It wasn't called the "Roaring '20s" for nothing. During the 1920s in the United States, people were still emotionally recovering from the Great War, but thanks to an economic boom, many chose to drown their sorrows in frivolity. Despite Prohibition, which banned the sale of alcohol, the booze business was booming thanks to powerful criminal syndicates. The prevailing mood of the time was of flouting the law and chucking stuffy tradition in favor of looser morals. So how, in 1922, did a middle-aged, upper-class woman captivate thousands of readers with her encyclopedia on etiquette?
Etiquette books had nearly always been popular in the United States. A young country filled with people of mixed ethnic heritage and lacking an aristocracy, the U.S. also lacked cohesive rules for expected behavior. Not to mention, the nouveau riche needed to learn how to behave among the privileged class. Most of these etiquette books, however, had an air of pretension that didn't sit well with the aspiring middle class. The worst sin, according to the writers, was to embarrass oneself by not knowing the rules.
Emily Post's book stood apart from the other etiquette guides because of its emphasis on ethics. According to Post, money doesn't guarantee respectability if your behavior isn't grounded in ethics. On the other hand, a lack of money will not keep you from "good society," as long as you know how to behave. In the first chapter of her famous book, "Etiquette: In Society, in Politics, in Business and at Home," Post wrote, "Etiquette must, if it is to be of more than trifling use, include ethics as well as manners." This philosophy resonated with a public disdainful of phoniness and pretension.
Though much of her particular advice is now obsolete — how many of us have to worry about butlers and ladies' maids? — this guiding philosophy is still relevant. Indeed, Post's descendants have recognized the prevailing need for etiquette guidance and continue to help people navigate a changing world through good manners.
Although she knew and respected the old traditions, Post also understood and embraced modern societal change. This balanced mentality perfectly positioned her as the queen of etiquette. Despite being born into privilege, Post didn't exactly have an easy life. She endured a messy, public divorce and, later, the death of her adult son. We'll first examine her life and then delve into what made her famous.
Emily Post's Early Life
Emily Post had the advantage of being born into a rich family. Her father, Bruce Price, was establishing himself as a prominent architect in Baltimore, and her mother, Josephine Lee Price, was an heiress to a coal fortune. Emily also had deep American roots as a descendent of Francis Scott Key on her father's side and of pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower on her mother's side.
Emily Price was born in Baltimore on Oct. 27, 1872 (though this date is disputed). Besides a brother who died in infancy, Emily grew up as an only child. When she was 5 years old, her family moved to New York City. Although they had money, they were not among the so-called "Four Hundred," a fabled list of the elite upper crust of society that could boast aristocratic lineage and old wealth. Nevertheless, Bruce and Josephine managed to wedge their way into "good society."
Emily attended "The Misses Graham's Seminary for Young Ladies," a finishing school, for six years. Although this is surely where she learned much of the social wisdom she'd eventually bestow to others, the future etiquette queen didn't particularly excel. Later, she admitted she wasn't a very good student; rather, she attributed her intelligence and education to her father, to whom she was entirely devoted.
Starting in 1885, Bruce Price built four cottages in Tuxedo Park, a new summer resort village 40 miles north of New York City. The Prices used one cottage and rented out the others. According to Emily's biographer, Bruce Price's cottages are his "greatest legacy," and they are said to have influenced even architect Frank Lloyd Wright [source: Claridge]. Soon, several elite families spent part of the year in the village. The planned community eventually became the year-round residence for many families, including Emily herself after she got married.
In December 1889, 17-year-old Emily Price "came out" at her debutante ball and dazzled the other attendants by performing the elaborate dances required of her. Just as she hoped, she met her future husband, Edwin Post, at the ball, and they married three years later in 1892. Emily's father wasn't thrilled about Edwin's financial prospects, but the young man did come from prestigious Dutch ancestry. Her marriage to Edwin was an example of the popular practice among the upper classes in which one spouse contributed lineage and the other new money.
A Messy Divorce
The Posts would go on to have two boys, Ned in 1893 and Bruce in 1895, but they didn't experience marital bliss. Part of the problem was that Edwin was a passionate sailor and spent most of his time on his boat, but Emily was prone to seasickness and didn't accompany him. And they soon found they were incompatible in more ways than one. Bruce once wrote he'd "committed matrimony" and was thus "sentenced to life for it" [source: Claridge].
Emily's beloved father passed away in 1903. On his deathbed, he encouraged his daughter to pursue her passion of writing. Over the next year, she immersed herself in writing her first novel, "The Flight of the Moth," which was published the next year in serial form and later as a book. Encouraged by sales and good reviews, Emily Post set to work on her next novel.
Meanwhile, as Emily's career began to take off, her marriage continued to crumble. She and Edwin had been emotionally distant for many years, and Emily had either knowledge or strong suspicions of her husband's various infidelities. One affair in particular would lead to public scandal in 1905: Edwin had broken off a relationship with a young actress, and to regain his affection, the actress returned to the cottage he kept for meeting his mistresses. Edwin scorned her advances, and she sought revenge by contacting the office of Col. William d'Alton Mann, a gossip journalist and Civil War soldier [source: Claridge].
Col. Mann was no stranger to scandal. Having run several blackmail schemes, he'd developed a pattern of demanding money in exchange for keeping secret the love affairs of high-powered businessmen. Later, Mann would defend his scheme saying that he sought to make the "Four Hundred ... disgusted with themselves" [source: Kolbert].
Edwin was already familiar with the scheme before he became a target himself, and he was prepared. Instead of acquiescing, he was determined to make a hero of himself and expose the blackmailers. He set up a sting to have the blackmailers arrested, and his colleagues congratulated him for it. But in so doing, Edwin exposed his infidelity and humiliated Emily as the story and subsequent trial made headlines for months to come [source: Claridge].
The way Emily would later portray the events, she and Edwin mutually agreed to heroically expose the blackmailers. But, according to Emily's biographer, Laura Claridge, Emily was actually not involved in the decision, and Edwin merely warned her of what was to happen. Claridge explains that Emily's version of the story was an attempt to cover up Edwin's failure to protect his own wife from scandal.
The Posts announced their divorce the next year.
On Her Own
Emily Post did well on her own inheritances and didn't struggle financially, which allowed her to pursue her passion of writing. She would go on to publish another novel soon after her divorce scandal. "Purple and Fine Linen" came out in 1906 to positive reviews, but two years later, "Woven in the Tapestry" failed to impress readers and reviewers. Her next, more successful novel, "The Title Market," was about marriages between the European titled class and American rich, just like her own.
While riding on this success, Emily kept busy writing articles in the "Delineator," including "What Makes a Young Girl Popular in Society." In this not-quite-hard-hitting piece, she explains the importance of "radiance" and "happiness," which can help make up for a lack of money, social position or natural charms [source: Claridge]. In 1911, another novel, "The Eagles' Feather," came out to mixed reviews. Later that year, she published articles on planning expenses for a baby and one about Tuxedo Park, the resort village her father helped establish.
Around this time, she asked her agent to secure her a job writing for "Ladies Home Journal," but he told her they'd recently filled the position. He went on, "I do not know if you would have liked running such a thing ... Writing and deciding what kind of finger bowls people ought to have on their table when they give a luncheon, gets after a while, I think, to be a very tiresome pursuit."
She wrote "The Curse of the Calico Girl," which was serialized in 1914. She was disappointed that it wasn't picked up for publishing in book form like her other novels. But instead of wallowing, she chose to join her young adult sons who were embarking on a road trip in Europe. In April, Emily continued her adventures on the road — this time with son Ned, as they began an American cross-country road trip on the new Lincoln Highway. The primitive automobiles and highway made for a difficult but adventurous journey. Emily's biographer Laura Claridge writes, "The forty-five-day trip during one of the wettest springs on record would prove seminal to the writer's psychological maturation, enhancing her ability to look beyond what she already knew."
The magazine "Collier" asked her to log her experiences, which culminated in articles and a book titled "By Motor to the Golden Gate." But sales were unimpressive both because the public was already tired of the subject of cross-country motorists and because of the preoccupation with the European war. When the United States did get involved in the Great War, Emily, like most ladies, was concerned with charity work. Luckily, after the war, her boys would return home safe. But the country was changing.
Despite the fame she would receive as an authority on etiquette, Emily Post was slightly embarrassed about it. The way Emily would later tell the story, her publisher kept pushing her to write about etiquette until she finally relented. In reality, however, she sought out the assignment. Her agent had originally discouraged the subject as beneath her. Truthfully, she probably would've preferred to be an authority on a more serious matter, but she recognized deep down that America would welcome her expertise on such "trivial" matters as which fork to use. And she was right.
When she finally secured a deal to write a book on etiquette, Emily devoted herself to the project for two years starting in 1920. Her sons, meanwhile, remained understandably skeptical about the project. They thought she was hopelessly out of touch if she believed she would find success selling etiquette rules to an irreverent public [source: Claridge].
Although she originally intended the book to be short, the project proved to satisfy her love of meticulous organization and note taking, and she continued to find more social situations to write about. She didn't pretend to be an expert in every situation, so she sought out the advice of friends and family (or even strangers on the street) and polled their opinions of the details of etiquette. Otherwise, she was largely removed from public life and spent all of her time working on the book.
The result was a 619-page tome entitled, "Etiquette: In Society, in Politics, in Business and at Home," which cost $4 (about $44 today) [source: Claridge]. Despite its length and price, the book was quickly popular. After steadily climbing the charts on the "Publisher's Weekly" non-fiction best-seller list, it reached the top of the list eight months after it came out.
And it's not like it didn't have competition. Lillian Eichler, a young copywriter, had recently updated an older authoritative volume: the "Book of Etiquette" by Emily Holt. Assisting Eichler's sales was an advertising campaign in the form of cartoons in which characters embarrassed themselves by not knowing proper manners. Emily, on the other hand, eschewed shaming people into etiquette. She much preferred to lift people up, empowering them with the tools needed to operate in "good society." This was part of her appeal.
Highlights from Emily Post's Rules of Etiquette
In her book, Emily Post performs an exhaustive discussion of etiquette, including everything from proper introductions, conversation, and diction to visiting cards and invitations and how to keep a presentable house. The reader learns one should generally introduce a younger person to an older person, but a gentleman is always presented to a lady. And one shouldn't put on airs by using erudite words like "converse" instead of "talk." Nevertheless, you shouldn't say "phone" instead of "telephone." Houses reflect the charm of their owners, Post argued, and even people of modest income can be respectable members of "Good Society" if they keep a neat home.
She also discusses the roles of various servants. The role of a parlor maid, for instance, includes keeping the library and drawing room in order, in addition to assisting the butler with waiting and dishwashing. This is in contrast to a lady's maid, of course, who is in charge of the lady's clothes and hairdressing.
Post discusses the minutia of how a lady sits gracefully — centered in a chair, legs together even if crossed. And she tells us in what kinds of elevators a man must remove his hat when in the presence of a lady — specifically those located in hotels, clubs and apartments, but not necessarily those in offices or stores.
The reader learns how to host tea, a formal dinner party and even a wedding. Some of this advice is still the standard today, such as the etiquette of thank-you notes (prompt and hand-written by the bride herself), as well as who chooses the bridesmaids' dresses (the bride) and who pays for them (the wearers).
When it comes to clothes, a pleasing appearance is on par with good manners. Post encourages the reader to learn what latest fashions work for him or her. One shouldn't be like "sheep" and follow each new fashion blindly. But Post doesn't approve of "frumps" or "dowds" who make no attempt to keep up with fashion.
Post might have fallen into obscurity like her predecessors had it not been for one innovation to the genre of etiquette manuals: characters. Post drew on her personal knowledge of real families and her experience writing fiction to incorporate such characters as the Worldlys, the Kindharts, the Gildings, the Wellborns and the Toploftys. This technique served to both illustrate hypothetical situations and allow her readers a glimpse into high-society personalities.
But it was her emphasis on good character — rather than just good characters — that perhaps resonated most with her audience.
What's Most Important
In the first chapter of her book, Post quickly earns the respect of her middle-class readers, assuring them that etiquette can allow anyone into "Best Society."
"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 gentlefolk, 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."
Amidst all the formal rules, Post continually reminds readers of what's really important: "Again, good manners are, after all, nothing but courteous consideration of other people's interests and feelings." She also emphasizes that we must treat others with this courtesy, "no matter what the station of the others may be."
Post shared with the younger generation an appreciation of core values over appearances, saying, "Certainly what one is, is of far greater importance than what one appears to be." She explains what she learned painfully through her unhappy marriage: A man is not a gentleman if he does not live up to a code of honor, which is "more important than any mere dictum of etiquette."
Throughout her book, Post often turns the table on the upper class, demanding they show mercy on those who try and fail to live up to their high standards of decorum. While discussing how to be a good guest, Post advises, "you must learn as it were not to notice if hot soup is poured down your back." And the characters of the Kindharts sweetly disregard the Newweds' disastrous dinner party, saying, "Cheer up, little girl, it doesn't really matter!"
Despite all her meticulous guidance on behavior and fashion, Post closes her book with an open-minded reflection on generational change. She recognizes the cyclical nature of trends and is careful not to condemn the customs of the new generation as being too loose.
With her emphasis on good character and authentic consideration for the feelings of others, Post managed to win the respect of the younger "Roaring '20s" generation. This suggests that not all young people of the day were as irreverent and carefree as commonly thought, but that they merely rejected the hypocrisy and pretensions of the older generation. Post gave them the direction they needed to separate the wheat from the chaff and hold on to what was good about the past. She taught them that appearance and manners, though less important than good character, are not inconsequential. Indeed, for Post, appearance and manners help express good character.
The Etiquette Expert
The name of Emily Post quickly became synonymous with etiquette, and she rode this success for the rest of her life. Three years after "Etiquette" came out, she published a society novel, "Parade." The book's advertising campaign focused on Post's experience as a manners expert. But this would be her final foray into fiction, as she realized that people were much more interested in her advice on manners.
As she was working to revise and update "Etiquette" in 1927, tragedy struck. Emily's son Bruce complained of a stomachache, but he refused to see a doctor. Once she finally convinced him to go to the hospital, he died of a ruptured appendix just a few weeks after his 32nd birthday. In her grief, she kept herself busy, however. She threw herself into work on a textbook of architecture and became an avid gardener.
Her revision of "Etiquette" appeared later that year and included some interesting concessions. In the original edition, she explained that chaperones actually allow young women to be more "free." But in the first revision, she succumbed to the new practice of allowing women to go out alone with a man. Furthermore, she realized that much of her readership was "servantless," and she devised "Mrs. Three-in-one," who must play the hostess, the cook and the waitress.
The next year, Post came out with a new book, but this time anonymously. "How to Behave Though a Debutante" was a parody about Muriel, a modern young girl. Muriel is an independent, empowered young woman who discusses sex openly. The point of the book was to encourage the older generation to respect the younger generation and accept change [source: Claridge]. Publishing anonymously allowed readers to approach the book without false expectations. Reviewers called the book "brazenly unconventional." Post surprised all her readers when she came out as the author a few months later.
The compendium on architecture she began in the wake of her son's death, "The Personality of a House," didn't come out until 1930 — the year after the stock market crash, harbinger of the Great Depression — so it enjoyed only modest sales. Two years later, she secured a deal for a daily syndicated column, "In Good Taste," that would appear in nearly 200 newspapers [source: Claridge]. She also became a popular radio personality in the 1930s, negotiating a contract for a weekly national radio program.
In 1950, "Pageant" magazine listed Post as second only to Eleanor Roosevelt in the list of "most powerful women in America" [source: Claridge]. Before her death in 1960, Post's "Etiquette" would undergo 10 updates and 90 printings [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].
The Emily Post Institute, which she herself founded in 1946, continues today with involvement from her descendants. They carry the torch of helping people learn etiquette and navigate social situations with a focus on courtesy to others.
Author's Note: How Emily Post Works
What impressed me most about Emily Post was her emphasis on combining good character and knowing the rules of etiquette. Good intentions are essential, yes, but they aren't everything. Good intentions can't tell you how to act in every situation. Furthermore, someone from a completely different background could take offense at what was meant to be a kind act. Establishing a cultural etiquette — even if it's a flexible and changing etiquette — is necessary for society.
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- Claridge, Laura. "Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners." Random House. New York, 2008.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. "Emily Post." (March 27, 2015) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/472019/Emily-Post
- Kolbert, Elizabeth. "Place Settings." The New Yorker. Oct. 20, 2008. (March 27, 2015) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/10/20/place-settings
- Post, Emily. "Etiquette: in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home." Funk and Wagnalls, New York, 1922. Project Gutenberg. (March 27, 2015) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/14314/14314-h/14314-h.htm