William McGregor Paxton's "Tea Leaves," from 1909. Because the seated lady has retained her hat, we know that this was an informal tea among close friends (per Mrs. Frank Learned)
Last week we discussed the brilliant designer Eva Zeisel, born November 13, 1906. What else was going on in 1906? The San Francisco Earthquake struck, the first radio broadcast was aired, the muffuletta was invented in New Orleans, and a lady named Mrs. Frank Learned published The Etiquette of New York To-Day, a handbook for high society. In honor of Entertaining month at Apartment Therapy, let's look at Mrs. Learned’s tips on dinner party customs and etiquette from yesteryear.
Our lifestyle has changed dramatically since 1906 — and we should be mostly thankful. The assured dictates of the etiquette book only thinly conceal a deep anxiety: the more rules there are, the easier it is to make a mistake. Our anything-goes culture is much more forgiving of even the gravest missteps — WHAT would Mrs. Learned have thought of, say, starlets unable to modestly exit a limousine?! — and is generally founded on a more egalitarian worldview vis-à-vis class and sex.
That said, there is still something to learn from the rigid expectations of the past, when people were bound by etiquette to treat one another thoughtfully and to keep their panties on. Here are some genuine gems from Mrs. Learned herself (with page numbers). I’ll let you decide which ones are still relevant today:
On the prompt RSVP: “The first duty when receiving an invitation … is to reply immediately” (224)
On the importance of dinner parties even when one is not loaded: “True hospitality is not in inviting guests to a lavish display of flowers, viands and wines, with the object of astonishing them by such profusion. Life will be robbed of much of its good cheer if we hesitate to bring people together because we can be neither magnificent nor wonder-making hosts. A well-cooked, well-served dinner where a few congenial friends are assembled, may be delightful.” (78)
All that glitters is not gold: “Hospitality is not in giving elaborate feasts or displaying fine furnishings, costly gowns and jewels, but is the sweet and noble practice of receiving and entertaining guests in genuine liberality, and this liberality is not merely in material things but in the heartfelt and inspiring kindness which gives to hospitality its true meaning and value” (218).
Appointing the dinner table: “Table linen must be white, spotless and of finest damask, glass sparkling, silver and cutlery well polished … As a general rule three forks are at the left, and at the right are one or two steel-bladed knives and a silver knife, if there is to be a fish course. A tablespoon to be used for soup is at the right of the knives, and an oyster fork, if oysters on the shell are to be served; an orange spoon, if grapefruit is to be served” (63-4).
On a good handshake: “The manner of shaking hands expresses much or little, as the case may be. There is the cordial, the honest, the indifferent, the inert, the affected, the exaggerated way of shaking hands, all being suggestive of character. The friend who takes our hand cordially and looks straight into our eyes produces a feeling that the owner of the hand has a warm heart. The person who extends a limp, weak, lifeless hand and looks over one’s shoulder is not a person on whom to depend in an emergency” (97).
On being a gentleman (and a mama’s boy): “A well-bred man is free from arrogance; he is courteous, unpretentious, natural, simple, unaffected – in a word, true. He is considerate in his feelings, polite and kind to his inferiors as to his equals … He is chivalrous towards women and reverences their sex because he bears in mind his love and respect for his own mother” (103).
Smoking at parties: “A guest does not smoke without being asked to do so by the host” (106).
On note-writing: “Neglect of the art of note-writing may be traced directly to the haste in which we live in the present day. The telegram and telephone are tempting to many persons who will not take time to concentrate their minds or trouble to express their thoughts in careful language” (192).
On thank you notes: “The best rule is to write the notes with as little delay as possible, before the feeling of pleasure in the receipt of gifts has subsided. It is well to mention the gift definitely — the charming clock, the beautiful silver dish, the attractive cut-glass vase, the handsome lamp, the lovely piece of silver. People like to have their gifts specialized, and adjectives of enthusiasm are allowable” (198).
On conversation: “Subjects to be avoided are private affairs, illness, servants, food, money, dress, household difficulties, disagreeable happenings, grievances … One must renew constantly one’s stock of varied subjects of interest. It is even allowable to ‘cram’; that is, read up subjects and be able to introduce them deftly, and thus be prepared with something to say” (206-7).
Who knew: “Tea gowns are not worn at teas” (248).
On age-appropriate dress: “Women who have passed their first youth are careful to study the style of dress adapted to their coloring and figure” (250).
On table manners: “Bad habits at table are crumbling bread, or cutting it with a knife, or eating it between courses as though one were hungry. Unpardonable habits are leaving a teaspoon in a cup even for a moment, or sipping tea or coffee from a spoon.” (76)
The main takeaway for our modern life is simple: to excel as guest and host, be always considerate of others and mindful of your own impact, and never, ever, leave your teaspoon in a cup.
Source: Mrs. Frank Learned (Ellin Craven Learned), The Etiquette of New York To-Day. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1906. Full text available online here. Thanks to a very soignée hostess, Christiane Lemieux, for lending me the book.
Images: 1 William MacGregor Paxton, Tea Leaves (1909) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 2 Mrs. Frank Learned's book, The Etiquette of New York To-Day (1906), photo by Rob Meyer; 3 Alonzo Myron Kimball, Parlor Scene (1906), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
More 1906 trivia: to put Eva Zeisel’s longevity into perspective, also born that year were Josephine Baker and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom died in 1975.