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The Surprising Lesson About American History Hidden in Emily Post’s Classic Etiquette

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When Emily Post (née Price) was born on Oct. 27, 1872, it was into a life of privilege. She was raised among America’s elite, her sole formal education was at finishing school and she met her future husband, Edwin Main Post, at a seasonal New York ball. She tried her hand as a columnist and novelist, but it was decades after she divorced her husband for infidelity that she began the career that has made her name famous all these years later, finding nationwide success with her 1922 book Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home.

As members of a “society of equals”—and without a God-ordained order of birth and rank—Americans have always suffered from a collective case of status anxiety. For this reason, they have often looked to manners manuals to guide them in interacting with others to succeed in business and in life. But that’s not all that etiquette books can offer. As the norms of a society always reflect the values it treasures, such books are also a window into the evolution of American values.

Most etiquette books popular in early American history were reprints or adaptations from English or French Sources—for example, widely read in the colonial era was Eleazar Moody’s School of Good Manners, originally based on a French courtesy book from the 16th century, first printed in the U.S. in 1715, and running through 33 editions into the mid-19th century. By the time Post’s Etiquette came along, however, the U.S. was undergoing many social and demographic changes. Mass urbanization meant people moved from close-knit communities and were thrust in close proximity with perfect strangers. Post’s work—alongside many other works of manners that proliferated in this era—helped Americans navigate the new world of anonymous commerce.

She wrote about manners from a position of affluence, though her philosophy of etiquette can be read as surprisingly egalitarian. Everyone who does not live alone in a cave is part of society, Post claimed, but becoming a part of “Best Society” requires education, cultivation and training. It is commonly thought, she asserted, that in Europe, Best Society is constituted by those of aristocracy of birth. In the U.S., by contrast, Best Society is made up of an aristocracy of wealth. But for Post, wealth or rank without cultivation was merely pretense; people who thought their wealth or status was sufficient to make them fit for Best Society were more accurately “classified as the court jesters of to-day,” she wrote in the first edition of Etiquette.

Post’s interest in an etiquette of equality during this time was noteworthy. Her Etiquette, published during the roaring 1920s, spoke to both the old money and the new, upwardly mobile middle class alike. The resentment the former felt for the parvenus had intensified a few decades earlier during the Gilded Age, the era in which many new industrialists made their wealth. In order to distinguish themselves from the nouveau riche, the old elite established a series of elaborate and arbitrary norms in order to show explicitly who was “in” and who was “out.” One holdover from this era is the “no white after Labor Day” rule.

But, as historian John F. Kasson describes in his 1990 study Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth Century Urban America, the fluid cultural setting that social change produced made it difficult to impose a common code of public conduct. However, Post was up to the task.

She insisted that good breeding was far more than knowledge of, and compliance with, the rules: “Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it take to exclude those who are not of exulted 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 recognize it’s chosen members.” Kindness and good breeding were open to anyone who took time to study and practice their ways.

Many of her admonitions are still relevant today. Thank-you notes were a sign of good character, Post argued. She also recommended ignoring “elephants at large in the garden,” otherwise known as wealthy know-it-alls: “Why a man, because he has millions, should assume they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, it something which may be left to the psychologist to answer.”

Above all, however, one must avoid pretense! Hence her indictment of the tastelessness of what today might be called a “McMansion”: “But the ‘mansion’ with coarse lace… and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill-fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: ‘Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation.’”

Nearly a century later, Etiquette is in its 19th edition. Post’s offspring ensure her immortality by maintaining the Emily Post Institute, which offers training and commentary on modern manners, and periodically updating her book to reflect cultural and social changes in society. For example, gone are the chaperone protocols from the first edition, or the ashtray etiquette from the 12th. Instead, there are sections on managing social media and mobile devices when with others.

It may seem that we live in a post-shame era, where each day reveals new norms breached. Yet the truth is that norms never go away: they merely change. Indeed, as Kasson notes in his book, each society tends to think its own era is the most uncivil. He recommends taking a historical perspective to disabuse us of that notion, finding that human nature—with its capacity for benevolence and predisposition for rudeness—doesn’t change much. But this only underscores the enduring need of latter-day Emily Posts, such as Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) or Steven Petrow (“The Civilist”) who still help their readers navigate life with others.

In a moment where civility is under fire, this task—demystifying norms, and connecting them to deeper cultural values—can be a thankless one. But it’s not hard to guess what Emily Post might recommend if she were still around: a thank you note.

Alexandra O. Hudson is a writer based in Indianapolis, currently working on a book on American civility

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