I love you, Emily Post

I am now the proud owner of a 1931 edition of Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage by Emily Post. Up till now I’d been making use of the Project Gutenberg edition. And while I adore digitised books—they certainly make research much much easier—you still can’t go past an actual held-in-your-hands book from the period you’re writing about.

I have been flipping through it all day, checking out the illustrations, enjoying the jacket copy and ads for other books. (None of that matter is included in the Project Gutenberg edition). It feels like a direct link back to the people of that era. I can imagine them holding it just the way I’m holding it. And I’m pretty certain some of them are mocking it just the way I’m mocking it.

Here is something you may have been blissfully unaware of:

The Dining-room

It is scarcely necessary to point out that the bigger and more ambitious the house, the more perfect its appointments must be. If your house has a great Georgian dining-room, the table should be set with Georgian or an earlier period English silver. Furthermore, in a “great” dining-room, all the silver should be real! “Real” meaning nothing so trifling as “sterling,” but genuine and important “period” pieces made by Eighteenth Century silversmiths, such as de Lamerie or Crespell or Buck or Robertson, or perhaps one of their predecessors. Or if, like Mrs. Oldname, you live in an old Colonial house, you are perhaps also lucky enough to have inherited some genuine American pieces made by Daniel Rogers or Paul Revere! Or if you are an ardent admirer of Early Italian architecture and have built yourself a Fifteenth Century stone-floored and frescoed or tapestry-hung dining room, you must set your long refectory table with a “runner” of old hand-linen and altar embroidery, or perhaps Thirteenth Century damask and great cisterns or ewers and beakers in high-relief silver and gold; or in Callazzioli or majolica, with great bowls of fruit and church candlesticks of gilt, and even follow as far as is practicable the crude table implements of that time.

Oh noes! I have been doing EVERYTHING wrong! Does it excuse me that we don’t actually have a dining room? Just a tiny table in our not very big kitchen? I worry that Emily is mad at me.

I can’t help but wonder what percentage of New Yorkers in 1931 found that advice even remotely useful, let alone the rest of the country. But that’s the thing, of course, Post’s Etiquette is as much aspirational as any thing else. Currently I aspire to having a dining room . . . I’ll work up to the English silver.


  1. Amber on #

    I am breaking out the 13th-century damask with all haste. I always wondered what I should do with that.

  2. Sherwood on #

    There were etiquette books about how to be a (fakle) aristo (those began with M. Scudery’s novels, actually) and then there were ones on general rules

  3. Shveta on #

    No dining room?? For shame, Justine, for shame!

  4. Justine on #

    Anber: Emily has all the answers.

    Sherwood: I does not understand this aspiration.

    Shveta: Currently we have no hot water either. Emily Post would be aghast.

  5. Delia on #

    Ah, Emily Post, my mother’s Goddess. She invoked her so often, I thought they must have been friends. I’ve got some fish knives and forks, btw, should you wish to serve a fish course properly. Also a dessert set, c. 1900, which is of far more use in a vegetarian household.

  6. Electric Landlady on #

    My cousin has a copy of the Joy of Cooking that is an older edition than mine — I’m not sure what era, but certainly a couple of revisions back. It has a long, long section on setting the table and serving a formal meal (well, it has meals of various levels of formality, but the formal one is the most insane), with illustrations, and it is hilarious and alarming and sounds sort of like a very esoteric modern dance if you picture it in your head. I like to read passages out loud in a very instructive tone of voice.

  7. Cameron on #

    Does it give a recommendation for a bookshelf in a shared student house. I had cinder blocks and pine boards, whereas my housemate used MDF and milk crates. It caused all manner of commotion.

  8. Kathryne on #

    Oh, dear. I live in a Victorian-era house, my flatware is stainless. At least I have real crystal.

    My favorite Emily Post moment was in a 1961 edition, warning women against giving in to the temptation to wear trousers to the rodeo. Just because they were outside didn’t mean you could ignore standards of decorum.

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