Monday, September 19, 2011

The High Cost of "Etiquette" in a Rude World (1922 Edition)

by Stephen J. Gertz

First edition, 1922.

We, at Booktryst, are the soul of courtesy and decorum. When we open a book we invite the lady to step inside and read first. While we digest a book's content we restrain public effusions of flatulence.  We keep our mouth closed while reading and never, never, move our lips, or use a finger (because even though it's ours we don't know where it's been) when scanning text. 

When reading responsively we are always courteous: "After you, Gaston." "No, after you, Marcel." "No, Gaston, I insist." "Well, then..." We never read in our undershorts by the front window with the shades open; mother would be horrified and what about the neighbors? Our marginalia is executed in the finest penmanship because the hand reflects the mind and  sloppy handwriting reflects an uncultivated intellect. When we turn a page it is done with a gentle pinch of the upper right corner with thumb and index finger and with balletic grace, pinky extended,  we draw it over to reveal the next one. We formally greet each new page as it appears; we are not anti-social barbarians,  nor are we  Philistines.

When meeting with our book club we confine our individual alcoholic consumption to three bottles of  fine, vintage Pouilly-Fuissé, and our use of illegal drugs to four elegantly rolled fat-boy joints of Monster Purple  OMG OG Kush; poorly rolled spliffs of cheap Mexican pot reflect poor breeding - of the marijuana and the consumer. Though in an altered state alternating between blissful reverie and bleak psychosis we keep our inner world inside and never, apropos of nothing (or all too apropos), openly exclaim, "Everything is everything; we are the universe and it's a gang-written book composed by rotten writers!" while another member expresses their puerile thoughts on All  I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. It just isn't done.

All we really need to know we learned in Emily Post's Etiquette (1922).

Welcome. Please come in.  Social grace and a slice of warm pie served here.

A first edition, first printing of this classic is not a terribly expensive book. A first edition, first printing in fine condition in its original dust jacket in fine condition is, however, a true scarcity and a very expensive volume. Though public discussions of money are trés uncouth, we nonetheless, at the risk of being socially ostracized, descend to the rude and note the  asking price of a lollapalooza copy  in DJ currently in the  marketplace: $15,000. Before you slap your head and shout, "Oh, my butt-fucking God!" remember that "Nearly all the faults or mistakes in conversation are caused by not thinking. For instance, a first rule for behavior in society is: 'Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others'" (Chapter 7, Conversation). 

A first edition, first printing copy in fine condition without the dust jacket is a $1000 - $1500 book.  Copies, when found, are usually a holy wreck; the volume was heavily read and re-read, the dust jacket soon a shambles if not tossed away. The  jacket is incredibly scarce and, as with a handful of modern firsts, everything.

What's the big deal about Etiquette by Emily Post?

Teaching children the proper and polite use of eating utensils.

There is arguably no other book that so captures a key period in American socio-cultural history. Etiquette was part of a larger, aspirational movement during the 1920s, feminism at the far end of its second stage, and, after our involvement and victory in WWI brought the U.S. to the center of attention, a desire for America to shake off its raw, rustic character and behave like a cultured nation. 

For the average woman, self-improvement, heightened awareness and desire for personal beauty in clothing and make-up, education, and an ambition to provide the best in nourishment and domestic comfort for her family became imperatives. Consumerism was on the rise, the good life at hand. A true middle class was emerging and speedily growing and it wanted all that could be considered "classy" in their lives. People wanted to be ladies and gentlemen. The spittoon on the floor in the corner had to go. Table manners were in; rude behavior out. Americans wanted to be all that they could be; the country bumpkin was an embarrassment. Quality and taste were the watchwords, "best society" the aim.

A Bride's Bouquet.

“'SOCIETY' is an ambiguous term; it may mean much or nothing. Every human being—unless dwelling alone in a cave—is a member of society of one sort or another, and therefore it is well to define what is to be understood by the term “Best Society” and why its authority is recognized. Best Society abroad is always the oldest aristocracy; composed not so much of persons of title, which may be new, as of those families and communities which have for the longest period of time known highest cultivation. Our own Best Society is represented by social groups which have had, since this is America, widest rather than longest association with old world cultivation. Cultivation is always the basic attribute of Best Society, much as we hear in this country of an 'Aristocracy of wealth'...

"The personality of a room is indefinable, but there never lived
a lady of great cultivation and charm whose home, whether a
palace or farm-cottage or a tiny apartment, did not reflect the
charm of its owner."

"...Best Society is not at all like a court with an especial queen or king, nor is it confined to any one place or group, but might better be described as an unlimited brotherhood which spreads over the entire surface of the globe, the members of which are invariably people of cultivation and worldly knowledge, who have not only perfect manners but a perfect manner. Manners are made up of trivialities of deportment which can be easily learned if one does not happen to know them; manner is personality—the outward manifestation of one’s innate character and attitude toward life. A gentleman, for instance, will never be ostentatious or overbearing any more than he will ever be servile, because these attributes never animate the impulses of a well-bred person. A man whose manners suggest the grotesque is invariably a person of imitation rather than of real position...

A Dinner Service Without Silver, Chapter 14.
A dinner service without silver—“The little dinner is thought
by most people to be the very pleasantest social function there is.”

"...Thus Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted birth; but it is an association of gentle-folk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members" (Chapter One to the 1922  first edition).

The Afternoon Tea-Table, Chapter 13.
“The afternoon tea table is the same in its service whether
in the tiny bandbox house of the newest bride, or in the
drawing-room of Mrs. Worldly of Great Estates.”

The book was written by a woman, for women. It was up to wives and mothers to indoctrinate their husbands and children to good manners and genteel behavior.

An Informal Dinner, Chapter 14.
“At an informal dinner, the table appointments are equally
fine and beautiful, though possibly not quite so rare.”

 To later generations it may all seem at best quaint, at worst phony. We've learned that the "best" people can be the worst, that wealth is no guarantee of anything except money, and that good manners can often be a screen for  despicable behavior. We no longer look to our "superiors" for social guidance. To the contrary, the evolution of democracy in America has led, from the 1960s forward, to a depreciation of respect for upper and middle-class values and standards, an appreciation in esteem for the common man, and often a celebration of the values of society's outcasts, even as we aspire to be rich and famous. Indeed, the current crop of the rich and famous seem to have little if any class at all.

The Ideal Guest Room, Chapter 25.
“The ideal guest room is never found except in the house
of the ideal hostess; and it is by no means idle talk to suggest
 that every hostess be obliged to spend twenty-four hours
every now and then in each room set apart for visitors.”

This has, in general, been a good thing - honesty is the winner - yet informality and the devaluation of standards of good manners, civility, courtesy and politeness in honest expression have taken their toll. These customs are not the exclusive realm of the upper crust, they are the universal kingdom of civil behavior and the social grease that keeps us from grinding each other up. They, at their most fundamental level, demonstrate basic respect for the individual, something that all of us wish to receive but rarely, alas, generously offer.

Consideration of the Servants, Chapter 12.
“The perfect mistress shows all those in her employ the
consideration and trust due them as honorable, self-respecting
and conscientious human beings.”

A first edition in dust jacket of Etiquette by Emily Post may seem at first glance to be a cockamamie collectible at an unholy price. It is, rather, one of the most important and influential non-fiction American books of the first half of the twentieth century. Its philosophy of living  life with grace and simple respect for others as its own reward remains timeless in general if not in contemporary particulars. The current corruption of civilized behavior is nothing to be proud of.

Those seeking to change the world can start by paying more attention to their etiquette. A first edition, first printing in dust jacket of Etiquette by Emily Post may be expensive but practicing graceful etiquette in daily life is free.

Now in its eighteenth edition, Etiquette has never been out of print; it is certainly never out of style.

The full text to the 1922 first edition can be read here.

POST, Emily [Mrs. Price Post]. Etiquette. In Society, In Business, In Politics, and at Home. Illustrated with Private Photographs and Facsimiles of Social Forms. New York and London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1922. Octavo. xix, 627 p. Fourteen black and white photo-illustrations, including frontispiece.  Dust jacket.

Images courtesy of Whitmore Rare Books, currently offering this copy in scarce DJ, with our thanks.

More dust jacket madness tomorrow on Booktryst The $175,000 Dust Jacket Comes to Auction. Don't miss it.

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