April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Dear Mrs. Post, How can I serve a formal dinner for eight without a maid?” In her almost forty years as America’s acknowledged social arbiter, this was the query most often received by Emily Post. The answer was characteristically simple and precise: You cannot serve a formal dinner without a maid. But, she would continue, you can serve a gracious, if informal, dinner. Step by step, course by course, painstaking detail by painstaking detail, she would explain the process to nervous hostesses across the country. In her famous book on etiquette, in several years of daily radio broadcasts, in her column published internationally by over two hundred newspapers, Emily Post told the English-speaking world how to handle every social situation imaginable.
She had never intended to write an etiquette book. When Richard Duffy, editor at Funk & Wagnalls, first approached her about the idea in 1919, she replied, “It’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard of.” But her good friend Frank Crowninshield, then editor of Vanity Fair magazine, knew how to appeal to the strong-minded Mrs. Post. He sent her a copy of a ponderous volume called Etiquette , which was enjoying a short-lived vogue at the time. The book’s condescending tone, its emphasis on elaborate rules and petty details, infuriated the well-bred Emily. Midway through, she flung the book on the floor and called Crowninshield. “Tell your friend Mr. DufFy to call me,” she said. “Tell him I’ll write him a book about etiquette. A sensible book. It’ll be a small book. I haven’t got much to say, and anyway, the whole subject can be reduced to a few simple rules.”
Her few simple rules took a mere 692 pages to enumerate. Etiquette, the Blue Book of Social Usage , was published in the summer of 1922 and was an immediate success. Within a few months of its publication, it replaced Giovanni Papini’s Life of Christ at the top of the non-fiction best-seller list. It soon ranked second only to the Bible on a list of books commonly pilfered from American bookstores and libraries. Emily Post became a household name—something no well-bred woman of the time could relish. “I might be a cosmetic or a ship or a fancy dessert like Charlotte Russe,” commented the dismayed author. But she could not shake her new-found notoriety. Americans in the twenties were obviously yearning for someone to tell them how to behave. The economic explosions of the late nineteenth century followed by the First World War had created a new breed of wealthy and upper middle-class families. These people and their imitators needed to acquire a gentility to match their fortunes—and they discovered it in Emily Post.
Mrs. Post’s credentials for her new-found role were impeccable. Born in 1872 and brought up in exclusive Tuxedo Park, New York, she had been educated since birth in the conventions of the “Best Society.” Even her divorce from her husband, Edwin, on the grounds of his infidelity—a relatively rare proceeding in 1906—could not alter her social acceptability. Despite the scandal, she and her two sons, Edwin Jr. and Bruce, continued to be received by the cream of the New York gentry. Moreover, she was an experienced writer, having achieved a modest success with several sentimental novels and travelogues. She had style and a knack for caricature. Etiquette centered around such types as the intuitively correct Oldnames, the exacting old dowager Mrs. Oncewere, the upwardly mobile young Mr. and Mrs. Smartling, and the snobbish Mrs. Toplofty. Mrs. Post’s tone was humorous and sympathetic, not condescending. She placed a premium on graceful simplicity. She warned her audience to stay away from ostentation and elaborate ritual, noting that “the fact that you live in a house with only two servants … need not imply that your house lacks charm or even distinction, or that it is not completely the home of a lady or gentleman.”
Shortly after Etiquette ’s, publication, Mrs. Post was deluged by hundreds of letters a week asking for advice. When the niceties of a given situation eluded her, she turned to her family, friends, and professionals in specific fields for help, not always successfully. Repeated appeals to Washington over questions of diplomatic protocol, for example, revealed nothing except that there was no standardized protocol; custom varied from department to department. In the end, it was she who formalized the rules of diplomatic etiquette from what she conceived to be common sense, and Washington secretaries gratefully accepted her dictums as gospel. An even more frustrating situation occurred when she went to the local stationer to ask about the appropriate way of engraving certain invitations. The stationer said he would check for her and proceeded to pull a copy of her Etiquette from under the counter.
Emily Post was fifty when the first edition of Etiquette appeared, and until her death at age eighty-seven in 1960, its additions and revisions absorbed most of her time. However proper, she was not inflexible, and she repeatedly changed the book to keep pace with the ever-relaxing conventions of the times. During World War n she issued a special wartime supplement to instruct her readers on how to behave amid the social and economic chaos created by the war. And in 1947 she published still another revision, conscious of new attitudes among the postwar generation. Despite competition from newer, less conservative sources—most notably Amy Vanderbilt— Etiquette continued to sell. In the author’s lifetime, it went through a total often revisions and eighty-nine printings. Her newspaper column, started in 1930, was to last many years, as would her daily radio broadcast.
Though her audience was large, there were some who considered the type of education Mrs. Post had to offer superficial and degrading. “The product of Mrs. Post’s finishing school,” Kenneth Forward noted in an article in American Speech , “is intended to be, not a cultivated human being, graceful in mind and body and motions, but a sort of extraordinarily house-broken dog.” Despite such carping, both her name and her book have survived, although today her appeal has subsided somewhat. While new editions of Etiquette are eagerly consulted for weddings and occasional formal functions, it is difficult today to imagine the urgency which prompted the following telegram received by Mrs. Post in the forties: “ REPLY WIRE COLLECT WEDDING TOMORROW WHICH SIDE OF BRIDE SHOULD GROOM LEAVE CHURCH ON ?”