A short time ago I received a copy of “The Pocket Book of Etiquette” by Margery Wilson, a gift from a friend who thought that a historian might find it interesting. Interesting is an understatement. I have been reading this wonderful 400-page book with rapt attention. The book was published in 1937, revised in 1940, and went through ten printings by December 1942, so it obviously sold well and had wide influence. It is amazing that, amidst some of the most depressing times (both figuratively and literally) in our national history, and in the worst part of World War II, Americans were buying an etiquette book.
For my part, I cannot enumerate all the great things I have learned. I shall strive to reach Margery Wilson’s high standards. Why, by the time I finish this priceless volume I am going to be so elegant that no one will recognize the gauche blunderer of yesteryear. I will never again feel apprehensive about how to conduct myself at teas, receptions, and hunt balls. Gone will be my former louche behavior at the opera, the theater, and debutante parties. Exquisitely attired in magnificent habiliments, I will dazzle everyone with my soigné, debonair aura. From my tall hat to my walking stick, my tailcoat to my spats, I will be the cynosure of every eye!
Here is a minuscule example of the excellent guidance the book affords:
(p. 122) A man always rises when introduced to anyone. A woman arises when introduced to an older woman or a woman of the same age. Everyone rises for the Church…. Naturally, children rise for all introductions.
(p. 189) At a formal lunch, men leave their coats, hats, and sticks in the hall. Women leave their heavy wraps in the dressing-room but retain their hats and gloves, and sometimes a fur neckpiece…. Guests remove their gloves at the table, or earlier if cocktails are served in the drawing-room. The hostess, of course, never wears gloves or a veil….. Men at a Sunday lunch wear the cutaway coats they have worn to church.
(p.195) Service and all plates are removed from the left with one hand, while another plate is set down with the other hand from that same left side. All too often one sees a servant take a plate from the left and then side-step or back-step to the right of the chair to set the next plate down. One can only watch in wonder and ask, “Why?” Service and all plates are removed one at a time. Stacking occurs only at Dude Ranches.
(p. 226) In America a maid is usually called by her first name. In England they are always called by their last name. A housekeeper is always called Mrs. or Miss, and a governess in the same manner. All menservants may be called by their last names except when the name is too difficult to pronounce. Then the first name may be substituted.
(p. 83) The well-dressed Englishman, usually regarded as the best-dressed man in the world, adopts an enviable attitude toward his clothes. He is meticulously careful in their selection…. He never appears to be wearing a suit for the first time…. He dresses correctly for whatever he happens to be doing, whether it is hunting or dining…., All of us are familiar with the saying that England has conquered the world in a boiled shirt.
I am considering acquiring a monocle.