October 2008

From Gilded Age deb to matron of American manners

By Laura Claridge
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Pop icon Madonna has nothing on Emily Post when it comes to reinventing herself. In the first authoritative biography of Post, Laura Claridge documents the life of a woman destined to be a society queen, but who instead became the queen of etiquette and a role model for generations of Americans.

Born after the Civil War and growing up in the Gilded Age, Emily Price was the daughter of an upper – crust family. Her father, Bruce Price, was an up – and – coming architect, and Emily idolized him and his work ethic. As a young society woman in the latter part of the 19th century, her life was in many ways mapped out for her: she would meet and marry an appropriate man from her circle, bear his children and run his household. Emily certainly seemed on that track. A sought – after debutante, she met and fell in love with Edwin Post. They married and had two children. The marriage was not a success. Post was prepared to be the supportive angel of the house for the sake of the children, but a scandalous affair and resulting divorce meant that she had to look at other options for her life.

She became a writer and published several novels over the next 15 years – obviously inheriting her father's work ethic. In middle age, realizing her novels were becoming less relevant, she chose another route for her self – expression and in 1922 the first edition of Etiquette was published. Emily Post became synonymous with good manners in America and her book became an American institution. Post also proved to be an astute businesswoman, marketing her book through newspaper syndication and radio shows. Claridge does an excellent job putting Emily Post's life and work in historical context. The reader gets a real feel for the lives of the rich during the Gilded Age: the seemingly unlimited opportunities for making money for men and the pampered but restricted lives of women. She also shows the cracks that were beginning to appear in the upper class, resulting from pressure by the nouveau riche, massive immigration and the desire of many women to make more of a contribution to public life.

Claridge also shows how Etiquette served as a guidebook for the middle and immigrant classes as they strove to take their share of the American dream. Going through its various editions, it mirrors the changes going on in American society; still, Post never forgot what, for her, was the backbone of etiquette: kindness. Good manners were always to put people at ease, not the opposite. Reviewers over the years often doubted the necessity of a book on manners, but for its target audience, it remained a source of comfort for negotiating new situations as the old social barriers broke down. Perhaps nothing shows the continuing popularity of Emily Post's work more than its status as the second most – stolen book in the New York public library system for much of the 20th century. Claridge's Emily Post is not only a fascinating look at a woman who managed to conquer many worlds in her time, it is also a social biography of the changing face of the United States during the 20th century.

Faye Jones is Dean of Learning Resources at Nashville State Technical Community College.

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Emily Post

Emily Post

By Laura Claridge
Random House
ISBN 9780375509216

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