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.
The Breakfast Party
In 1876, Mrs. Mary Henderson published a book that combined instructions in etiquette with recipes for a wide variety of foods. Mrs. Henderson did not have a particularly high opinion of the American cook:
The reason why cooking in America is, as a rule, so inferior is not because American women are less able and apt than the women of France, and not because the American men do not discuss and appreciate the merits of good cooking and the pleasure of entertaining friends at their own table; it is merely because American women seem possessed with the idea that it is not the fashion to know how to cook; that, as an accomplishment, the art of cooking is not as ornamental as that of needle-work or piano-playing. I do not undervalue these last accomplishments. A young lady of esprit should understand them; but she should understand, also, the accomplishment of cooking. A young lady can scarcely have too many accomplishments, for they serve to adorn her home, and are attractive and charming, generally. But of them all—painting, music, fancy work, or foreign language—is there one more fascinating and useful, or one which argues more intelligence in its acquisition, than the accomplishment of cooking? (Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving: A Treatise Containing Practical Instructions in Cooking; in the Combination and Serving of Dishes; and in the Fashionable Modes of Entertaining at Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner)
She did, however, feel that the American breakfast was far superior to the English or French breakfast as preparation for the activities of active people. She advocated for breakfast parties as more affordable than dinner parties but equally fashionable and certainly a statement about wanting to see one’s guests vs fulfilling a formal obligation through a dinner party. Of course, this is 1876, so one is urged to keep the silver service for tea and coffee on the table throughout the meal, but otherwise not deviate from the standards of a multi-course evening meal. She even provides several suggested seasonal menus for the reader; this is the summer menu:
2d Course.—Little fried perch, smelts, or trout, with a sauce Tartare, the dish garnished with shrimps and olives. Coffee, tea, or chocolate.
3d Course.—Young chickens, sautéd, with cream-gravy, surrounded with potatoes à la neige. Claret.
4th Course.—Poached eggs on anchovy-toast.
5th Course.—Little fillets of porter-house-steaks, with tomatoes à la Mayonnaise.
6th Course.—Peaches, quartered, sweetened, and half-frozen. (Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving: A Treatise Containing Practical Instructions in Cooking; in the Combination and Serving of Dishes; and in the Fashionable Modes of Entertaining at Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner)
I’m pretty sure that menu represents two days (or more) worth of food for me, but it does remind me that it’s been a very long time since I’ve cooked and served a breakfast for myself or my family. It may be time. (But I think I’ll skip the silver service altogether…mostly because I don’t have one.)
Grudging almost-verging-on-feminist acknowledgement of changing mores for women
It’s unlikely that any of us are going to need lessons in the proper etiquette of horseback riding, but in 1918, it was still a consideration. In The Etiquette of To-Day, Edith B. Ordway covers horseback riding, carriage rides, and automobile excursions. The detail is exacting:
In entering a carriage or automobile, one should step promptly, without either loitering or haste. If one is to sit facing the horses or the front of the automobile, and there is but one step to take, one puts the left foot on it. If there are two steps, the right foot should take the first, the left the second. If one is to face in the opposite direction from what the vehicle is going, one should use the right foot first in case of the one step, and the left foot first in case of the two.
When two ladies who are guest and hostess are driving together, the guest should enter first, taking the farther seat, facing the front of the carriage, so that it will not be necessary for her hostess to pass her. When a mother and daughter enter a carriage, the mother precedes, and the daughter sits by her side if no other lady is present. In case of two daughters, the elder sits by the side of the mother, and the younger sits opposite.
The fashionable hours for driving are from two-thirty to five in the winter, and from three to six-thirty in the summer. (The Etiquette of To-Day)
It is, however, in the section about riding that we get a glimmer of freedom for women.
It is necessary, first, to have a firm seat; secondly, a skillful hand on the rein. One should sit in the middle of the saddle, in an easy, natural position, with the body not stiff but supple and responsive to the motion of the horse. The elbows should be well in to the side, in a line with the shoulders, and the hands should be relaxed and yet responsive to the slightest pull of the rein.
It is no longer considered wise and necessary for a woman to use a side saddle. In the freedom of a graceful divided skirt, she strides the saddle as do the men, and therefore has an equal chance with them to ride gracefully and safely,—a privilege which fashion long denied. (italics mine) (The Etiquette of To-Day)
My only quibble? If the patriarchy is to be smashed, we need to remember that fashion resulted in a right denied, not a privilege denied. My only question? What makes anything about driving “fashionable,” much less those particular hours?
No paper napkins…
Napkin use was one of those arcane etiquette areas that was drilled into me from an early age, although as a child, my mother used paper napkins for kitchen meals. Cloth napkins were reserved for dining room meals, but as an adult, as penance for using disposable diapers, I have only used cloth napkins. Considering I gathered more than 200 vintage napkins for use at The Kiddo’s wedding, as well as having my mom’s collection of damask napkins, it’s been an easy pledge to keep. It’s also been a choice I embrace; small and simple, but with a touch of elegance.
What can be more unsightly than a napkin tucked carefully in the top of one’s waistcoat? And still, how often one sees it done among men who believe that they are impressively well-bred! The proper way to use a napkin, whether it is at a formal dinner, or in a restaurant, is to unfold it only half, leaving the center fold as it is, and lay it across the knees. It may be used constantly during the meal, whenever the guest finds need for it, but it must never be completely unfolded.
When rising from the table, the napkin is placed as it is on the table. It is never folded again into its original form, as that would be an assumption on the part of the guest that the hostess would use it again before laundering. A reprehensible habit is to drop the napkin carelessly into the finger-bowl, or over the coffee cup. It should be laid on the table, at the right of the finger-bowl. ( Book of Etiquette, Volume 2, by Lillian Eichler Watson, 1921)
As for those arcane napkin rules, drilled into me from an early age? Here’s a prime example: the fold of the napkin is always positioned towards one’s stomach, with the open ends towards one’s knees. If food is spilled onto the napkin, the top edge is folded back to cover the food and keep it from falling or soiling one’s clothing. (For what it’s worth, cloth napkins are a simple adjustment to make, but if I were to urge one refinement for gracious living, it would be the reintroduction of finger bowls.)
Rules are made to be broken, but it helps if you know them first
Etiquette as espoused in these antique books is largely seen today as outdated, inapplicable, or ridiculous. Rules about how to address the servants are meaningless to most, if not all, of us. Even the concept of “rules” raises red flags, because so many of us were raised in an era when challenging the Establishment was the value that was elevated. In my family, everyone has been drilled in the knowledge that the master butter knife is used to transfer butter to one’s bread plate, but the individual butter knife is the only acceptable knife to use for spreading that butter. My family’s response though is to use individual butter knives as weapons of choice in “sword fights” and to try to knock the butter off the master butter before it reaches the plate. The “rules” are known; the rules are broken. (Don’t even get me started on what happens when I set the table with my knife rests that happen to look like barbells…) The old etiquette books state things with a level of certainty and absolutism that is downright offensive in today’s world, but if one can look at the underlying principles, rather than the overarching pronouncements, there’s something to be learned:
Culture and cheer go hand-in-hand. The cultured man or woman is always cheerful, always finding something good and beautiful in all mankind and nature. Cheerfulness itself means poise—a wholesome, happy, undaunted poise that makes life well-balanced and worth the living. The person of low, vulgar tastes and desires is seldom contented, seldom happy. He finds everywhere evil, ugliness, selfishness, and a tendency for the world generally to degrade itself to the lower levels of coarseness. He finds it because he looks for it. And he looks for it because it already exists in his mind.
And yet, he may be educated; he may be a recognized power in the financial world; he may even possess enviable talents. But if he lacks that glorious open-hearted generosity, that sincere sympathy and simple understanding with all mankind, that helpful, healthful, ever-inspiring agreeableness of mind and spirit—the world will have none of him. (Book of Etiquette Volume I by Lillian Eichler, 1921)