White House kitchen with set table and cupboards, 1904. I’m drooling over the butler’s pantry.
Over the years, I’ve bought more than a few vintage/antique etiquette and hostess books, most of which have been passed on to my daughter. I purchased them as useful references for theatre productions, but they’re an interesting glimpse into an idealized past. They reflect white, upper middle class values and amenities; not so much the world of Downton Abbey, but definitely the world of Nick and Nora as shown in the Thin Man movies. My family wasn’t upper middle class, but the manners and methods in these books were very much a part of my childhood. There was something aspirational about using the “good” dishes and knowing the “right” fork, knife, or spoon to use. I always had the sense that my mother wasn’t trying to have us live like rich people, but was teaching about living with poise and appreciation expressed through stylized manners. There are some ugly classist assumptions in the books, and there’s no question that there were some ridiculous classist assumptions in abiding by their guidance. But I also think that with a perspective balanced with humor and flexibility, there’s something to be said for occasionally taking the time to indulge in some gracious living. With all of the chaos swirling about us, I thought a few reminders, from the sublime to the ridiculous, might enable a level of poise we can all use.