Margaret Visser wrote in her great book, The Rituals of Dinner, “Not to know how to behave—and nowhere is this more the case than at the sensitive and essential dinner table—is never to be invited in the first place…Mere breeches of manners are not immoral; but partly for that reason they are, in ‘society,’ unpardonable…”
She goes on further to suggest that manner and etiquette books were favored and required by the aspirational middle class who hoped to gain the know-how to navigate polite society and “fit in.” The aristocracy, of course, required no such book, as they were not only raised knowing the rules but also dictated them.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, as the middle class grew and wealth could be amassed, theoretically, through good fortune and hard work in an increasingly industrialized society, these cultural rule books became increasingly popular.
Richard A. Wells’ Manners Culture and Dress (1890) is one such book. As he says in the introduction, “High birth and good breeding are the privileges of the few; but the habits and manners of a gentleman may be acquired by all.”
He covers letter writing, self management, gardening, baptisms, funerals, and, of course, table etiquette, among many, many other subjects—truly an opportunity to engage in self-improvement in any and all aspects of one’s life. At just over 500 pages, the text is exhaustive, quite well written, and, honestly, great fun to read.
Our copy, dated 1891, had suffered some rough handling, so we have had it recased with the original teal cloth covers and spine laid on. The stock is sturdy and crisp, bearing only occasional stains, dogears, or tears. Significantly, however, one page is torn diagonally and missing about half the paper, affecting the final paragraph of the preface and the first page of contents.
Additionally, the book was printed with a presentation page, and ours is addressed to “Mr. Alfred Norton by His Teacher J. D. Puryear For good Spelling.” This and the historiated initials and handsome etchings add to the overall appeal of the book. A charming find.