When admonished to mind your manners often the first thought is — Table Manners. And table manners are universally thought to exist under the category of etiquette. Etiquette, an amalgam of codes, protocols, restrictions, and rules attend to many realms. When, however, etiquette is mentioned we tend to think of table etiquette. And of the many social “graces,” table etiquette has long been the most troublesome, changing, difficult to negotiate, and willfully dismissed by all.
Today, it might come as a surprise to some, table manners — matter. More than you think.
In John H. Young’s, A Guide to the Manners, Etiquette, and Deportment, of the Most Refined Society, he states, “No one quality of the mind and heart is more important as an element conducive to worldly success than civility — that feeling of kindness and love for our fellow human-beings which is expressed in pleasing manners.” Young saw “pleasing manners” as a means of communication. Having them, or not says a lot about who you are and how you relate to others. Simple — but only if you are aware of them and use them, and if you use them, use them properly. See how convoluted it can easily become.
Even though he was writing in 1879, Young’s advice was never more pertinent than it is today, “In every class of life, in all professions and occupations, good manners are necessary to success.” Necessary; not optional.
If we established (in part I) that the English got their manners from the French and the French from the Italians, then it is not inaccurate to say that 18th century Americans got theirs from their English forebearers. Being at the extreme end of this hand-me-down succession, inevitably, the new nation would put its imprimatur on social-civil behavior. Just as inevitably it would bear the stamp of the Enlightenment Age affection for democracy and egalitarianism.
Writing in her book, Star-Spangled Manners, Judith Martin (Miss Manners), said:
…our forefathers considered themselves charged with the business of designing a form of etiquette that would be philosophically consistent with the new country’s ideals. They agreed on the principles and fought over the particulars, and we have been at it from that day to this.
In a new nation steeped in equality and the dream of a non-hierarchical society there had to be swings between the harmonious and hegemonic, dignified and decadent, codified and chaotic. There were and are. For the everyday, for the quotidian of social exchange, the trivial, there had to be etiquette. Like so many things that would become American, our etiquette would be borrowed, a pastiche suited to the new circumstance. If only that circumstance could be clearly determined.
Unaware of the history of American etiquette, Martin notes,
… many Americans take the America-bashers at their word for it that foreigners in general and the English and French in particular observe a permanent standard that we fail to meet…Yet for all the American self-criticism and romance with foreign ways, most of us probably feel that as American behavior is the outward manifestation of the American commitment to equality and liberty, it must therefore be the system that the enlightened freely choose for themselves.
The word etiquette was popularized, according to Henry Hitchings in, Sorry: The English and their Manners, by Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773). The politician and diplomat eventually emerged as an arbiter of proper behavior based on the advice he gave his illegitimate son in a series of well-meaning letters. Hitchings also uncovered an early, published use of the term etiquette in the January 1737 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine. It is used in a description of the rigors of the Spanish court and the ceremonial behavior that was a rigid obligation.
After Lord Chesterfield’s death in 1773 a collection of some of his revised letters to his son were published and were considered, not without detractors, as go-to guides for proper behavior. In 1776, a stand-alone volume appeared in England called, The Fine Gentlemen’s Etiquette, and soon the word and the concept gained significant ground. In spite of codified Italian and French antecedents, and the obvious French derived nature of the term, etiquette soon became a province presided over by the English.
By 1775 a version of Chesterfield’s advice was already in print in America. Just three years later, in Philadelphia, The Pupil of Pleasure, a “scandalous” novel by the extraordinary English clergyman-actor-poet-novelist-rake, Samuel Jackson Pratt was published viciously satirizing Chesterfield’s values and assertions. The push back continued becoming significant enough that, in 1827, an expurgated and amended version was published called, The American Chesterfield. What is of overarching importance in all of this was Chesterfield’s insistence that “natural good breeding” and education, which in his time were expected to go hand in hand, implied a familiarity with etiquette. One can see why in the land of “all men created equal” this might be problematic.
Good breeding, with its whiff of animal husbandry, implies that to come from good stock, have a family affiliation, be of the proper class was a defining attribute. It is rather inescapable, is it not? A command of table etiquette was the gateway to an overall grasp of manners that allowed one to maneuver in polite society.
The Victorians certainly thought so. During the Victorian era codes, protocols, and the specificity of tableware were elevated to the exquisite, some might say to the excruciating. As a result of the industrial age the Victorian era saw the emergence of an upwardly mobile bourgeoisie, eager to take their place in a “society” that was fraught with manners, rules, strictures and lots of forks and knives that became metaphors for table etiquette. Other social circumstances might provide some meager shelter, not the dinner table.
The unbridled delight in complicating table etiquette brought into being an elaboration of table service including forks for (and only for) oysters, for serving and eating fish, shellfish, lobsters, sardines and terrapin, carving sets for roasts and joints, wide flat forks for serving cold meats, serving and eating tongs for asparagus, long slender spoons or scoops for bone marrow, coal shovel-shaped Stilton scoops, sauce ladles and spoons, stuffing spoons, pickles forks, lemon forks, round flat, ornate servers for sliced tomatoes, salad forks, servers and forks specific to specific cakes, strawberry forks, serving utensils and a spoon-fork (not unlike the spork) for ice cream, grape scissors, and much more.
A Victorian dinner place setting might include as many as eight forks with an equal compliment of knives as well as an assortment of spoons. Forks were placed on the left side of the plate, starting with the dinner fork, then the fish fork, place fork, salad fork and ending with a cocktail fork, which could also be placed on the other side of the plate nestled in the curve of a bouillon spoon. The dinner knife was located to the right of plate, followed by the fish knife, butter knife (additional knives for cheese, game or fruit), followed by cream soup spoon, bouillon spoon, an iced tea spoon, hot tea spoon, and demitasse spoon sequenced accordingly and if appropriate. A dessert spoon and fork were placed above the plate, facing opposite directions.
When it came to manners, and especially etiquette, Victorians unashamedly considered them to be “the barrier which society draws round itself, a shield against the intrusion of the impertinent, the improper and the vulgar.” This happily reverses William Godwin’s complaint of 1797 when he characterized manners in general, and table etiquette in particular as, “a set of rules, founded in no just reason, and practiced by those who are familiar with them …” to keep at a distance those who because of an “accident of birth or fortune are ignorant of them.”
There is every reason to associate manners and etiquette with power, then and now. To take Michel Foucault slightly out of context, “power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms.” If operating under optimum circumstances manners and etiquette, admitted social delineators, should be barely visible as they do their work. Too obvious and you have open rebellion, too subtle, and it no longer exerts hegemony.
Because ultimately etiquette is a two-way communication, an exchange through deeds and words, the knowledge and exercise of established (however evolving) conventions and strictures, can afford a power denied to others. In its absence, what may seem inconsequential might relegate you to the periphery of the society in which you wish to participate.
What was once artificial and exclusionary, may be thought of as a vast semiotic vocabulary to communicate, among other things, that you are part of a group, that you fit in, that you know “the rules of the game,” as Pierre Bourdieu would put it. The French sociologist defines this mostly inherent characteristic as part of Habitus. For the fortunate, habitus is the internalized “culture” of a specific social segment that begins during the early childhood socialization process. Habitus, he says is, “society written into the body, into the biological individual …” It acquires you. Bourdieu might not enjoy being grouped with Lord Chesterfield, but would find a strange kinship in the observation, “in good breeding there are a thousand little delicacies, which are enabled only by custom.”
The impertinent, the improper, and the vulgar were the parvenus, arrivistes, the come latelys, the new money, the un-mannered. They might have the wherewithal but what they didn’t know defined them. There was no place that revealed their improper-ness more vividly than at the dining table. If they were to succeed there was a lot to learn and etiquette, table etiquette, was the ticket to success. A mastery of, and comfort with, table etiquette may be the essential difference in the fulfillment of destiny. Then and now.
“Refinement of table manners,” cautions Bethanne Patrick in, An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy,
signals that a person has taken time to consider what best suits other people, whether they’re seated to the right or left, or across the table. No wonder that elaborate dinners are often a precursor to be hired in large, formal companies — he or she who demonstrates deft precision with cutlery will usually practice the same when faced with a crucial deal.
She would have been perfectly comfortable at the dinner table with John Young. Table manners matter — then, and now. •
Lead image courtesy of Internet Archive via Wikimedia Commons.