Not-so-timeless etiquette lessons from a yard-sale find

What a find! A 1951 etiquette book from long-ago gossip columnist and professional hostess Elsa Maxwell. Hours of good reading!

What a find! A 1951 etiquette book from long-ago gossip columnist and professional hostess Elsa Maxwell. Hours of good reading!

Those of you who love yard sales know what I’m talking about when I enthuse about the treasures to be found there. As for those of you who are not yard-sale aficionados – well, I feel rather badly for you. You don’t know what you’re missing!

A week from today is a yard sale you won’t want to miss – though sadly, due to other commitments, I probably will have to. It is a Queensborough community yard sale, and it takes place at the Queensborough Community Centre (the former one-room schoolhouse in our little hamlet, one I almost attended – it closed just before I started school – when I was growing up in Queensborough) from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, June 8. I would give my eye teeth to be there. Queensborough treasures – what could be better!

But since I probably can’t, I shall reflect on treasures acquired at other yard sales in the Queensborough area. I did a post on the subject around this time last year, which featured a photo of the rather amazing amount of stuff that Raymond and I picked up in a single day. And here I wrote about a fantastic very recent yard-sale find, a vintage Fisher-Price garage no less!

But I thought tonight I’d share some pearls of wisdom from another recent find. It’s an etiquette book, of all things: Elsa Maxwell’s Etiquette Book, to be precise. The name Elsa Maxwell was vaguely familiar to me, but I had to look her up to find out who and what she was: a U.S. gossip columnist, professional hostess and author. (She actually had a pretty interesting life, and you can read about it here, and about a recent book about her quite spectacular career here and here.)

Elsa Maxwell’s Etiquette Book was published in 1951, and of course I got it for a song. Who else would want a 1951 etiquette guide from an almost-forgotten gossip columnist? But I love it. And I could probably create a whole other blog using only the tidbits of advice contained in Elsa’s book. But this post will have to do for now.

I love the book because in some ways Elsa has an utterly sensible approach to etiquette. In the introduction she says, “Good manners spring from just one thing – kind impulses. Which means that those of us who meet our fellow-men [I know, the language. But it’s 1951, remember?] with consideration cannot fail to have manners that are irreproachable.”

Now that’s good stuff! But then she goes on in the many pages that follow to get into some pretty arcane (and dated, and wildy sexist) advice. Such as this gem, from the chapter Manners in Public Places, subsection Taxicabs:

When a man and a woman take a taxicab he directs the driver. When only the woman knows their destination she should give her escort the address so he, in turn, can give it to the driver. Your driver will not care a hoot who gives his directions. But your escort’s ego will be pleased if you allow him to retain this masculine prerogative. So – since this is the kind thing to do it is also the proper thing to do. And, need I say, the smart thing to do.

Well! I have to conclude from this that Elsa conflated “kindness” with “stoking the male ego.” Not one and the same, in my books…

Does that make me unkind? (Let’s not ask Raymond.)

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