The Wane of Etiquette

I found the most delicious book on etiquette written by Sarah Anne Foster in 1869 or somewhere thereabouts. It is public domain and an ebook which can be found here.  

Here are some of those points which our culture has tossed to the side with our napkins.

  • Never smack the lips when eating.
  • Never take a long, deep breath after you finish eating, as if the exercise had fatigued you.
  • Never make noises in your mouth or throat.
  • Never suck your teeth, or pass your tongue round the outside of your gums.
  • Never, even with cheese, put your knife into your mouth.
  • Never pick your teeth, or put your finger into your mouth. If you find you have a fish-bone in your mouth, cover your lips with a napkin to remove it. It is better to be very careful to remove all bones before putting fish into your mouth. On no account spit the bones out upon your plate.
  • (I did read an article on how Alexander Pope went to a dinner party and spit out the searing bite of potato saying, “A man would be a fool to keep that in his mouth! Of course, he lived in the eighteenth century.)
  • Never take the bones of fowl or birds up in your fingers to gnaw or suck them. Remove the meat with your knife, and convey it to your mouth with your fork, never being too eager to clean off every particle of flesh.
  • Wipe your finger tips, if soiled, upon the table napkin, never upon your tongue or the table-cloth. An elegant eater will never have occasion to think of his fingers.
  • Never use the table-cloth to wipe your mouth, you might as well use it in place of your pocket handkerchief.
  • Never remark upon what is placed before you, either in praise or dispraise of it.
  • Neither drink nor speak when you have anything in your mouth.
  • When you are helped, begin to eat, without regard to those who have already, or have not yet, been helped.
  • Never watch the dishes as they are uncovered, nor make any exclamation when you see their contents. Under no circumstances tuck your napkin, bib-fashion, into your shirt collar. Unfold it partially and put it in your lap, covering your knees. A lady may slip a corner under her belt if there is danger of its slipping upon her dress, but a gentleman must be awkward indeed if he lets his napkin fall upon the floor.
  • No gentleman will ever settle himself in his chair, pushing back his cuffs, as if for a “set-to,” at the table.
  • If you make any general remark, do not look up at the waiters to see what effect it has upon them. If they are well-trained they will not move a muscle at hearing the most laughable story, nor will they give any sign whatever that they have not closed their ears like deaf adders to all that has been going on. In any case, however, you must refrain from noticing them. If you want anything, take the occasion of a waiter being near to you, to ask for it in an undertone. To shout out “Waiter!” or order one about, as if you were in a restaurant, is a certain mark of ill-breeding. Unless the party is a very small one, general conversation is impossible. In such a case, you must converse with those on either side of you, not confining your remarks exclusively to one.

As I have been reading this most enlightened etiquette book, I have noticed such a drastic and, sorry to say, great chasm between the mid-nineteenth century and today. Not just in years, but in everything that is genteel and courteous. I read these dos and dont's and I can remember my mother teaching some of them to me, like a gentleman should always remove his hat in church. When I grew up, gentlemen did not wear hats. They were called caps and baseball was always said in front of it. Baseball cap. I remember gentlemen opening doors for me and greatly watching their language when I was in the room. Now, I see all kinds of foul things on the internet and within my hearing if I'm not careful about what movie I'm watching.

It makes me want to cry out, “Oh, Jesus, come quickly!” Then the faces of people I love flash in my memory. People I know do not have Jesus in their hearts and I say, “Wait, Lord Jesus, get them; gather them like a hen gathers her chicks. Continue just a little longer until they finally get it.” So I will bear the crassness of today, just so the lost will have a bit more time to come home.

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