowl is left on the plate.

To use the finger bowl, you gently dip the very tips of your fingers into the water and then dry them off with your napkin. You may also dab a bit of the water onto your lips with your fingers and then pat dry with the napkin. You are not really supposed to be washing your hands, merely giving a polite impression of cleanliness.

A more serious, soapy bowl of water may be given after eating messy foods such as lobster. Of course, nowadays we have those handy packets of wet wipes that rib joints pass out- not quite as elegant but definitely more practical.

Of course my favorite finger bowl story is the one where the impolite rube is at a fancy society dinner and drinks the contents of the bowl. His hostess (often said to be Queen Victoria) promptly drinks her finger bowl water also, so that he doesn’t feel that he has done something wrong. A perfect example of the spirit in which etiquette exists: to make everyone feel comfortable.

Interestingly, despite the fact that no one actually uses finger bowls anymore, every contemporary book of dining etiquette mentions how to use them. I’ve eaten at a lot of fancy places and have never seen them. If you have, please tell me where in the comments!

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

 "Mermaids at Brighton" by William Heath (1795 - 1840), c. 1829. Depicts women sea-bathing with bathing machines at Brighton.

“Mermaids at Brighton” by William Heath (1795 – 1840), c. 1829. Depicts women sea-bathing with bathing machines at Brighton.

I know it’s November, but I think now is the perfect time to talk about some of the eccentricities of beach etiquette in the Victorian era. Because you know that cozy outfit you’re wearing right now? Imagine wearing that on the beach. Summertime fun!

Bathing, whether by spa or by sea, began as a recreational activity in the mid-1800s. Prior to that, prolonged time in the water was assumed to cause instant death (something about water opening the pores so all the disease can get in). But by the mid 19th-century, many doctors began espousing the restorative and medicinal properties of a good soak or swim, and the middle-class began associating cleanliness with refinement, and dirtiness as a sign of disease and immorality. So all of a sudden, everyone wanted to go to the beach, and realized you couldn’t really do this in your everyday clothing.

Beaches have always been fun for men. They could bathe in their underwear, within full view of any delicate woman. But women had to hide their beach bodies and activities. According to Victoriana Magazine (why don’t I have a subscription to this), “Women typically dressed in black, knee-length, puffed-sleeve wool dresses, often featuring a sailor collar, and worn over bloomers trimmed with ribbons and bows. The bathing suit was typically accessorized with long black stockings, lace-up bathing slippers, and fancy caps.” This just goes to show you that even though we still argue about abortion and health care and intersectionality in feminism, things have changed. I am wearing a more revealing outfit right now, and I’m at work. Also I am a woman at work.

As you can imagine, these bathing outfits were not really easy to swim around in. In Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, Charles Panati mentions that there were a number of fatalities in Europe and America due to “waterlogged bathers caught in an undertow.” But, y’know, modesty.

Now, these outfits were only appropriate for the beach, so how did a woman get into them? Surely you couldn’t just hop in the car with a sarong around yourself. No, for this, we had bathing machines! These devices first showed up in England in the 1750s and lasted until the early 20th century. W.C. Oulton in The Traveller’s Guide; or, English Itinerary, Vol II describes them as “four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.” Once in the water, a “modesty hood,” sort of like an awning,  hid her activities from male bathers.

As you may have expected, these were incredibly uncomfortable to use. Women would get in, change and store her street clothes in a little shelf up top so they wouldn’t get wet, and then get yanked into the water by horses. Sometimes other, stronger women would be hired to throw and retrieve the bathers to and from the sea, and if you couldn’t swim they’d tie a rope around your waist and let you bob there for a while, until a wave banged you around. (These “dippers” were also in charge of getting rid of male gawkers, and can we please get some erotic fiction going about them.) In The Hand-Book of Bathing, the author writes “if, therefore, the good effect of the bath is to be immediately counteracted by what must inevitably follow in a common bathing-machine, the patient had better totally refrain from sea-bathing.”

Like with most practices of modesty, we got over it, probably faster because of that whole drowning thing.