Monday, July 21, 2008

one of my stranger collections

You'd probably never guess it if you met me, and you'd almost certainly never guess it based on what I think about (and therefore blog about) most of the time, but we are both collectors. We collect amusingly retro drinking glasses, vintage blown-glass lab ware, vintage sewing machines, English tea tins, and probably some other things I'm not thinking of right now.

This week, I'd like to spend some time exploring one of my stranger but most satisfying collections: etiquette books. I don't use them as reference books for conducting my personal life, but I have found that reading them calms me right down in difficult times. I don't necessarily always follow the advice in these books, but the notion that there is a manual, a list of rules for conducting one's relationships, is extremely reassuring to me. I have five different etiquette books, published between 1887 and 1997, and I'll write about one each day this week, starting with the oldest.

Today's book is Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress of the Best American Society. It was published in 1887, and I found it in a free box. It is the gem of my collection.
The advice (or really, instructions) in this book are completely out of date, as you might expect. Reading it is endlessly amusing: it is so easy to see how very far we have come. Women and men both have so many freedoms now that would have been scandalous just over 100 years ago. We live in a much more casual society.

For example:

Leaving a Ball Room
Married or young ladies, cannot leave a ball-room, or any other party, alone. The former should be accompanied by one or two other married ladies, and the latter by their mother, or by a lady to represent her.

(all commas and hyphens, etc, are in the original text.)

Or how about this, which is actually germane to my life at the moment, and probably good advice:

Discontinuing Work
If a lady is engaged with her needle when a visitor arrives, she ought to discontinue her work, unless requested to do otherwise, and not even then must it be resumed, unless on very intimate terms with her acquaintance. When this, however, is the case, the hostess may herself request permission to do so. To continue working during a visit of ceremony would be extremely discourteous, and we cannot avoid hinting to our lady readers, that even when a particular friend is present for only a short time, it is somewhat inconsistent with etiquette to keep their eyes fixed on a crochet or knitting-book, apparently engaged in counting stitches, or unfolding the intricacies of a pattern. We have seen this done, and are, therefore, careful to warn them on the subject. There are many kinds of light and elegant, and even useful work, which do not require close attention, and may be profitably pursued; and such we recommend to be always on the work-table at those hours which, according to established practice, are given to social intercourse.

But this, my friends, is out of hand, so much so that I can hardly make sense of it:

Laying Aside the Bonnet
The short time devoted to a ceremonious visit, the necessity of consulting a glass in replacing the headdress, and of being assisted in putting on the shawl, prevent ladies from accepting the invitation to lay them aside. If they are slightly familiar with the person they are visiting and wish to be more at ease, they should ask permission, which should be granted them, at the same time rising, to assist them in taking off their hat and shawl. An arm-chair, or a piece of furniture at a distant part of the room, should receive these articles; they should not be placed upon the couch, without the mistress of the house puts them there.

On the other hand, doesn't it seem lovely, in a way, to have so many minute instructions for conducting one's self? If one just follows all the rules, one will never step on any toes, never offend. One would never be wrong, in a sense. I'm glad we don't live in this world any longer, but I do see the appeal.


Liberal Homeschooler said...

Let me see if I can translate.

"If you aren't staying long, keep your bonnet and shawl on. It will take too long to put it all back on and you'll have to look for a mirror.

If you are close friends, you can ask for permission to take off your bonnet and shawl, but for cripes sake don't put them on the couch. If the hostess puts them there it is OK, after all it is her house."

Nowadays, I'm trying to figure out if my hostess wants me to keep my shoes on or take them off (OH THE TOXINS!).

Too funny how far we've come.

shaun said...

What a cool thing to collect. I have always loved etiquette books. My grandmother had an old Amy Vanderbuilt that I pored over every summer as a kid -- I'd love to have that as a keepsake, but who knows where it went.

I must be very steeped in them -- my husband thinks I am always making up new rules (ala Bill Maher? I hope not) but I'm sure I got the gist of them from some ancient sourse.

Lindsay said...

That's interesting. I am reading a book that JP's grandmother gave him when he was young.
It is fascinating to see what everyone's roles were.

Anonymous said...

In 1887 clothing was really complex. I don't think it was possible for a woman to get dressed by herself at all, with a corset to lace and tighten properly. As for hats: "Very tall hats of the mid 1880’s were known as ‘3-story’ or ‘flowerpots’ and for very good reason. They soared atop the hair, appearing as if a roof on the tower of a building." Amazing what you can find with Google :)

Tara said...

Really interesting stuff. I read a book on Victoria life for women that I picked up at the thrift and it had a whole chapter on crazy etiquette of the day.
I'm very thankful I was not born during Victorian times.

regularmom said...

I am a huge proponent of ettiquette. One of my favorite websites from a while back was the, mostly because of the heavy use of sarcasm they employed in the giving of good, sound ettiquette advice.

And that part about not doing needlework when you have guests...
I think that that's still good advice today. I find it extremely rude when we're invited over for a playdate and the hostess mother refuses to stop her sketching when we arrive. She stares at her sketching while she talks to you, and snaps irritatedly at the kids when they do something that interrupts her creative flow.

And I'm sitting there thinking... well, why did you invite us over then?


Anyway... great post!