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Free From Freakish Ideas

Dec 19, 2014 1:21 PM | 2 comments

Parties, man. The worst. Who do you invite? Or more specifically, how do you invite everyone except for that guy? New Year's Eve parties? The worst of the worst. A day already filled with expectations, topped with anticipation, with a dash of nostalgia and/or regret. Thank goodness there are people who are paid to tell us what to do and what not to do to avoid garish social faux pas. Marie Manning, writing under the pseudonym Beatrice Fairfax, wrote the first newspaper advice column in the New York Evening Journal in 1898. The format proved an instant success, with other columns written mainly by women popping up in subsequent years. Naturally, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle needed a column, too. 

December 24, 1922

From 1922 to 1934, Ms. Helen Decie wrote Brooklyn Daily Eagle's etiquette column. Ms. Decie (after all, one must always use a formal address until requested otherwise) was a no-nonsense kind of lady, hence the title of her daily column: "Etiquette." She answered questions and offered general tips, never shying away from the really tough issues like who gets to enter the car first (the driver, followed by the oldest) and mourning veils: "The continued wearing of a mourning veil is entirely a matter of personal choice. No convention is so often disregarded nowadays as is the old-fashioned 'prescribed period.' Usually a widow wears black with a long veil at the funeral and with a short veil for a year afterward. Thereafter, if she is 'still young,' she may go into colors if she pleases" (18 Sept 1930). Golly, thanks!

Ms. Decie didn't pull any punches (not that a lady would ever punch, slap, or commit any act of violence, as those are displays of the uneducated classes). You have a friend that is superstitious? A) "As a matter of good breeding it is vulgar to be superstitious; as a matter of common sense, superstition is blank foolishness..." (22 Aug 1930), and B) rethink that friendship.

And don't ever let Ms. Decie catch you speaking ill about a hostess behind her back.


September 17th, 1927

After all, "Hospitality is one of the most ancient and sacred of social traditions. When a guest gossips about the affairs of a host or hostess, or permits herself even to criticize the household arrangements, she is doing what no well-bred woman would do, and thereby stamps herself as a disloyal, ignorant and vulgar troublemaker whom every hearer instinctively distrusts and dislikes" (27 Sept 1927). 

Needless to say, Ms. Decie isn't to be trifled with. When planning your holiday parties this season, it might be wise to heed her advice. 

For starters, leave your Christmas decorations up and add bells cut from cardboard that say "Happy 1934!" or, "Happy 2015!" as the case may be. As for entertainment: "Ask your more musical guests to bring their music. Time the musicale - including Christmas songs and New Year songs - with interludes of conversation, from 9 to 11, when refreshments are served." (27 Dec 1933). For party favors, jump in your time machine and check out B. Shackman's at 906 Broadway (which is now a furniture store).


December 28th, 1926

If, at your New Year's party, you feel like your dance partner might want to take a break but is too gentlemanly to ask, Ms. Decie suggests you let him know that you "require a moment's rest." Good to have code words during tense social interactions. 

December 29th, 1928

And, on the (very) off chance you're throwing a masquerade party, but you don't want to shatter the illusion by answering the door in costume (but not mask, as a lady does not answer a door masked), why not have your mother or some other relative receive your guests? Such logic. She also suggests that you harken back to a more youthful time and forgo New Year's Eve parties. Bring back Saint Sylvester's Day, which the day was called previously and, in many countries, still is. Sylvester supposedly both baptized Emperor Constantine and cured him of leprosy. Sounds to me like as delightful a reason as any to celebrate with bonbons and turkey, two dishes often suggested as holiday party foods. 

October 2nd, 1927

"Etiquette" has hundreds of entries. In 1934, the column changed hands and went to Ann Deveraux who wrote "Tips of Etiquette" until the paper's demise. Looking back at old newspapers often sheds light on customs long past, some of which might make a welcome return. If you're interested in perusing the daily life of Brooklynites, you can head to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Also, also has digitized magazines dedicated to the upper echelon of Brooklyn's society, Brooklyn Life and its later incarnation, Brooklyn Life and Activities of Long Island Society, for hours and hours of high-class perusal. 

The Brooklyn Collection wishes you a happy and healthy holiday season full of proper parties.

Oh, and yes, you can serve finger bowls at a formal dinner. Finger bowls, small bowls with water for the dipping and cleaning of fingers after the fruit course, come out just before dessert. One will dip their fingers, gently touch their lips, and dry with a napkin. But don't put ice or perfume in the water. That would simply be foolish.


12/20/2014 10:23:40 PM #

Note to self: need those finger bowl for the next year's part!

Alla Roylance

12/20/2014 10:24:21 PM #

and a spell-checker!

Alla Roylance