Friday, January 19, 2018

Etiquette and Royal Fads

Barely 125 years after the United States discarded the yoke of the British monarchy, and barely a hundred years after President Thomas Jefferson experimented with his crazy “Pell-Mell” etiquette, a “sham aristocracy” had developed in Washington D.C. and everyone wanted to be treated like royalty. – “Precedence is killing Washington as a place of residence. It is destroying its chief charm. If one thinks of going there to live it is because he expects to have the opportunity to meet in the easy circumstances of social intercourse people who are interesting or amusing or curious.”
Social Precedence Fads and
a Growth of Monarchical Customs at the Nation's Capital

Other parts of the country may be amused by the wrangling and heartburnings incident to the Coronation of King Edward, but Washington follows them with serious and sympathetic interest. Only a few Americans have any idea of the rigid system of etiquette which has grown up at the national capital. The other day, a high officer of the government said: “My daughter went to lunch with the daughter of Secretary yesterday. She did not come home until long after she was expected, and her mother asked her what was the matter. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Secretary’s daughter, was there, and none of us could go until she left, and we thought she never would go.’ And I find that precedent is carried out in the strictest possible way all through Washington society in all of its sets, down to the very children.” 


If there are any persons in official life in Washington who do not attach importance to precedence, do not resent being seated out of rank at table or in other ways given less than their exact official amount of deference, these persons keep extremely quiet. In Washington, one ceases to be surprised at hearing of persons of national reputations complaining fiercely because they have been subjected to some trivial slight in this matter of precedence. It irritates a cabinet officer to be put a shade out of his rank just as much as it irritates a congressman from nowhere or a government clerk. 

Precedence is killing Washington as a place of residence. It is destroying its chief charm. If one thinks of going there to live it is because he expects to have the opportunity to meet in the easy circumstances of social intercourse people who are interesting or amusing or curious. That social intercourse is becoming practically impossible. No one giving any sort of entertainment, however informal, dares to arrange his or her guests according to congeniality. The same people must always be put next to each other. The same man must take the same woman into dinner. The same youth must dance with the same girl. And as official life expands the blight of precedence spreads. 

It is difficult for an outsider to listen without laughing or showing irritation, as the Washingtonians discuss precedence and relate incidents of national and international catastrophes almost brought about by violations of it. But as some of the persons who most strenuously insist upon it, are otherwise high above the human average. It would be well, before utterly condemning the Washingtonians, to reflect whether the craze for precedence not a universal human weakness, latent —happily latent —in most of us because it has no chance to show itself. However, if Washington is to be saved as a residence city, some scheme must be devised whereunder precedence, and its complications and its depressing influences, shall be confined to formal international functions for the Diplomatists, who are primarily responsible for the present state of affairs.— New York Times, 1902

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette