Have We Any Manners? Look at Our Ancestors and Take Courage!
"OUR ancestors do continually surprise us, but what can exceed the amazement, perfectly justifiable, that comes with our first glimpse at the approved etiquette books of only a generation or a century or two ago? It is comforting to believe' that our sires and their dames were the pinks of courtesy and good breeding, irrespective of their nationality or their station In life. But were they?
To the fair minded who study the novels, the jest books and the courtesy books contemporary with their lives — lives lived perhaps in the shadow of a palace— it is not always evident. And, except to the very young, who cannot see beneath the glittering surface, the exaggerated bows, the overpolished compliments, the kissing of perfumed hands and the spreading of velvet cloaks over muddy crossings seem theatrical and decidedly tiresome in an age that believes in such things as democracy, international conciliation, coeducation, pragmatism!
Today one of the most popular and amusing fallacies among the nations is that we Americans have no manners whatever; that all our women are selfish, strident-voiced, overdressed Daisy Millers; that all our men chew tobacco, hide behind newspapers at breakfast and dine in their shirt sleeves. And yet many old cosmopolitans and travelers, who claim to be discriminating in the matter of good manners, solemnly declare that we can well afford to be criticised by both Paris and Berlin.
We are a ridiculously new, composite race, but are we not an intelligent one— Indisputably benign, introspective, emulative, sympathetic and fond of laughter? To us a perusal of the etiquette books that only a century or two ago went through innumerable editions in all the great cities of Europe reveals this important, this unpleasant fact: that the immediate descendants of all the picture gallery folk, so picturesque in powdered wigs, swords, brocades and lace frills were in danger of inheriting the manners of snobs, boors and pigs only. While their background and courtly manners were extremely decorative, we must not regret that they have passed away forever.
Society has outgrown the romantic drama period. It is learning to think. Good breeding is founded only upon the Gibraltar of simple human kindness; but society has not always been kind and considerate and manners have ever fluctuated with the tides of fashion. The following dicta from a famous courtesy book were penned by a certain man of affairs for real people, who considered themselves the perfect flower of enlightenment. The glamour of this gentleman's century has faded away.
In the case of an educated democracy, his paragraphs read like directions for a puppet show only: 'If in company with an inferior, it is well worth your attention not to let him feel his inferiority. If you take pains to mortify him it is an insult not readily forgot. At table there can not be a greater insult than to help an inferior to a part he dislikes and take the best yourself. Walking fast in the streets Is a mark of vulgarity. It may appear well in a mechanic or tradesman, but suits ill with the character of a gentleman or a man of fashion.'
'Eating quick or slow at meals is characteristic of the vulgar. It has the appearance of being used to hard work. Smelling the meat while on your fork being put to your mouth is vulgar. Spitting on the carpet is a nasty practice. It will lead your acquaintances to believe that you are not used to genteel furniture. Wit is the most. dangerous talent the female can possess. It must be guarded with discretion.'
In a recent item of Americana, printed in New York and in a year so recent as 1849, one reads with little gravity that vehicle was 'written for the socially inferior of that period by a properly serious social leader, long dead and alas forgotten.' This author deems his advice an absolute, necessity In that sadly mercantile period of the fifties, with 'people continually rising in the world and with, their new wealth acquiring a taste for the superfluities of life with the use of which they are only imperfectly acquainted!'
This little book, 'The American Manual of Elegance and Fashion' is divided into 18 chapters. Curiously enough, three of them are entitled 'Tattling,' 'Smoking' and 'Advice to Tradespeople.' Any one but a New Yorker smiles the smile of the unconvinced, as he reads: 'In all cases the observances of the metropolis the seat of refinement should be received as the standard of good breeding.'" –By Olive Percival for the San Francisco Call, 1909
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