Good manners

In biography, Baltimore's Emily Post is portrayed as a role model for women


November 09, 2008|By Anne E. Carroll | Anne E. Carroll,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners

By Laura Claridge

Random House / 525 pages / $30

As a young woman, Emily Post experienced the pros and cons of media attention. On the one hand, the society pages lovingly detailed her attendance at dinners and dances. But on the other, when her husband was caught in an extramarital affair, that, too, was in the news - including on the front page of her hometown paper, The Baltimore Sun.

This is just one of the complex realities of Post's life recounted in Laura Claridge's new biography, the first of its kind about the woman who would set the standards for etiquette. Claridge begins with Post's privileged upbringing as the daughter of two distinguished Maryland families, the Lees, on her mother's side, and the Prices, on her father's. Emily married Edwin Main Post in 1892; it was just three years later that the sordid news of his affair made the papers.

Emily was humiliated. She and Edwin soon divorced, and Emily - supporting two young sons - found solace and income in writing. She had already published two novels, and she threw herself into more books. The idea for an etiquette manual dawned on her gradually, first suggested by an early request for advice from a young woman trying to learn "society manners." Post was 50 years old when she published Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics and Home in 1922; it proved wildly popular, and she revised it 10 times before her death in 1960. Through it, she provided guidance for millions of readers on how to behave, promoted the idea that good manners were the way to open doors, and preached the importance of treating others with respect and consideration.

The huge success of Etiquette is impressive; even more so is the fact that Post continued to write novels, as well as a travelogue, a well-received textbook on architecture, a cookbook, and many, many newspaper and magazine articles. She also hosted regular radio programs, made occasional television appearances, and even designed buildings, homes and a co-op apartment building in Manhattan. The fact that she was a woman born in the Victorian age makes her pursuit of such endeavors all the more remarkable. Claridge shows her to be a positive and provocative role model for today's women, given that she struggled with the same questions of purpose - and of balancing her career and her family - that still trouble us.

As Claridge details these events and accomplishments in Post's life, she offers a rich description of the social developments of the times, arguing that understanding American culture offers a way to understand Post's mind and the expectations placed upon her.

The reverse also is true: Post's achievements and writing offer a window through which we can better understand the changes that took place during the decades of her life. Through Post's eyes - and particularly through her efforts to keep current with social trends so that she could revise Etiquette accordingly - we learn about the Gilded Age, the early 20th century and later developments, particularly changing gender roles and expectations for women.

Rightfully so, Claridge calls Etiquette a work of "domestic anthropology," a record of how things were done in America. To offer just one example, Post's decision to drop a chapter on chaperones for women from later editions of the book says much about the changes in social conventions wrought by women's widespread entry into the working world.

Claridge's description of Post's view of etiquette also makes clear that the subject is far more significant than is sometimes assumed. In fact, Post's early impression of etiquette as being only about such mundane questions as which fork to use when at formal dinners made her initially reluctant to write about it. She warmed to the subject only as she came to understand it not as a series of rigid rules governing behavior but as a dynamic system that, if mastered, could allow its practitioners to rise in society. To her, then, it was a subject with profoundly democratic implications.

This book is not an easy or a light read; it includes 445 pages of text, nearly 40 pages of notes and an extensive bibliography. It's an immensely researched work that straddles the line between academic and popular nonfiction. But readers will find themselves rewarded with fascinating insights into the times through which Emily Post guided us.

Anne E. Carroll is a writer and editor living in Greenbelt, and the author of "Word, Image, and the New Negro: Representation and Identity in the Harlem Renaissance." Visit her Web site at

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