It’s time for another round of Thesis Thursdays, my weekly discussion of the topics related to my MA thesis, a study of US etiquette texts published in the 1920s. For any new visitors, you find the two part introduction to my thesis here: Part 1 and Part 2. Today, we turn to the name most closely associated with etiquette: Emily Post.
Thus Best Society is not a fellowship of the wealthy, nor does it seek to exclude those who are not of exalted 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 recognizes its chosen members.
So concludes the opening chapter of Emily Price Post’s 1922 classic, Etiquette: In Society, In Business, In Politics and at Home. The book was immensely popular upon its debut, reaching the top 10 bestsellers list of 1923 and positioning Post as one of the foremost authorities on etiquette within the United States.
Born in 1872, Post was brought up in a family linked to wealth and privilege. Her maternal grandfather, Washington Lee, had amassed a fortune in coal fields, and while her paternal family had little by way of wealth, they made up for it in terms of reputation. The marriage of Post’s parents, Josephine and Bruce Price, was noted to be “an equitable swap, great lineage for great wealth” (Claridge 2005:12).
With such a background, Post led a charmed life, one that allowed her to mix with influential members of New York society, granting her an early glimpse into the world that she would later write about. At age of 20, she married Edwin Post, a prominent New York banker.
After 13 years, their marriage ended in divorce after the scandal of Edwin’s affairs hit the gossip columns. It’s here that Post’s life took an unexpected turn. Though she was able to fall back on the money from her mother’s legacy (she opted not to press for alimony from Edwin, as his company had experienced some financial problems), she began to write, penning short stories that were sold to magazines, as well as travel columns and novels.
After World War I, she turned her attention to the topic of etiquette. While not the first to tackle the subject, Post brought a new sensibility and perspective to the matter, one that resonated with an American audience still reeling from the shock of war and the many changes that swept the social, economic, and cultural landscape afterwards. As historian Esther Aresty noted in 1970,
Mrs. Post became a virtual synonym for etiquette because she spoke in a new voice filled with passion and conviction that promised salvation and solution to all who were adrift in uncertainty about correct behavior – at the precise moment when Americans longed for just such leadership.
Post was able to reinterpret rules for social behavior for this new world, and did so in a way that was highly sensible yet entertaining. She strove to calm the ruffled feathers of an older generation convinced that “the younger generation [was] speeding swiftly on the road to perdition,” suggesting that perhaps social decline was not as widespread as they imagined. She continues,
But whether the present younger generation is really any nearer to that frightful end than any previous one, is a question that we, of the present older generation, are scarcely qualified to answer. To be sure, manners seem to have grown lax, and many of the amenities apparently have vanished. But do these things merely seem so to us because young men of fashion do not pay party call nowadays and the young woman of fashion is informal? It is difficult to maintain that youth to-day is so very different from what it has been in other periods of the country’s history, especially as the ‘capriciousness of beauty,’ the ‘heartlessness’ and ‘carelessness’ of youth, are charges of a too suspiciously bromidic flavor to carry conviction.
Looking backwards from the vantage point of 2011, it’s easy to underestimate how revolutionary such commentary was. Indeed, young people of the 1920s were under fire for countless forms of impropriety: the informality of their dress, their scandalous forms of dance, their tendency to “neck” in dark movie theaters. Post, however, demonstrated impressive broad-mindedness for a 50 year old woman reared within the strictures of Victorian society. In addition, she expressed a commendable understanding of social change: society is dynamic, she seemed to argue, and the rules of etiquette must be flexible enough to change with them.
Her final words in Etiquette betray the overwhelming sense of optimism that she felt about American society:
[I]t is no idle boast that the world is at present looking toward America; and whatever we become is bound to lower or raise the standards of life. The other countries are old, we are youth personified! We have all youth’s glorious beauty and strength and vitality and courage. If we can keep these attributes and add finish and understanding and perfect taste in living and thinking, we need not dwell on the Golden Age that is past, but believe in the Golden Age that is sure to be.
There’s more about Emily Post than I can fit into a single blog post, so stayed tuned for next week, where I will explore exactly how Post was able to present herself on the consummate authority on all matters related to etiquette, and look at one of her most charming books, How to Behave, Though a Debutante.
Interested in reading more? Check out some of these resources:
- The Emily Post Institute
- The original 1922 edition of Etiquette, via Project Gutenberg
- Emily Post, by Laura Claridge (2008), is an excellent biography filled with anecdotes and stories from Post’s life. Claridge also does a great job of situating Post against the social, political, and economic context in which she lived.