9 extremely outdated etiquette tips from the 1950s
Amy Vanderbilt is quite possibly one of my favorite people ever. I collect old etiquette books in general, but hers have always been my favorite, mostly because she’s way crazier than the far more famous etiquette expert Emily Post and seems to have no idea that poor people exist. She was kind of like the Paltrow of her time. I have culled these delightful examples of outdated etiquette tips from both the 700-page tome “Amy Vanderbilt’s New Complete Book of Etiquette” and the slightly smaller advice column-style “Amy Vanderbilt’s Everyday Etiquette,” both published in 1952. Interestingly, one of Andy Warhol’s first major jobs as a commercial artist was illustrating these books.
You may be thinking, “Oh man. If I had to live my life abiding by 700 pages of weird, complicated etiquette I would probably throw myself out window!” Well, that is exactly how Miss Vanderbilt chose to end her life in 1974. She defenestrated herself—although it’s never been determined whether she just fell out of the window as a result of taking too much hypertension medication or if she committed suicide as a result of the 1970s being too tacky to bear.
Anyway, here are some swell tips for gracious living!
1. Whose job is it to end a date? The boy’s or the girl’s?
“The girl’s. She places her napkin unfolded at the left of her plate, looks questioningly at her escort and prepares to rise. If he suggests they linger she may do so if she wishes. However, her decision must be abided by.”
A) Every “questioning” look I have tried out in the mirror today makes me look insane. B) Can you possibly name one single dude who would pick up on this? Really, you might as well tell him you want to leave via smoke signals, morse code or Victorian fan language. “Are you ready to go?” has always worked well enough for me!
2. What to do when you find your child smoking brown paper or corn silk?
Apparently, smoking corn silk was a thing the kids used to do? I asked my mom about this and she was like “Um. No, I have not ever smoked corn silk. Maybe that was a thing farm kids did? We lived in Rhode Island.” Anyway Amy Vanderbilt suggests you handle it like this:
“The first signs of ersatz smoking should be treated in a relaxed manner and with some words such as these: “I see you’ve been smoking corn silk. It doesn’t taste very good as I recall!” (surprise on the child’s part.) “When you feel you must try your first real cigarette, tell me and I’ll let you do it here at the home. No, I wouldn’t like you to smoke regularly yet, for a great many reasons you’re hearing in school. I would like you to wait until you’re 18 or even 21.”
3. I am a woman executive. Is it permissible for me to pick up the check for a male customer I am entertaining as a representative of our firm?
“Yes you may, saying something such as ‘This is business—you’re the firm’s guest.’ If the bill is to be paid at the desk, quietly put money to cover it on the check and ask your customer to take care of it. Either leave the tip yourself or ask him to take care of it out of the change. Try to avoid passing any money yourself, for other diners in the restaurant would not necessarily understand the circumstances.”‘
Oh wow! Can you just imagine? Things sure were awkward for the Peggy Olsens back in the day.
4. How do I eat corn on the cob?
The instructions in these books for eating corn on the cob are so damn long that I am just going to paraphrase. Basically, if you do not have four hours to spare out of your life, do not eat corn on the cob in front of Amy Vanderbilt. The tricky part here is that you may only butter and season one row at a time. And then you can eat that one row. Then you butter and season another row, and eat that one row. Which seems really hard and time consuming. Which almost seems impossible to me. She would, however, prefer that you cut the corn off the cob with a knife and fork.
5. Is it proper for a single girl to have dinner in a bachelor’s apartment without a chaperone?
“Social conventions can do very little to protect a girl really bent on getting into difficulties [zing!]. In this case, a girl not out of her teens would do better to avoid such a dinner engagement unless others, considerably more mature than she, are present. A career girl, from her twenties onward, can accept such an invitation but should not stay beyond ten or ten-thirty. An old rule and a good one is ‘Avoid the appearance of evil.’ It is still very true that men value little those girls who have no strong sense of propriety themselves.”
TL;DR– We are all evil whores now.
6. On paying dudes to dance with you when traveling abroad:
“In many large continental hotels, paid dancing partners are frequently on duty at tea time and dinner where there is a dance orchestra. These gentlemen, who do not care for the word “gigolo” usually move discreetly among the tables seeking partners for a small fee”…”For unaccompanied women to employ these dancing partners in public places is correct, but for them to put the arrangement on any kind of personal plane is begging for trouble. It is no shame to employ a dancing partner abroad– the most conservative women do it. But everyone knows on what basis such a man is in a woman’s company and it is ridiculous to pretend he is anything more than he is.”
I actually think this is super interesting! I had no idea that there were ever 10-cents-a-dance boys over in Europe back in the day. What a strange job, really.
7. What should I wear to private my audience with the Pope?
Men: Dark blue or Oxford Gray suits or formal evening wear. No boutonnieres are ever worn, but you can wear your ribbon of Chevalier or the Legion of Honor.
Women: Must wear black high-necked dresses with long sleeves, and head must be covered by a black mantilla. Any jewelry must be strictly functional.
Ok, not so much “outdated” as wonderfully GOOP-y. I think I just really like that there is an entire chapter in this book about you and your interactions with the pope. I think the argument could also be made that if you wrote a book now about etiquette and included special chapter on hangin’ with the pope, people might think you were nuts
8. Getting Pinned
“Pinning, in college contemporary parlance means “engaged to be engaged.” She wears the boys fraternity pin. It means more than they are just going steady. It means they are contemplating marriage, without the forthright public avowal of a formal engagement. At this stage, parents are not brought together and the parties to the pinning may, in the opinion of some, date occasionally with other people, although on some campuses this is considered beyond the pale.”
Although we here in the future get a lot of crap for our serial monogamy and the fact that we spend a lot more time dating before we get married (you know, because we live a lot longer now) back then, commitment before getting officially engaged wasn’t even a thing. Even, sometimes, if you were “pinned.” In fact, according to these books, you were supposed to “keep in circulation.” Which is probably why the concept of someone “cheating” on a boyfriend or girlfriend has always been confusing for my parents, who do not seem to believe that you even can cheat on someone if you’re not engaged or married.
9. A “Special” Problem
“Young teen and pre-teen boys need to be warned against the male stranger who may seek him out or sit next to him on any public transportation or in other public places and try to strike up a conversation. While such an overture may be perfectly innocent, the boy should be told gently about the necessary facts concerning deviants.”
Wow. This is how they talked about child molestation in the 50s. This is how they talked about gay people in the 50s. In one fell swoop. I can’t help but wonder what she thought of Warhol doing her illustrations.