Lizzie Post, right (Photo Richard Carreno/Writers Clearinghouse)
By Richard Carreno
Junto Staff Writer Bio
When it comes to etiquette, I'm from the old school. P.S. 152, Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York, to be exact. Back then, minding your ps and qs really meant learning the ABC's of the schoolyard hierarchy. With no time for a RSVP.
Over the years, my manner and manners improved as I moved away from Brooklyn and through the ranks of several cotillions, armed with such field manuals to native species as The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Vissier; of the Handbook for Hosts by Roy Andries de Groot; My Dinner Party Book by Margaret, Duchess of Argyll; and, of course, the grande dame of the genre, The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette. My favorite is a 1932 dandy titled When You Entertain by Ida Bailey Allen, who, from her photograph, was a Brunhilda sort with a penchant for menus that include Coca-Cola lemon cup, Coca-Cola Fruit Cup, and grape fruit with Coca-Cola. (Yes, the book was produced by Coke).
From Craig Claiborne, at The New York Times, to Miss Manners, at The Washington Post, there was never, during my long slog in getting table trained, a lack of etiquette police directing the rules of the road -- and the dinner table.
Just as I was getting used to engraved dinner invitations, featuring such blandishments as an RSVP, Black Tie, and 'Coaches at Midnight;' that I was getting the new memo that hand-written invites were OK. That form then morphed into phoned-in invitations, according to no less a light than the late Duchess of Argyll, much noted for her partying skills as well as her philandering. Written invites, argued Margaret in a 1986 guide, are, pish bother, too 'full of pitfalls.' Besides,'If the cards manage to survive the post, people are so slow in answering.'
I wasn't very surprised then to learn that latest twist -- it's the Internet age, after all -- that e-mail invites now have the imprimatur of one of the leading and most authoritative names in bourgeois behavior.
'Entertaining changes with the times,' Lizzie Post, a tall, 27-year-old blond told me, citing an aphorism -- given all that I've gone through -- that I had grown to expect.
Lizzie Post, of course, bears the name of that other legendary doyenne in American manners. Post, being the name of Lizzie's great-great grandmother Emily Post, who, along with Amy Vanderbilt, pioneered the business of confidence-giving to America's growing and socially-uncertain middle class.
That was in early 20th century.
'Emily embraced changes with the times,' Lizzie said. 'She embraced new technology.' Her motto: 'Always look to the up-and-coming generation. Cling to looking ahead.'
That motto might as well also be emblazoned on the crest of Post family, which has become, since 1922 when Emily published her first guide with the no-nonsense title, Etiquette, arguably North America's leading publishing and consulting cottage industry in the field. The font of all things correct, which includes Lizzie, her 30-year-old sister Anna, her father, mother, and Aunt Peggy, is a crucible called The Emily Post Institute, based in Burlington, Vermont.
Lizzie flew in from Burlington the day before I met her recently at a Center City hotel.
'As a new generation is up and coming,' Lizzie went on, 'we thought it was time to a book that speaks to [my] generation. Etiquette shouldn't become offensive or fossilized.'
That book, in the bookshops in May, is the Institute's latest publication, Great Get-Togethers, co-authored by Lizzie and Anna. (William Morrow, $24.99).
Part guide, part confidence-builder, the book is also a part a how-to on basics.
Like, how to serve wine. ('...[N]ot a bad idea to wrap the bottle in a napkin -- especially for red wine (easier to clean the napkin than a tablecloth or a guest's dress). How to identify champagne (dry, extra dry, etc.) and how to open a champagne bottle. ('Remove the foil' is one tip).
'I think it's wonderful that we're giving people the basics so that they'll be capable from the start,' Lizzie explained. 'I like the casualness of my generation, but we don't want to lose the knowledge.'
The Post sisters aren't as revolutionary as Lizzie's premise about generational change at first might sound, however.
Invitations by post haven't been canned altogether.
'Mailed invitations are still the preferred mode for formal celebrations like weddings and black-tie affairs (an invitation received in the mail comes with an invisible IMPORTANT stamped on the envelope,' the sisters write.
The 'modern' twist?
First, the sisters, like the Duchess of Argyll, OK phone invites.
'The phone is perfect for those occasions when you want to invite close friends to an informal gathering.... You'll know right away who can come and who can't.'
The sisters also allow that e-mail is now 'accepted' by 'the invitation establishment.' (What that establishment is exactly isn't explained). Even 'e-vitations' composed on Evite or Socializer.com win favor.
But, Lizzie told me, that approval comes with caveats. (These are also cited in the text).
E-vites might wind up as SPAM, e-mail addresses might need updating, and e-vite 'RSVP messages are seen by all -- so guests may angst over sending a clever response.'
Lizzie offered another negative, one not recorded in the book.
E-vites generally register who have accepted, and those who've returned regrets. Such public rolls might influence attendance, which never be governed by knowledge of a dinner party invitation list.
Besides, added Lizzie, actually sounding less and less convinced about the wisdom of e-vites, 'It's nicer to get in touch with people personally.'