Is Etiquette ancient history?
The short answer? Yes!
The history of etiquette reads like an elaborate Dr. Who episode, with historical figures from Confucius to Louis XIV to George Washington throwing their hat in to civilize the youthfully ignorant or the gentleman at court. Although the term officially popped into the English language in the 1700s there is debate as to the exact moment of its birth. But, many politely agree that an Ancient Egyptian text from the 25th century BC, The Instruction of Ptahhotep, was in fact one of the first books ever written. How’s that for a dramatic entrance? Etiquette as ancient history. Blam.
The Instruction of Ptahhotep was intended to pass on the wisdom of Ptahhotep’s ancestors to his son. In fact, educating our young men is the primary focus of most of the referenced texts about etiquette. Even two of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, were keen to share their tips on codes of conduct for young men. Which begs the question. Where my ladies at?
It is probable that etiquette guidelines for women were not drawn, scratched, scrawled or printed until relatively recently. Instead, handed down firsthand from matriarchal figures directly or perhaps simply not a priority for the valuable resources of ink and paper. But when we think of American etiquette today (after bemoaning the extinction of it entirely) we think of our most recent and celebrated etiquette bandleaders, Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt.
At 50, Emily Post began documenting etiquette in 1922 with the publication of Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home. By that time she was an established writer with expansive newspaper and magazine articles, humorous travel essays and five novels under her sash. Even after her death, the Emily Post advisement continues on in her DNA, leaving a long line of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren that specialize in what she spent the latter part of her life teaching.
In 1952, after five years of research, Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette was published, introducing us to an all new modern voice of etiquette. Born in New York City, educated in Switzerland, and an active writer from the age of 16, Amy Vanderbilt was the perfect combination of culture, class, and sass for mid-century America. And that is why although it may not be ancient history, this is where my passion for classic etiquette lies. Through the coming months Amy Vanderbilt and I will parade us through modern adaptations and interpretations of her book, beginning with Chapter 1: The Ceremonies of Life. Or better known in modern times as The Events You Can’t Wear White To. I do hope you’ll join us.
Lindsay’s Finishing School is a series of articles focusing on classic etiquette with a 21st century sparkle. Relishing the more antiquated corners and finding a way to negotiate them into the modern reality of tweets, twerking and Tinder. Is there something in particular you would like me to discuss? Please let me know in the comments.