Emily Post: Society, Scandal, and Etiquette
"Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."
Those who assume that the first lady of etiquette was a proper person from a privileged background would be correct. Yet there was so much more to Emily Price Post, who was also an entrepreneur, a survivor of scandal, and in many ways a modernist who helped to democratize society. From the moment she released her first comprehensive book on etiquette in 1922, Emily Post became a household name for good manners, polite behavior, and of course, proper etiquette. Learn more about the background of Emily Post, the events that shaped her life, and the enduring legacy of the Emily Post Institute.
Emily Price Post Was Born Of Mayflower Stock
As many might expect, Emily Post (née Price), was born into a family of wealth and status. She was born in Baltimore, Maryland on October 27, 1872. Emily's father was a successful architect and her mother was a Pennsylvania coal heiress with Mayflower roots. As the daughter of a high society mother and a very successful entrepreneurial father, Emily represented the spirit of the Gilded Age perfectly. While Emily's father designed homes for millionaires, her mother managed the family's wealth and maintained their position in society.
The family moved to New York, where Emily's father built skyscrapers and helped to design the exclusive enclave for the ultra-rich of Tuxedo Park, New York. Ladies of privilege in the late 19th Century did not attend college, but Emily Price did receive a social education at Miss Graham's Finishing School. According to the 2008 biography of Emily Post's life, it was her father's example which inspired her, even though she is best known for writing about the manners and social graces which were learned in her mother's sphere.
Miss Price Meets Mr. Post, Society Wedding Follows
The Prices were members of New York society, and it was at a ball in one of the majestic mansions that lined Fifth Avenue at which Emily Price met society banker Edwin Post. Edwin Main Post was the privileged son of the “right” kind of family for a young lady of Emily's social status. As the heir of one of New York's old Dutch families, he was just the sort of gentleman that a popular debutante like Emily Price would be expected to marry. Not apparent at the time was that despite Mr. Post's lofty social credentials, he was a man afflicted with terrible judgment and a lack of morality.
Emily Price married Edwin Post in a fashionable society wedding in 1892, which was followed by the traditional honeymoon tour of Europe. The newlyweds settled into a home in Manhattan, where they had two children: Edwin Main Post, Jr. (1893) and Bruce Price Post (1895). Married life did not turn out to be all that the young wife had hoped for; Edwin was both adulterous and a reckless stock spectacular. The Posts remained married despite Emily's knowledge of her husband's infidelities, because divorce would have been considered a scandal.
From The Ruins Of Scandal, A New Career For Emily
The shaky marriage was torn apart by an even bigger scandal when news of Edwin Posts womanizing hit the front page of the newspaper. His tawdry affairs with chorus girls had left the upper crust man susceptible to blackmail. The scandal broke when Edwin refused to pay off a blackmailer who then made good on his threat to expose Post's philandering ways to the world. Emily Post dutifully stood by her husband during the criminal trial of the blackmailer, but shortly thereafter divorced her scoundrel of a husband. By this time, the scandal of the public affairs was far worse than societal sanctions over a divorce would have been, and by 1905 it was time for Emily to cut ties with Edwin.
As her husband had lost most of his money in shaky stock deals, it was left up to the newly divorced Emily to support her family in the style to which she was accustomed. She did this by starting a career as an author. Post wrote a series of light Edwardian fiction novels from about 1904 to 1910. When she got her first car in 1914, the intrepid novelist hit the road, writing humorous travel essays for Collier's magazine. In addition, Emily Post penned stories and serials for magazines including Harper's, Scribner's, and The Century, as well as newspaper articles on architecture (learned at her father's side) and interior design.
Emily Post's Book "Etiquette" Takes America By Storm
The event that would set the author's life on a new path was when her editor at Funk and Wagnall's suggested that she write a book about etiquette. He saw in Emily Post a unique combination of a socialite well versed with all of societal conventions and a published author. Fortunately for polite society, Emily Post followed her editor's suggestion, and in 1922 her magnum opus Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home was released. Later called Etiquette: Blue Book of Social Usage, Post's tome was groundbreaking in the field of manners. She opened up the customs, manners, and graces of high society to the masses, thereby democratizing manners and allowing the average person to acquire the skills necessary to navigate successfully in society. The first edition of Etiquette was geared towards the newly rich, which was a departure from previous books on etiquette, which were intended for those already in the upper crust of society.
Etiquette was apparently just what Americans had been waiting for, and the book was an instant hit. By the 1930s, over one million copies of the book had been sold to those who appreciated Post's commonsense and straightforward answers to their everyday etiquette questions. The thing that was particularly modern about Etiquette was Emily Post's approach which valued manners over money. Her comprehensive guide to every type of social situation gave people the knowledge to behave politely and appropriately in any circumstance. It was Post's firm belief that the basis of good manners was founded on consideration for the feelings of others. As she said in the 1922 edition of Etiquette:
“Etiquette must, if it is to be of more than trifling use, include ethics as well as manners. Certainly what one is, is of far greater importance than what one appears to be.”
In other words, while Emily Post would certainly teach one which fork to use at dinner, her primary goal was to teach others to be thoughtful of others. She felt that for almost any situation, the benefit of employing good manners was that you could please the most people while offending the fewest. According to the introduction written by Richard Duffy in the 1922 edition of Etiquette, the term “etiquette” is used to “describe the conventions sanctioned for the purpose of smoothing personal contacts and developing tact and good manners in social intercourse.” That principle is still alive today in the updated editions of Etiquette, as well as the other publications of the Emily Post Institute.
Socialite Turned Expert, Emily Post Became A Household Name
The popularity of Etiquette turned socialite Emily Post into a household name. Fans of her book deluged the author with letters seeking answers to their questions about manners. Post took note of the questions which her book had left unanswered, and included them in subsequent updated editions. Later versions of the book featured a character named “Mrs. Three-In-One”, a charming housewife who was cook, waitress, and hostess at her own intimate dinner parties. “Mrs. Three-In-One” was significant in that she represented an ideal that the ordinary homemaker could aspire to; unlike in earlier examples of entertaining, Mrs. Three-In-One had no servants, and hosted guests graciously in the manner which she could afford. This was a radical departure from the origins of etiquette as French Court Manners, and really showed how etiquette is a fluid thing which changes along with society.
Emily Post channeled the entrepreneurial spirit she had learned from her father, and sought out opportunities to speak and write about her new pet subject. By the early 1930s, Post was a regular on the radio, and she wrote a syndicated newspaper column that appeared in 200 newspapers. Without a doubt, Emily Post had become America's foremost expert on the subjects of etiquette and manners. As her brand continued to grow, Emily Post decided to solidify her life's work by forming the Emily Post Institute. Founded with one of her sons in 1946, EPI is still in existence today, seeking to maintain the high standards of its founder, while keeping up with changes in modern society.
Even As Etiquette Evolves, Standards Remain High
The influence of Emily Post on the average American was so strong that in a 1950 poll of women journalists, she was voted the second most powerful woman in America, after Eleanor Roosevelt. Post was still actively involved with the etiquette empire that she created well into the '50s. Her books were more popular than ever, and she strove to keep them current and relevant. There was one standard, however, which the proper lady refused to relax, which was the importance of chaperones. In the Victorian society in which Emily Price came of age, no proper young lady would risk the damage to her reputation that might be incurred by an unchaperoned trip or overnight stay with a young man. Until the end, Emily Post believed that was sage advice. The 1955 edition of Etiquette was the last one which Post personally oversaw, and she passed away quietly in her home on September 25, 1960 at 87 years of age.
Emily Post Is The Bride's Best Authority
Post's extended family continues to carry on her mission of making
the world a more polite, thoughtful, and pleasant place to live. The
Emily Post Institute, which is located in Burlington, Vermont, lists
twenty-five books currently in publication under the Post name. Peggy
Post, the wife of Emily's great-grandson, is the current spokesperson
for EPI and is well known for her column in Good
magazine, as well as the numerous books she has authored about
everyday etiquette, weddings, and entertaining. Providing advice on
how to have a gracious wedding is a tradition dating all the way back
to the original 1922 edition of Etiquette,
and it is the one of the most important areas in which the current
generation of Posts write. Many of the words in the first edition of Etiquette still ring true today. For instance, take this excerpt about the groom's responsibility for gifting wedding jewelry to his beloved:
"The engagement ring—as handsome as he can possibly afford.
A wedding present—jewels if he is able, always something for her personal adornment."
No fewer than six current books about wedding etiquette are listed on the Emily Post Institute website, and of course, the 17th edition of Etiquette still devotes plenty of space in its 800+ pages to the finer points of wedding manners. The Post wedding empire includes great-great-granddaughter Anna Post, who is the wedding etiquette expert for Brides.com and Inside Weddings magazine.
The Emily Post Institute Carries On Legacy Of Offering Commonsense Good Manners For Everyday Life
Other Emily Post descendants play key roles in the work of the Emily Post Institute. Her great-grandson Peter Post writes a column entitled “Etiquette at Work” for the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe. His niche is manners for the modern man. Peter Post wrote Essential Manners for Men, Essential Manners for Couples, and co-authored The Etiquette Advantage in Business. Great-granddaughter Cindy Post Senning is a director of EPI, and specializes in writing about etiquette for children. She also trains etiquette professionals to give classes in teaching children age-appropriate modern manners. The youngest member of the Post clan to answer the call is great-great-granddaughter Lizzie Post, whose 2007 book How Do You Work This Life Thing? is geared towards solving the etiquette dilemmas of the twenty-something crowd. Topics covered include how to handle a dorm-mate's noisy lovemaking and how to politely seek the return of sweaters lent out to friends.
The wonderful thing about etiquette is that it adapts to suit modern needs. The 18th edition of the seminal reference book Etiquette is due out soon, and like the 17th edition, it will tackle all the pertinent issues which face us in modern times, such as cell phone and email etiquette (“netiquette”). The Emily Post Institute has also evolved and changed with the times, having recently launched a searchable online encyclopedia of etiquette named the “Etipedia”. Now one can use one of the aforementioned modern devices to quickly resolve their etiquette dilemmas on the go (at close to 900 pages, the book form of Etiquette is a bit too cumbersome to tote around town!). Of course, people seeking information on traditional subjects of polite manners such as how to set a table for a dinner party or word a wedding invitation will still find their questions answered by the Posts, America's foremost etiquette experts.