Tag Archives: Katherine’s Bookshelf

Katherine’s Bookshelf – Etiquette by Emily Post

Dark blue with gold lettering Etiquette by Emily Post.
I love books on etiquette. I have a few, but this is the one I wanted to share. More could well be on their way.

This is the grand dame of the bookshelf, an early-ish edition of Etiquette by Emily Post. When it comes to the bookshelf collection, I don’t really care whether I get a first edition. But I do like my etiquette books to be from a range of dates, and this one, whose publication history to this point spanned almost the entire 1920’s, shows just how much American society was changing. Take a close look at that list of editions!

The editions of Etiquette by Emily Post, up to the publication of this particular copy. Lots of them.
The editions of Etiquette by Emily Post, up to the publication of this particular batch in 1929. Lots of them. I love appendices, end pages, indices, endnotes, and so on. I hardcore judge history books by how fat their endnotes are.

End pages and such are anything but boring. Read closely: the use of the word “edition” indicates that the book was altered and edited for the print run. If it was just being reprinted to meet explosive demand for the book, they would be labeled “printings” instead – as you can see after the publication of the New and Enlarged Edition in 1927. So, something was actually being changed in the content of the book, continuously, from July 1922 through November 1927. There are five editions in 1923 alone. I would hope that the core content of the book was ready for publication with its first edition, but this is a huge number of subsequent tweakings, and I would wager that they weren’t all simply fixing typos. Given that it’s an etiquette book, it looks like it’s being edited to keep up with the changing expectations of society.

Polite behavior is, as nearly every etiquette manual points out, a matter of being considerate and compassionate. That doesn’t change. What does change is whether you’re expected to know what an ice cream knife is for, and if visiting cards are necessary, or if you must be able to play bridge and golf in order to survive in business. These details can change very quickly.

Super fancy 19th Century ice cream knife. Solid silver.
This is an ice cream knife, 19th Century. Until the ice cream scoop, they used big ol’ knives with a ledge on the end to cut ice cream and serve it. The ledge is to keep the ice cream from slipping off the broad face of the knife. Weirdly specialized silverware was very common 100 years ago, and although asparagus tongs are pretty much extinct, along with sugar snips, and critically endangered cake breakers, you might still run into fish forks and knives in the wild, at a very, very formal dinner.

We don’t use ice cream knives, and bridge is no longer so vital to building business and social connections. Dining has become steadily less and less formal, too. However, the fancier the occasion, the more it might conserve practices of a century ago. If you find yourself faced with the prospect of a twelve-course dinner, Emily Post has you covered.

very formal place setting anticipating lots of seafood before the main course.
Don’t panic. You can use the table setting to anticipate what will be served, if you neglected to read the menu. Caviar (tiny mother of pearl spoon on extreme right), escargot (rightmost fork resting in spoon, the tongs to hold the snail shells arrive with the snails), seafood cocktail (leftmost two-pronged fork), soup (round spoon on right), fish (broad fork second to left and broad rightmost knife), lobster (lobster pick third from left), salad (fork, second knife from right), main course presumably steak (tall fork fourth from right and steak knife), dessert (three tined fork closest to plate and knife closest to plate).

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

Katherine’s Bookshelf – The American Woman’s Encyclopedia of Home Decorating by Helen Koue

The title of the book on the spine in gilt letters.
The cover isn’t very exciting. It’s green. That’s it.

This book from Katherine’s Bookshelf is, exactly as the title suggests, an encyclopedia of interior design… from 1947. Hmm. So, what were fashionable home interiors like in 1947? Let’s see:

What's rose and green and colonial all over? This living room.
If that sofa pattern qualifies as “a soft plaid”, I don’t think I can handle a bold plaid.

Having flashbacks to grandma’s house yet? In 1947, Colonial is in. Nothing says 18th Century Colonial like a giant plaid sofa. Also: ashtrays, ashtrays everywhere. There’s an ashtray on every single table and end table in this picture. I like the rug though. I can definitely appreciate a nice hooked rug. It’s huge. All you need to make a hooked rug is a small crochet hook, some burlap, yarn, and time – lots and lots of time.

Chartreuse walls and some kinda weird painted window border instead of moulding.
Baffling as it is now, the paint job here must have taken ages. Even with a stencil, this represents a monumental undertaking. Look at the figures on the closet door! Also, I can’t figure out how the window curtain works here. There’s no blind, so I guess sunlight just blasts through it. There must be a rail on the bottom too so that the whole thing can be pulled aside? I don’t know.

Basically, the entire book is exactly like this, which points up the problems with many interior decorating and home improvement books. If it’s incredibly fashionable, it’ll go out of fashion eventually. On-trend rapidly mutates into dated, exactly because it’s so evocative of the time period in which it was popular. Warm gray wall paint and white tile are headed that way very soon.

Another interesting aspect is that it’s fundamentally aspirational. Nobody buys a book on home improvement if their home is already improved. You don’t need advice for painting if you’ve already painted. Everything in this book is about how things should be, but aren’t yet. In the same sense that the styles shown within might be evocative of grandma’s house, few people in 1947 actually had houses that already looked like this. Like us, they made do with hand-me-down furniture and their walls were already painted. Not everyone was moving into new houses in Levittown. Some people had apartments, and some people had 1920s Cape Cod houses, or Victorian era townhomes, or shotgun houses. It’s important to read books like The American Woman’s Encyclopedia of Home Decorating to remind ourselves that the actual Mid-Century as it was actually lived in wasn’t entirely Mid-Century Modern. For every hilarious Uranium Red Fiestaware plate, there’s a whole lot of very bland porcelain teacups. Cultural memory is highly selective, filtering through only the most novel and iconic designs. The past as we remember it is not the past as it was lived.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee