So in the midst of juggling all my blogging-writing-thesisizing crazy, I totally let this post slip by the wayside and accidentally posted a barely-finished draft this morning (note to self: do not schedule posts unless they are 100% complete). This, my friends, is the downside of multi-tasking.
At any rate, here I am. My name is Lena, and I happen to be an academic — a sociologist, to be exact. I have been in trying to write a MA thesis for almost four years, and I am finally seeing the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. By the end of September I should have a complete draft in hand, and by December I should have that draft all shiny, pretty, and ready to be defended.
One of the difficulties of scholarly research is the highly limited audience. Because of the nature of the work (jargon-y terms, specialized knowledge, etc.), as well as the publications where it’s eventually found (academic journals that can only be accessed through university libraries or personal subscription), it’s easy to feel as though one is writing for only a handful of people. In my case, my guaranteed readers are the three members of my committee, a couple of friends, and maybe my parents.
But I like to share the things that I’ve learned, and after almost four years, my brain is bursting at the seams with fascinating facts, historical tidbits, and other odds and ends that I’ve acquired. So every Thursday until I defend my thesis, I’ll be offering these wee shining jewels of knowledge for public consumption.
By this point, I’m sure you’re scratching your head and asking, “But Lena, what exactly is this magical, wonderful thesis about? What exactly are you trying to study?”
The short answer? I’m researching etiquette books published in the United States between 1920 and 1929, with a focus on the white wedding. The period, I’ve learned, was a pivotal one for the etiquette book industry. The post-WWI economic boom launched a number of families into the middle class, and the increase in discretionary income led to the pursuit of leisure activities — and the urge for social climbing. At the same time, a virulent anti-immigration furor swept the country, accompanied by the urge to assimilate and Americanize those immigrants already residing in the US. And, of course, shifts in gender norms (voting women!), the emergence of jazz and bootlegging and flappers, along with countless other social shifts resulted in the need for Americans to reorient themselves to the changing times.
Add all of these things together and we have a perfect storm where readers were looking for guidelines regarding behavior and social life. Etiquette authors capitalized on this, and targeted those Americans who needed guidance: the rural-reared young man bewildered by the demands of city life; the fresh-faced war bride eager to learn the basics of housekeeping and child-rearing; the mother who yearns to have her daughter marry in the formal way, in a confection of lace and orange blossoms, but who doesn’t know the first steps to staging such a ceremony. The etiquette book offered something for all of them, and served to normalize conventions of behavior that linger with us even today.
The Scholarly Details.
As a cultural sociologist, I believe that those material objects that humans make (and even inmaterial ones, like belief systems and whatnot) both reflect and shape society’s perceptions and beliefs. In this case, I make the argument that the etiquette book serves as a repository for understanding the idealized way in which Americans were expected to behave — or, at least, for understanding the rules that governed the social elite.
I’m not the first person to study etiquette books, nor will I be the last. There is an impressive array of historians, sociologists, and other academics who focused on these texts and who have laid some excellent groundwork for me. What I’m doing that’s different, however, is focusing on the nitty-gritty of the texts themselves.
While my illustrious predecessors have studied the large-scale, macro-level perspective of the etiquette book, I’m more curious about the language and the mechanics of the text. How did etiquette authors strive to convince readers that the rules of etiquette were important enough to follow? How did they demonstrate that they were authoritative enough to speak on behalf of Polite Society? And how exactly were these books and authors depicted in advertisements of the period?
Because sociologists are also fascinated by the ways in which power and conflict undergird social life, I also have an antennae up for the ways that authors talk — or, as we’ll see, don’t talk — about power and privilege. This one of the crucial elements of my work, and one I’ll discuss in further length down the road.
But enough for one night! In the coming weeks I’ll offer profiles of some of the high-profile authors from the period (including, of course, the wonderful Emily Post), fun excerpts from the books that I’m studying, and some answers to the research questions that I’ve posed. And you’ll also get to find out exactly how the white wedding ties into all of this (because I know you are all eagerly awaiting the answer to that mystery).
I’ll be adding a FAQ page to my blog, but I am always more than happy to answer any burning questions that you may have, so feel free to ask away!