I picked up Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette (1952) during my recent roadtrip through the mighty Southwest. Found at a Goodwill in Roswell, New Mexico, I was drawn to it like a kid in a candy store. I love all things, well, old, and the book, with it's mint condition like state from 1954, I couldn't pass it up for the $2.00 price tag. I have always attempted to be polite and try to act like a lady; it comes from a traditional household that is still in tact. I have learned in recent years that it feels damn good to wear a dress all of the time. And it's nice to feel like a hot little number in a black pencil skirt, red sweater, and black 3 inch heels when rolling through town on a Saturday night. I suppose this liberation comes from being a tomboy up until the age of 21. This goes back to my point, women do not take the time to look nice for everyday tasks beacuse society has most definitely changed since 1952. And because of this, I have been the center of attention a million too many times at work: I wear a simple dress and everyone assumes I am going on a date after work and then they continue with stupid comments. What happened to the expectations of manners, how you carry yourself and plain and simple, etiquette?
I thought it would be a good idea to read through this reference guide, pinpointing events that may be happening in my life and relating them to this forgotten subject. With sociology being my focus in my higher education, the outcome of reading this book at work proved way more interesting.
I did a little research on this book, and it is still being published. It's true, you can buy it through Amazon. So maybe this topic hasn't been forgotten, completely. But who would buy it? Who even knows about it? I imagine this is the type of book recommended by word of mouth. By socialites? By poor folks trying to make it in the big city? Vintage enthusiasts trying to recapture the past? If I didn't see the brown hard cover and ivory colored, thick pages, I wouldn't have though of buying a new edition. I really don't know.
I've got quite a bit of downtime at work and I thought I would sufficiently fill my time by engaging my mind. Maybe finding excerpts to share here. So I read through it, it has many pages, maybe about 600? Honestly, I don't have the book in front of me.
The first comment I received was about sex. One of my male coworkers asked if the book mentioned sex before marriage. Do you really think an etiquette book would say it was okay? So it did not mention this subject matter outright, but had statements that led to it. A woman should politely decline a gift of a robe and objects that pertained to anything beneath the dress. This makes sense, if it is accepted, than the male definitely has expectations of that woman who might just be a tease. Last week, I read an article from Pageant magazine, circa early 1950's. A famous poll had been done on the sex habits of Amercian women. 60% of women had sex before marriage, but less than 10% of those women with men other than their future husband.
The second conversation during the course of the day consisted of not much but shock. It is pretty quiet around here but this month we have scientists working here, visiting from D.C.. One stopped at my desk to chat, I put down my book and gave him my attention. He asked what I was reading and he was very surprised when I told him. Because I work the front office, some scientists will look down on me and make very silly demands. So those PhD's pretty much think they are better than me, all high and mighty. (Sidenote: most of the scientists I work with are NOT like this, but there is the occassional one or two.) I am not saying this scientist felt this way, but he abnormally took a step back, blinked and kind of shook his head. He didn't ask why I was reading it or what I have learned from it. I think he has a teen daughter at home and maybe this subject would be of no interest to her. But that was that and it was just a little odd.
The final conversation at the end of my work day included another male coworker, two years my senior. I just know this guy so I put my book aside hoping he would not see it. Nope. He picked it up and starting reading through it. Restaurant tipping by the host, being the first section he sees. He continues to ramble on about how I am stuck in the '50s and I need to catch up to the new millenium. He is always teasing me about my interests, musical choices, my seeing glasses. How can someone so young be so close minded? He tells me he doesn't mean the teasing, but I am old enough (and wise enough) to know there is always truth in these comments. Not everyone is strictly sports and church, mind you. Why not admire the bygone era for it's simplicity?
I wasn't expecting these surprising reactions, at all. If I was reading the new Stephen King novel, these previous events would have not occurred. Even if I was reading Edger Allen Poe, I wouldn't have received the same reaction. Why is that etiquette is so unheard of nowadays in this middle class life that I lead?
I definitely dance to the beat of my own drum.