The Etiquette of Prohibition, Vol. 13, Issue 57

December 3rd, 2014 . by Etiquetteer

Etiquetteer delivered these remarks at the 2013 Repeal Day Celebration at the Gibson House Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.

Among other things, the madness of Prohibition created a Culture of Alcohol Concealment, leading people to find ingenious ways to secrete liquor in their homes or on their persons. Images survive of hollow canes, fake books, and even shot vials concealed in high-heeled shoes so that people could travel with their tipple unrevealed. In the 21st century, already awash with alcohol, similar devices are used to get around outrageous liquor prices at sports and concert venues. These include hollow flip flops, a necktie flask, and even a “wine rack,” which is a sports bra with tubing.

Prohibition left a permanent mark on American manners, illustrated uncompromisingly in a little etiquette book called No Nice Girl Swears by Alice-Leone Moats, first published in 1933, the final year of Prohibition. The last chapter, headed “Our Plastered Friends,” begins “When our mothers came out, learning to handle a drunk was not an essential part of a debutante’s education. Now every girl has to be capable not only of shifting for herself, but, more often than not, of looking out for her escort as well.” Can you imagine?! This is not the way Best Society is supposed to conduct itself. But Miss Moats goes on to detail the ten different types of drunks and how to make the best of their bad situations (often using one’s mad money to abandon them and take a taxi home. Miss Moats paints a worst-case scenario from the beginning. “If you’re going out very often, you might as well be prepared to think quickly and be ready to exercise your ingenuity at any time. You may be called upon to do anything form catching the bottles that your escort, in his exuberance, may chance to throw, to burrowing in the sawdust for him.” (You must remember that often the floors of gin joints and other dives were sprinkled with sawdust.)

And going out was what people did. Prohibition saw entertaining at home decline (though of course it still went on) in favor of the jazzy rise of cafĂ© society. Willa Cather famously described the phenomenon in 1924, saying “Nobody stays at home any more.” And that meant men and women drinking together in public, whereas before Prohibition, saloons were for men only. At home, one was less likely to be entertained at a traditional seated dinner of several courses as at that brand-new gathering, the cocktail party. Ladies and gentlemen just standing around drinking liquor without a meal, or perhaps any food at all, being offered — revolutionary!

Miss Moats makes it sound easy: “Cocktail parties have become the line of least resistance in entertaining. They are convenient for the person who must get 50 or 60 people off the list of obligations and prefers to do it at one fell swoop, saving money at the same time. It certainly isn’t much trouble; all you need is a case of synthetic gin and a tin of anchovy paste. The greater the number of the guests, the smaller and more airless the room, the stronger the gin, the more successful the party. But if you give one, you must be prepared to have your friends on your hands until two in the morning, as they will invariably forget their dinner engagements and stay on until the last shakerful is emptied.”

One of the places they went in Boston was the famous Cocoanut Grove on Piedmont Street, which opened in October, 1927. But in spite of some shady connections, the Grove was on the up and up. They didn’t serve hard liquor, but would provide setups, trays of siphons and glasses, so you could discreetly add your own booze from your flask under the table. It was often better to bring your own to some places. In The Greeks Had a Word For Them, a gentleman at a speak asks “Well, what do you have that won’t kill us, blind us, or burn holes in our clothes?” The brutal Dinah Brand in Dashiell Hammett’s equally brutal Red Harvest said that someone’s liquor tasted like it was drained off a corpse. Other places would get around the law by serving booze in teacups.

Tolerance for drunken behavior became more accepted, too. Again, we hear from Miss Moats: “There was once a time when a man who got drunk in a lady’s drawing room was never invited to that house again. If he showed the same lack of control in another home, he ran the risk of having every door closed to him. Now a hostess who insists that all her guests remain sober would find that she was giving parties to a chosen few, and very dull ones at that. She takes it for granted that the majority of her guests will be wavering before the evening is over.” A Paul Cadmus painting of 1939, “Seeing the New Year In,” shows just such an occasion, with drunken, careless intellectuals coming apart at the seams. It’s a mean and tawdry descent.

One of the most astonishing ways that Prohibition changed America was the sudden appearance and acceptance of young women drinking in public. And it was this that led Pauline Morton Sabin, an aristocratic heiress to the Morton Salt fortune, to begin to campaign for Repeal. She said “Girls of a generation ago would not have ventured into a saloon. Girls did not drink; it was not considered ‘nice.’ But today girls and boys drink, at parties and everywhere, then stop casually at a speakeasy on the way home.” And indeed, a Topeka police chief observed “The girls simply won’t go out with the boys who haven’t got flasks to offer.” But a girl still had to hang on to her reputation, as Miss Moats makes clear in No Nice Girl Swears. “A great many people have come to believe in the single moral standard, but few have been converted to a single drinking standard. A drunken woman is still looked upon with disgust and she is certainly more objectionable than a drunken man. Liquor generally hits her in one of three ways: she gets boisterous and wants to play games, or she gets maudlin, or, more often, she grows desperately amorous. Whatever the effect, she is dangerous.”

To which Etiquetteer can only conclude, “Hotcha!”


Etiquetteer’s Advice to 21st Century Brides, Vol. 13, Issue 53

November 15th, 2014 . by Etiquetteer

Dear Etiquetteer:

My beloved eldest niece – she who resembles me more than either of her parents – is getting married almost a year from now. So far she has save-the-date cards ordered, but as her mother had an awful upbringing in terms of manners, expectations, etc., I know she will not be able guide the bride-to-be. What are some of the pitfalls of which a bride-to-be should be wary in 2014-2015?

Dear Aunt Bridey:

A Young Woman approaching the altar has many pitfalls to avoid, including many within herself. The saddest and most obvious is the delusion that one’s wedding is just as important to everyone else in the entire world as it is to oneself. The next is that everyone in the entire world is going to spend every cent they have gratifying her every whim; this is what Etiquetteer calls the Gaping Maw of Bridal Need. Etiquetteer hates to disillusion these women (actually, that’s not true; Etiquetteer is fiercely eager to shred their Veils of Deliberate Illusion), but even one’s fiancĂ© is not likely as interested in the wedding as the bride. In fact, no one cares about the bride. They care about the bride caring about them. Surprise them all, and make your wedding guests the focus of your wedding!

Etiquetteer has some ideas about Brides Today and Perfect Propriety. Dear Bride:

  1. Be a giver, not a perpetual taker. No one likes satisfying the Gaping Maw of Bridal Need. No one owes you the wedding of your dreams.
  2. Ask yourself if this is really about you and your mother and/or mother-in-law fighting to see who can come out on top.
  3. Ask yourself if you want a perfect wedding, or if you really just want to boss people around. Be honest. If the latter, get the ladder and elope.
  4. Think carefully about the experience your wedding guests are going to have and make absolutely sure that your wedding will be a party they’ll remember for the right reasons.
  5. Make the conscious decision that you’re going to have a good time with all these people, not have an anxious time trying to avoid them so you can be with your fiancĂ©/husband. After all, you’ll have him for the rest of your life!
  6. It’s a wedding, not a chorus line. Choose the number of friends you want for bridal attendants, not vice versa. An even number of attendants is not necessary – good heavens, attendants themselves are not necessary! (And you’d be surprised how many of your friends will secretly thank you for sparing them the burden.)
  7. Don’t be so selfish that you force your attendants to buy hideous dresses they’ll never wear again.
  8. Don’t skimp on a gift for each of your attendants, and don’t let your fiancĂ© skimp either. They’re your friends after all, yes?
  9. Consider skipping the vulgarity of a bachelorette trip to Las Vegas and instead hosting a traditional bridesmaids luncheon the week before the wedding.
  10. Expect to have a tantrum, and expect to apologize afterward for it.
  11. Under no circumstances should you plan to do anything on the day of the wedding but be the bride. This means no assembly of rice bags or souvenirs or table centerpieces, no cooking, no nothing.
  12. Do not publicize information about your bridal registry until people ask, and then send it to them privately. NEVER include registry information on a save-the-date card or invitation. People do still want to believe that they’ve been invited for the Pleasure of their Company, and not for the Generosity of their Purses.
  13. Lay in some good stationery now and send your Lovely Notes of thanks as gifts are received. You may NOT wait until after the honeymoon, and you certainly are NOT given until the first anniversary to send these.
  14. Keep it simple. The budget for ostentatious little touches might be better spent on upgrading the food.
  15. Most important, plan to speak to every wedding guest personally to thank them for attending. They have taken a lot of time, trouble, and treasure to celebrate with you, and they expect to get to speak with you. They deserve your attention. Etiquetteer, of course, remains devoted to the idea of a receiving line – while recognizing that they are routinely abused by wedding guests (not always elderly ladies) who expect to have long detailed conversations with the Happy Couple. Another solution is to circulate among the tables during the wedding banquet.

Now, Aunt Bridey, Etiquetteer feels the need to advise you not to insinuate yourself too aggressively into the plans for your niece’s wedding. If you and she are so truly alike and already have a strong relationship, Etiquetteer predicts that she will reach out to you to be engaged in some way in the planning. But it would not be Perfectly Proper to usurp the place of the mother of the bride, regardless of how accurate your assessment of her abilities is. You have a beautiful opportunity to set a good example by hosting a meal in honor of the Happy Couple’s engagement for your own set of guests, with all the proper accoutrements. But let Etiquetteer be clear that this should not take place later than three months before the wedding, and it is certainly not a bridal shower. Things get busy enough the closer one gets to the Big Day.

Etiquetteer wishes joy to the Happy Couple, and peace to all involved!


Reacting to Offensive Comments, Vol. 13, Issue 39

March 23rd, 2014 . by Etiquetteer

Dear Etiquetteer:

What do you say when someone makes inappropriate comments without creating a scene?

Dear Etiquetteer:

How does one politely yet emphatically interrupt conversation to deal with other participants who have dropped rude, crass, ignorant, racist or homophobic remarks?

Dear Offended Auditor(s):

We are blessed to live in a land that affords Freedom of Speech. The surprising advantage to this is learning how hateful people can be through what they say, which gives you the freedom to avoid them ever afterward. Etiquetteer wishes dearly that the memory of who said “I think if a man has opinions like that he should keep them to himself” in what movie would come back, but it is nevertheless good advice when one has Controversial Opinions about Other People, Beliefs, Practices, Behaviors, or Places.

Before getting involved, it’s very important that you ask yourself honestly what outcome you expect. Do you expect to change this person’s point of view? Do you want to warn them that someone who belongs to one of the groups being disparaged is nearby and could be offended? Do you want merely to change the topic? Do you just want to explain why your beliefs are different? Do you want to be sure they know that you think they are a Bad Person Unfit for Polite Society? Because let Etiquetteer tell you, if the answer to that last question is Yes, the most Perfectly Proper thing for you to do is to Remove Yourself from that person at once. Etiquetteer’s Dear Mother wisely said “When you lose your temper, you lose your point.” If you let anger overmaster you, you defend your point of view poorly.

As a general rule, it is safest not to respond to total strangers. With acquaintances and friends, there is slightly more leeway to offer Gentle Correction. With family . . . well, family dynamics are most challenging. While bound together by blood, differences in generation, region, and education do make themselves felt. Proceed with caution.

Let’s establish the situation, which affects in part if and how you should react:

  • Are you in public, and are the offenders total strangers? If so, say nothing. That will surely create a scene.
  • Is this person just a Provocative Contrarian waving a red cape at a bull for his or her own entertainment? Stay away. You will always lose an argument with such people, who live only to humiliate others.
  • Are you a guest at a party overhearing a stranger? Say nothing, or speak to your host or hostess quietly.
  • Are you in a group of friends or acquaintances enjoying conversation? If it’s necessary to prevent a scene, take the person aside – “Adolf, there’s something I particularly want to ask you about” – and suggest Ever So Gently that they’re making a bad impression and that more neutral topics are better for the occasion.
  • Are you in your own home or are you the host of a gathering at which these remarks are made? If so, it may be necessary for you to say a Quiet Word that the topic in question is forbidden in your house.

Irrepressible Elsa Maxwell recorded a Perfectly Proper example of the latter in her book I Married the World when the woman most known to History as Consuelo Vanderbilt had to react to an insult at her dinner table. It seems that the Earl of Carnarvon, her houseguest along with La Maxwell, suddenly popped out with “the French were a lot of frogs, anyway” in a discussion about postwar Europe. Alas for him, he had forgotten that his hostess was no longer Duchess of Marlborough but had been Madame Jacques Balsan for several years! La Maxwell related: “As Madame Balsan is married to a Frenchman and devoted to France the fat was in the fire. Icily, firmly and irrevocably the ultimatum was delivered to [the Earl]: ‘Will you kindly leave my table and my house this instant,’ Mme. Balsan demanded. Whereupon, his dinner half eaten, he left the room, went upstairs and had his bags packed and left the house.'”* Which just goes to show that it isn’t Perfectly Proper to bite the hand that feeds you. Etiquetteer at least gives the Earl credit for recognizing his Stupendous Blunder and actually leaving the house without trying to have a Tedious Discussion about Feelings.

Etiquetteer will conclude by observing that sometimes Icy Silence communicates more effectively than any words.

Dear Etiquetteer:

When a friends posts something on a social network that you find offensive, is it proper to say anything? Is it simply proper to tell them they have offended you and why?

Dear Internetworked:

It is astonishing how people will toss off the most offensive comments online that they’d at least think twice about before uttering in person. To avoid making a scene (see above), Etiquetteer prefers sending a private message via the Social Media Being Used to explain, in as neutral and brief a way as possible, how what was communicated offended you. Depending on the Offensive Comment, you might include the possibility that they weren’t aware their comment could be intepreted in an offensive way. You might also encourage them to delete it. But a flame war should be avoided.

Etiquetteer recommends NOT leaving a comment under the offensive post, which would be likely to prompt a public Airing of Dirty Laundry. Your goal is not to embarrass the other person (Etiquetteer hopes) but to express your own offense.

* Elsa Maxwell, quoted in Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt, but Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, p. 479.


The Woes of a Travel Agent, Vol. 13, Issue 37

March 19th, 2014 . by Etiquetteer

Dear Etiquetteer:

I work in the travel industry, and my colleagues and I provide excellent service for our clients. Two recent incidents made me want to write you to ask “Since when did it become OK to tell people that their jobs are meaningless?”

Not long ago one of my colleagues was seated at an industry event when someone at the table said he could not understand why people use a travel agency when they can go online and “get it cheaper.” Well, let me tell you, she told him why in no uncertain terms why people go to travel agencies. She was charming about it, but there was no question when she was finished. She was just great.

It happened again last night, but to me. A well-dressed woman approached me at a party and asked what I did. When I told her she asked if I knew a colleague, and when I told her did she replied: “It amazes me any of you people are still in business.” I thanked her for concern, told her that, frankly, I had a good year, but lamented having to answer some form of that question so frequently. “Well, it’s no wonder. I really am amazed you still exist.” She just kept going. Even if were true, it would be even worse. How completely offensive to force a complete stranger to justify their livelihood, in a casual conversation. Perhaps she considers good manners as obsolete as travel agents.

This is something people in my industry have to address in almost every social situation, and I must say, it’s exhausting. I’ve even had cab drivers, in casual conversation will say things like this. Is it really “perfectly proper” to suggest to someone you’ve only just met that their livelihood is obsolete, and demand they justify their professional existence? It always seems, at the very least, rude, and at worst, somewhat threatening and insulting.

Dear Justified:

At the very least it’s Taking a Liberty to offer an Unsolicited Opinion like that. One wonders if blacksmiths and thatchers had to run the same sort of Challenging Party Chat in their days. Unfortunately few people have any internal monologue any longer, much less sensitivity to the feelings of others. Questions of This Sort might be marginally less offensive if they were couched in concern for your own well-being, such as “What are you doing to retain market share in the face of the rapid growth of the online travel industry?” But only marginally.

Etiquetteer suspects what you really want to know is how to get out of conversations like this, and the answer is really a sort of verbal Bunburying. You remember Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, yes? Algernon’s fictional friend in the country, Bunbury, who he had to go visit whenever he had to get out of an invitation, is what you require, while also making a point about the stability of your industry. Respond thus: “Happily not everyone feels the same way you do! We’re having a very successful year. Now please excuse me, I must go greet one of my friendliest clients.” And then walk away without waiting for a response; that will communicate that you’ve taken offense.

Should you wish to engage such a person in conversation – and anything is possible – draw out the other person’s travel practices, and then turn the conversation to specific destinations mentioned by that person.

Etiquetteer knows personally the values both of booking online and working with an agent, and wishes you and your colleagues well as you champion your industry by providing excellent service to satisfied clients.


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