Emily Post first published Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home in 1922; when the Post wrote about her in 1937, the book was in its 41st printing and had sold almost 500,000 copies. Mrs. Post had long insisted on chaperones for unmarried ladies and admonished that the divorced should never, ever, acknowledge one another.
That was about to change. Realizing that Americans’ manners were shifting with the times, Post’s new edition would make allowances for those without servants and let divorced people chat each other up.
Despite her prim advice, Post’s personal life was quite modern. She divorced her husband, kept both her maiden and married names (Emily Price Post) and took up writing to make ends meet. Her first efforts were “lively and frivolous” novels “swarming with easygoing earls and princes, and laid against a dizzy background of high life.”
Her publisher badgered her to write a book of etiquette, but Post considered her herself unqualified. The publisher persisted, sending her all of the current books on manners. Post remarked “These people don’t seem to know what they’re talking about.” The rest is history.
Emily Post notably didn’t care at all about the more baroque aspects of etiquette: “She likes to think, and to impress upon her readers, that ‘etiquette’ is a question of common sense and consideration rather than a study of how to speak to a visiting prince or eat an ear of corn on the cob.” In particular, the “which fork to use” question drove her crazy: “Once, when she got fifteen letters in one day, asking which fork the writers should use when confronted with several, she answered all fifteen grimly in four words: ‘Oh, use any one.'”
That’s not to say that many of her edicts don’t seem quaint today. She bemoaned The Great American Rudeness, which is — brace yourselves — the American practice of servants serving food to the hostess first, rather than last.
Even so, she had high hopes for the country: “She says, sincerely and often, that the future of America is bright with promise; for no harm…can come to a land where millions of people are forever cozily intent upon the right fork to use for an avocado, and how to remove grape seeds inconspicuously from the mouth.”
Featured image: Ivan Dmitri for The Saturday Evening Post
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now