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Have Our Manners Gone To Hell?
A controversial recent book suggests that what we think of as good manners is a relatively new thing, a commodity manufactured to meet the needs of an industrial age. But now that the Industrial Revolution is over, we may need them more than ever—for very different reasons.
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
As he later recorded in his Autobiography , young Franklin went to Philadelphia intent on establishing himself as a printer. He was also fleeing Puritan Boston, where he’d managed to establish an unsavory reputation as a satirist, a political rebel, and an enemy of religion. In Philadelphia, “In order to secure my Credit and Character as a Tradesman, I took care not only to be in Reality Industrious and frugal, but to avoid all Appearances of the Contrary. I dressed plainly; I was seen at no Places of idle Diversion; I never went out a-fishing or shooting; a Book, indeed, sometimes debauch’d me from my Work; but that was seldom, snug, and gave no Scandal: and to show that I was not above my Business, I sometimes brought home the Paper I purchas’d at the Stores, thro’ the Streets on a Wheelbarrow. Thus being esteem’d an industrious thriving young Man, and paying duly for what I bought, the Merchants who imported Stationery solicited my Custom, others propos’d supplying me with Books, and I went on swimmingly.”
Privately Franklin was a brilliant young man of very strong opinions, argumentative and prone to question authority, and not above the pleasures of drink, daydreaming, or consorting with loose women. But he understood that to get ahead among the merchants and bankers of Philadelphia, he must put on the appearance of a sober, industrious, clean-living, right-thinking young man. He practiced what might be called a form of situational etiquette—not as a way to defraud other businessmen but certainly as a way to be accepted and rise among them. He dressed for success, a tactic he would use again, and brilliantly, as the representative of the American cause in the courts of Europe. There he would trade in his gentleman’s silk stockings, wig, and cane for a humble outfit and rough walking stick, once again presenting an image that best served his ends.
Franklin’s pragmatic use of dress codes and etiquette is a strain that Kasson sees running through the next two centuries of American life. The political Revolution that Franklin had helped to success unleashed a self-asserting, egalitarian society entirely more free-thinking than most of the patrician Founding Fathers had anticipated. In the nineteenth century it was followed by an economic revolution: the explosive growth of industrial capitalism, with its booming urban centers and rapid expansions in transportation and communications. By the mid-1800s a new social order was clearly definable. It was based not on rank but on economic strata, with emerging working, middle, and upper classes of “diverging and at times antagonistic conditions, outlooks and aspirations,” Kasson writes. “In the critical realm of work, the distinction rapidly developed between manual and nonmanual labor (preserved in the twentieth century as ‘blue-collar’ and ‘white-collar’ jobs). A hierarchy of specialized nonmanual pursuits proliferated, from store and office clerks and assistants, to intermediate managers of various sorts, to manufacturing and financial executives—all of which were physically and socially segregated from the dirtier, less ‘refined’ work of manual production. In contrast to ‘handworkers,’ young clerks and other lowerlevel nonmanual workers were often encouraged to regard themselves as ‘businessmen in training,’ who through character, initiative, and perseverance might climb the ladder to both commercial success and social prominence.”
Where Benjamin Franklin had relied on his own wits and keen observations to get ahead, the upwardly mobile “businessmen in training” of the nineteenth century found they had a whole army of advisers to help them climb the social ladder. These were the original Misses Manners, who, carried by the extraordinary proliferation of the printing industry from the 1830s on, churned out hundreds upon hundreds of books on manners and etiquette. Printed in the millions of copies, these books reached virtually every home, from the large cities of the East to the farmhouses on the prairies. They bore titles like Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness, Genteel Behavior, and The Standard Book of Politeness . They ranged from massive tomes like the 872-page National Encyclopaedia of Business and Social Forms, Embracing the Laws of Etiquette and Good Society to the modest Beadle’s Dime Book of Practical Etiquette (72 pages) and the rival Etiquette, and the Usages of Society , at a trim 64 pages.
Some of these manuals were written by women prominent in high society, like Grover Cleveland’s sister Rose. But the authors were extremely varied.
“They were both men and women,” Kasson says. “Women tended to write a bit more, but not by a huge margin. Sometimes they would be written by a publisher taking a pseudonym that testified to social authority, such as ‘By a Gentleman’ or ‘By a Member of the Four Hundred.” They’d be written by people who wrote other kinds of popular literature: novelists, essayists, magazine critics, journalists. They’d be written by educators or ministers. Some of the books are written simply by taking extracts from previous advice literature. In that sense, you or I could compile a perfectly proper mid-1800s etiquette book.”