Good manners never go out of style, or so they say. Unfortunately, that particular proverb neglects the fact that even that most conservative aspect of society – social etiquette – necessarily evolves. Otherwise no one would publish updated and revised versions of these guidebooks, which, contrary to common opinion, are still on the market.
Beyond providing advice on whether to remove or maintain one’s gloves at a formal luncheon, etiquette manuals provide a baseline from which to extrapolate assumptions on the mannerisms of a given period. In other words, they have a surprising historiographic significance.
Of course, not everyone follows the etiquette outlined by these manuals – it remains difficult to ascertain whether the average individual ever bothered with them at all. And yet – human interactions are dominated by understood, shared conventions, which are exactly what the manuals propose to outline.
I posit that by assuming the behavior in the manual describes the ‘ideal’, then by adding a pinch each of human error and hypocrisy, a dash of rebellion, and perhaps a good dose of what one might call character archetypes, it isn’t all that difficult to recreate a very vivid image of an actual society. Some facets of human nature can be assumed regardless of time or place, while the etiquette manuals provide insight into the changing rules that, in combination with knowledge of the individual, determine the likely relations within a society. Even knowing that certain individuals and groups broke these conventions is useful, because it establishes the social patterns of a civilization – demographics, essentially.
An added benefit to these historical manuals, without touching on the useful comparison between different period publications to infer the relations between generations, is that not all manuals are cut and dry rule books.
Take, for example, Mrs. Burton Harrison’s The Well-Bred Girl in Society, which features a collection of essays on the subject. Rather than explicitly delineate the various do’s and don’t’s of deportment, the author applies them through anecdotes which act as vignettes into the life of the Edwardian debutante.
There is less obvious relevance to music in 1924 Paris, of course. However, these manuals contribute to the construction of the experience contained within the mapping project. They build up an image of the audiences that frequented various types of venues, and animate the demographics of each quarter.
All in all, then, a surprisingly useful tool.