when emily post (née price) was born on october 1st. On October 27, 1872, she went to a life of privilege. She was raised among America’s elite, her only formal education was hers after finishing school, and she met her future husband, Edwin Main Post, at a prom in New York. She tried her hand as a columnist and novelist, but it was decades after she divorced her husband on grounds of infidelity that she began the career that has made her name famous all these years later, finding national 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 birth order and rank, Americans have always suffered from a collective case of status anxiety. For this reason, they have often sought manuals of manners to guide them in interacting with others in order to succeed in business and in life. but that is not all that etiquette books can offer. Since the norms of a society always reflect the values it cherishes, these books are also a window into the evolution of American values.
Most of the etiquette books popular in early American history were reprints or adaptations of English or French sources; For example, one of the most widely read in the colonial era was Eleazar Moody’s School of Good Manners, originally based on a 16th-century French courtesy book. first printed in the usa uu. in 1715, and with 33 editions until the middle of the 19th century. However, by the time the post tag appeared, the usa. uu. it was undergoing many social and demographic changes. Massive urbanization meant people moved out of close-knit communities and found themselves thrust into close proximity with perfect strangers. The post job, along with many other manners jobs that proliferated in this era, helped Americans navigate the new world of anonymous commerce.
He wrote about manners from a position of wealth, though his philosophy of etiquette can be read as surprisingly egalitarian. everyone who doesn’t live alone in a cave is part of society, the publication claimed, but becoming part of the “best society” requires education, cultivation and training. It is commonly thought, she stated, that in Europe, the best society is made up of those of the born aristocracy. In the United States, by contrast, the best society is made up of an aristocracy of wealth. but for office, wealth, or rank without cultivation were mere pretensions; people who thought their wealth or status was enough to make them fit for the best society were “more accurately classified as today’s court jesters,” he wrote in the first issue of the label.
post’s interest in an equality tag during this time was noteworthy. His label, issued during the roaring 1920s, spoke to both old money and the new rising middle class. the former’s resentment of upstarts had intensified a few decades earlier during the golden age, the era in which many new industrialists got rich. To distinguish themselves from the nouveau riche, the old elite established a series of elaborate and arbitrary rules to explicitly show who was “in” and who was “out.” a 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 environment that produced social change made it difficult to enforce a common code of public conduct. however, the publication lived up to it.
He insisted that good education was much more than knowledge and compliance with the rules: “the best society is not a fellowship of the rich, nor does it exclude those who are not of exultant birth; but it is an association of gentle people, of whom good manner of speech, charm of manners, knowledge of social comforts, and instinctive regard for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society at large everyone recognizes their chosen members. kindness and good breeding were open to anyone who took the time to study and practice her ways.
many of his warnings are still relevant today. the thank-you notes were a sign of good character, the publication argued. he also recommended ignoring the “elephants loose in the garden”, aka rich smarties: “why should a man, because he has millions, assume that they confer omniscience in all branches of knowledge, is it something to be put down?” . to the psychologist for an answer.”
Above all, however, one should avoid pretense! hence his accusation of the bad taste of what today might be called a “mcmansion”: “but the ‘mansion’ with coarse lace… and the bell was answered at eleven o’clock in the morning by a butler in a ball gown that didn’t fit well and with a mustache, it could well be labeled: ‘here lives a vulgar who has never had the opportunity to acquire cultivation’”.
Almost a century later, the label is in its 19th edition. Post’s offspring ensure his immortality by maintaining the Emily Post Institute, which offers training and commentary on modern manners, and regularly updates his book to reflect cultural and social changes in society. Gone are the companion protocols from the first edition, for example, or the ashtray etiquette from the 12th edition. Instead, there are sections on managing social media and mobile devices when you’re with others.
It can feel like we live in a post-shaming era, where every day reveals new violated norms. however, the truth is that standards never go away: they just change. In fact, as Kasson points out in his book, each society tends to think that its own era is the most uncivilized. he recommends taking a historical perspective to disabuse ourselves of that notion, finding that human nature, with its capacity for benevolence and predisposition to rudeness, does not change much. But this only underscores the enduring need for latter-day Emily posts like Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) or Steven Petrow (“The Civilian”) to still help their readers navigate life with others.
At a time when civility is under fire, this task—demystifying norms and connecting them to deeper cultural values—can be thankless. 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 an Indianapolis-based writer currently working on a book on American civility
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