Wednesday, August 3, 2011

a world of manners

I had thought the line appeared in the 18th century New England Primer, but a request to the great god Google went unanswered. The line was, "and if you must spit, spit in the corner."

Gathered around the spittoon
In the course of searching out what I doubt I could have made up, I did run into some research on early American books of manners. Manners are the things that people put together as a means of oiling the social wheels or distinguishing themselves from their more barbaric or less well-to-do neighbors. Once upon a time, it was considered good manners to say, "thank you" and "please," for example. And earlier still, it was genteel not to spit on the floor.

The sifting of one research site yielded up some totally useless information that I thought was interesting.

In the late nineteenth century, forks were still relatively new to the American table. As late as 1837, Eliza Ware Fairer wrote in a manners guide on the most polite way to bring food to mouth with a knife. Until forks were imported from Europe, people were accustomed to using only a knife and a spoon while eating. As late as the 1888 edition of Hill's Manual of Social and Business Forms, it was noted that, "As years have passed on, bringing their changes, the three or four-tined forks have come into use ... the advantage being that there is less danger to the mouth from using the fork, and food is less liable to drop from it when being conveyed to the plate. Thus the knife, which is now only used for cutting meat, mashing potatoes and for a few other purposes at the table, is now longer placed in the mouth by those who give attention to the etiquette of the table."


According to Mrs. E. B. Duffey in her 1877 book, The Ladies' and Gentlemen's Etiquette: A Complete Manual of the Manners and Dress of American Society, we are advised that, "No lady, if she wishes to preserve unsullied her patent of ladyhood, will be guilty of any feminine substitute for profanity. The woman who exclaims, 'The dickens!' or 'Mercy!' or 'Goodness!' when she is annoyed or astonished is as vulgar in spirit ... as though she had use expressions which in print are generally indicated by an initial letter and a dash!"


Just to the left of the sideboard is a tall window that opens from the floor -- a sash door -- that leads onto a small porch. One presumes that its placement off of the dining room allowed gentlemen to step outside for a post-dinner smoke or chew after the ladies' had adjourned to the parlor.

Smoking was typically forbidden at the table mostly because it offended gourmet standards, ruining the palate of the smoker, and the aroma of the food for everybody. Away from the table, however, the increased use of tobacco in the nineteenth century, especially in the United States, where it was both smoked and chewed, led to a heightened need to spit.

Visitors to the United States in the nineteenth century bemoaned the necessity of witnessing tobacco-spitting in public. The provision of spittoons was an important proof of civilized forethought. Spitting at the dinner table, however, was by this time out of the question. "If you must spit," the Illustrated Manners Book advised men in 1855, "then leave the room." By the early twentieth century, spitting had become officially unhealthy, thanks to the understanding that spitting helped to spread tuberculosis and other diseases.

In their classical plays of the 17th century, both French playwrights Corneille and Racine were at pains when it came to romantic love. A gallant knight would never express his love for his sweetheart with the diminutive and familiar "tu," a form of "you" reserved for animals and small children. He might get away with "Je vous aime" (I love you) which showed a distance from and respect for the object of his affections. But never "Je t'aime" (a shortening of "Je tu aime" that might be applied to babies or fuzzy kittens).

Even in the 1960's, I can remember a young German woman laughing at me when I asked if I might address her as "du" (the German version of "tu"). She was not especially offended, just tickled that someone might address a grown-up in that fashion.

Manners and mores -- without them things probably become harsh and self-centered whereas with them things can become smoother ... but not noticeably less self-centered.

At their best, manners can elevate the issue and put the ego on the back burner. At their worst, they can put the ego on the front burner and turn up the heat.

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