Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Etiquette, Kettledrums and Germans

I’m standing in a Hillsdale storefront that we have filled with donated books for our July 27th community book sale. The assortment amazes.

I’m staring into a musty and worn little volume titled “Social Etiquette of New York.” Suddenly, the year is 1882, the date of publication.

It lists no author but bears the inscriptions of three previous owners. The first is a name and nothing more. A mark of ownership. The name is a little difficult to make out. It looks like Celtn (sic) B. Cole. The year "1882" is written beneath the name. Cole apparently bought the etiquette guide new.

The other inscriptions are relatively recent.

The first reads “For Juni, From Christopher 1974 December ‘propriety prospers propensity.’” “Propriety” is spelled “propreity” but never mind. I’m still pondering the meaning; it seems distant and appropriately Victorian.

The second is “For Mary Jo from MaryEllen, 1980 Nov. 'Travel transcedes timeliness.'” “Transcedes” is not a word in my dictionary. I think the writer means “transcends.” If so, it’s a worthy thought, but I don’t know what it has to do with “Social Etiquette of New York.”

Diving into the little book I scan its Roman enumerated XIX chapters. They move from “The Value of Etiquette” to “Debuts in Society” to “Morning Receptions and Kettledrums” to “Giving and Attending Parties, Balls, and Germans” to “Etiquette of Weddings,” to “Christenings and Birthdays,” to “Extended Visits,” and, finally — inevitably — Chapter XIX, “Funeral Customs and Seasons of Mourning.”

I’ve left out a few chapters, but you get the idea except for the “Kettledrums” and the “Germans.” I’ll return to those in a moment.

There’s a lot here about breeding, grace and refinement. A passage from the Chapter I captures the tone:

“Fortunate are those who were born in an atmosphere of intelligent refinement, because mistakes to them are almost impossible. They know no other way than the right one in the management of their social affairs. As to the unfortunates who have been reared at remote distances from the centres (the book’s spelling) of civilization there is nothing left for them to do but to make careful study of unquestionable authority in those matter of etiquette which prevail among the most refined people. High breeding may be imitated, and a gentle courtesy of manner may be acquired through the same processes by which other accomplishment is perfected.”

You can see where the author is headed. But do you really want to go there?

Somehow this pocket-sized tome migrated across the continent to the “remote distance” of Oregon. What could be more remote than that?

All kinds of readers of this book come to mind. Plots emerge. The low-bred scoundrel preparing a trip back East to infiltrate and rip off New York society. The rough-hewn Oregon damsel cramming for a transcontinental trip to visit a well-bred aunt, who has secret designs to pass the niece off as versed in more than slugs, downspouts and rattlesnakes. Or perhaps the little book is a cast-off from a life left far behind. “How far,” CB Cole muses before tossing it in some dustbin, “I have come from the stuffy ballrooms and stilted receptions of Gotham.”

Kettledrums, as you no doubt have been eager to learn, are “very simple and yet altogether elegant” receptions. The term “kettledrums” is “said to have originated in garrisons, where officers and their wives, who have been accustomed to elegances, are compelled to extend only the most informal of courtesies, owing to the necessary limitations of camp life.”

Note: “garrisons,” those outposts that dotted the plains, warded off the natives and protected pioneers.

A “German” is a form of dance and also describes a party at which the dance is featured. The book has this intriguing line: “Of course, nobody gives a ‘German’ without being familiar with all the necessary and peculiar etceteras, which it is not in the province of etiquette to explain.”

The modern reader naturally wonders why a German “not in the province of etiquette”? Could it be that the German, a dance listed last on the schedule of an evening’s events, was the designated time to … Get DOWN!

We can hope….

I snap the little Victorian book of New York etiquette shut and look out over the sale's sea of post-Victorian books. The topics range from how to raise a Springer Spaniel, to having sex when and where and how you want it, to why Rush Limbaugh is a jerk, to Robert Frost's poems, including "The Road Not Taken."

Inscribe them, inscribe them all, "Hillsdale, July 2008."

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