Etiquette, 50's Style

Author: Sherril Steele-Carlin

When you rewind the 50s, chances are you think of simpler times when families were closer and life was less harried and stressed. People knew their neighbors and were decent to each other. They had "manners," or as Amy Vanderbilt, the "Ms. Manners" guru of the time would say, "good etiquette." Perhaps that's one of the things that distinguishes our modern society from time in the 50s. Most people were just nicer to each other back then, and a lot of them had Amy Vanderbilt to thank for it.

That's not to say manners were simply second nature 40 or 50 years ago. They weren't, as Vanderbilt's 1954 "Complete Book of Etiquette" clearly shows. She devotes the first twelve chapters of the book to Weddings, Honeymoons, and Anniversaries, oh, and there's an entire chapter devoted to "The Smoking Problem," so it's true some things never change!

Some of Vanderbilt's advice seems a bit outmoded today, such as this advice for men "The vest is, quite obviously from the look of the back of it, a piece of apparel to be worn under a coat." Or this advice for women, "In the summer your basic town, dress hat will probably be a well-designed, simple black, navy, or white straw or one in toast or natural tones, depending on your going-to-town wardrobe."

The book is full of nuggets of etiquette wisdom, from when to rise from the table at a dinner party to what to wear for business and pleasure. There were so many rules, it seems hard to imagine that anyone could possibly remember them all, and that's one reason Vanderbilt's book was so popular. For many, it was the etiquette Bible of the time, and a must for every "proper" household in America.

Entertaining was still more formal, and so were special events such as birthdays and weddings. Americans wanted to know how to act and what to say, and Vanderbilt was right by their side with this book. The 1954 version contains nearly 700 pages of wit and wisdom, so it's easy to see just how important good manners were to most 50s families.

Keeping house was a bit more complicated back then, too. Vanderbilt devotes several hefty chapters to Household Management, and includes many pearls of etiquette wisdom for young housewives. Here's one, "Wisest of all is the careful hostess' habit of washing her party glasses herself after a late party, not leaving them to be done probably carelessly with the breakfast dishes." And another, "Breakfast is the one meal at which it is permissible to read the paper, mail, or anything else that suits your fancy."

However, much of her advice is just as timely today as when she wrote it in 1954. For example, in her chapter on "Dress and Manners" she notes, "Courtesy is a superficial name for actions that can have a very important place in the character building of a human being." Sadly, much of that courtesy seems lacking in today's world, and perhaps that's why we long so much for the simpler times of the 50s when courtesy was common and highly important to most people. So, for a nostalgic look back at dress, manners, household management in the 50s, find a copy of Amy Vanderbilt's "Complete Book of Etiquette," and be prepared for a real blast of manners from the past!

About the Author: Sherril Steele-Carlin is a freelance writer and researcher in Reno, Nevada. Her work has appeared in numerous national publications including American Profile, Highways, Pool & Spa, and many more.

 

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