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Thesis Thursdays: Emily Post, the Voice of the 1920s

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.

Emily Post, Source: Library of Congress

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.

Emily Post on her honeymoon, 1892.

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.

New York Times Advertisement, 1925

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:

14 Comments

  1. I knew very little about Emily Post but she sounds like such a strong woman. It is inspiring that instead of falling back on her mother’s money she started to write and made her own money after her divorce.

    I wonder what she would say if she saw the dance moves and clothing (or lack of clothing!) present in practically every music video today! I look forward to learning more from you about her.

    • Oh gosh, I shudder to think about what she might say about today’s generation! Though as she notes in her concluding chapter, hemlines rise and hemlines fall, fashion is cyclical, so we shouldn’t be too concerned about the lack of clothes — things will shift, and people will want to be covered up again. 😀

  2. Wow! I have to say I’ve always imagined Emily Post to be all stuffy (I’m not, nor will I ever be, a debutante! Lol…). It’s neat to find out how broad-minded she actually was. Good stuff! 🙂

    • Post definitely has her stuffier points (her commentary on chaperones is hilarious — something about how the girl with the most freedom is the one “who has her chaperone nearby”). I have my critiques of her work (and the overall project of etiquette, really), but I’ve been surprised to find how much I actually like her. She was a strong woman, a savvy business person, and a wonderful writer as well. I want to get ahold of her novels, because I’m sure they’ll be a blast to read.

  3. Very cool. Seems like Emily Post should be required reading before writing Victorian-ish Steampunk. I know I’ll want to read her before attempting a Steampunk story of my own.

    • Yes, etiquette books from the period are incredibly useful for Victorian-ish steampunk! I’ve been kicking around this idea of a Dieselpunk story, and it will definitely be inspired by the material that I’ve covered in these books.

      If you’re interested in Victorian era etiquette, I’d recommend the work of Mrs. John E. Sherwood. She was the queen of Victorian etiquette at the end of the 19th century. Looks like archives.org has the original copy (http://www.archive.org/stream/danceman237/danceman237.txt), but I also found a revised edition from 1919 that’s extremely fascinating, especially her foreword where she discusses the post-WWI landscape.

  4. It fascinates me that although I don’t know much about Emily Post, her renown is such that even I, a 21st century English woman, know her name and that she was considered an authority on etiquette; and that she achieved this in spite of being divorced!

    • Sarah, I think that’s what I find so fascinating about Post as well: her legacy seems to endure, almost 100 years after publishing her book of etiquette. The fact that she continues to be linked with “proper behavior” fascinates me, and I hope that I can talk a bit more about next week. Also, her divorcee status is also surprising, particularly given the time period. Divorce loses a bit of its scandalous nature in the 1920s, although it continues to be a bit of a shock throughout the following few decades.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  5. What an interesting woman thanks for sharing

  6. I wish there was more “good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others” in the world today!

    • Agreed, Sarah! It’s really interesting — on one hand, the rules of etiquette were used as a way to keep the “vulgar” on the outside of “polite society.” On the other hand, authors emphasized the importance of being considerate of others. They frowned on arrogance and rudeness, and encouraged people to practice the laws of kindness and politeness. I think there’s a lot that we can learn from them.

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