Etiquette, courtesy, good manners and polite society: Retrospective publications at Library and Archives Canada

By Euphrasie Mujawamungu

No one who searches through the LAC collection leaves empty-handed. Thirsty for knowledge, LAC’s etiquette collection attracted my attention. My excitement was so strong that I prepared as though I was setting out on a long journey to a destination I like to call “etiquette books published in Canada before 1953.”

We carry the genes of our ancestors with us and we enjoy the benefits of the trails they blazed for us by removing the obstacles that made their daily lives difficult. What’s more, we inherited their know-how and their courtesy.

In fact, etiquette seems like a way to build an orderly, caring and cared-for society. Codes of etiquette allow people to gather for events, joyful or sad, and spend time together in harmony with everyone somehow following the same set of rules. Contact and coexistence with peoples of different cultures have also influenced etiquette on all sides. As such, etiquette textbooks and schools specializing in this area gradually expanded their field of expertise as encounters between different civilizations grew.

The etiquette collection is rich and highly diverse. Far from being outdated, it holds promising interest for many. The works in the collection offer writers or filmmakers possible inspiration for scripts set in an era of interest. For some comedians, retrospective publications provide fodder for skits highlighting the contrast between the customs of modern times and yesteryear. For them, this documentation is vital! Even students researching lifestyles in different eras will find what they are looking for.

Black-and-white photo of people in formal attire seated around a long oval table. The table features place settings and decorative centrepieces.

A group of people demonstrating their good manners (a029856)

What it is exactly?

The terms etiquette and manners differ in that the etiquette is defined as a series of codes that create the conditions for good manners. Etiquette is quite exhaustive and covers all aspects of human life. It applies to behaviours, gestures and expressions both spoken and unspoken.

Many books have been written about etiquette, although the word may not necessarily appear on the title pages. Nevertheless, the following terms or keywords allude to the model practices expected in polite society: courtesy; the art of living; the art of dressing; good manners; the art of presentation; the art of correspondence; home economics; table manners; and politeness in the areas of transportation, leisure, travel and more.

Scope

Good manners are not the focus of publications alone. The once numerous specialized schools often catered to wealthy, elite young women. Finishing schools provided a full range of etiquette training.

Some careers also require employees to graduate from specialized schools, such as schools of protocol or butler schools.

The LAC collection

Vintage publications on etiquette are a treasure trove of information. Among other things, they teach us about the transformations that our society has witnessed. For example, a textbook on good conduct for teenagers informs us about what parents, teachers and society as a whole expected of young people of their generation. Some books describe dress codes. For example, at one time, women were not supposed to go out without a hat, especially to church. Men, however, had to remove their hats in church.

Developments in etiquette

Over time, certain social practices or rules change or fall by the wayside to meet new needs or to adapt to new realities. Etiquette has also adapted to changes in the work world, such as industrialization and the arrival of the female workforce. As communication and correspondence tools evolved, codes of conduct emerged for typed correspondence, the art of speaking by telephone and more.

Sociologists interested in the evolution of society, customs, relationships between men and women, or the role of young people and children in the family are sure to find material for their research. Moreover, when historians describe a major historical figure, they highlight the person’s habits, style of dress, achievements, and the etiquette of the time. Some well-known individuals led a morally questionable existence, while others were more virtuous. Sometimes, what was once considered immoral is no longer so.

Black-and-white photo of a woman setting the kitchen table.

Woman setting the table, 1945 (e010862357)

Some finds in the collection

Mille questions d’étiquette discutées, résolues et classées. M. Sauvalle. Montréal: Éditions Beauchemin, 1907. OCLC 300069021

This encyclopedic-style book covers a range of topics and provides a list of questions and answers about good manners in different situations.

For example, concerning illness:

[Translation] Question—What is the correct way to show concern for close friends who are ill with a mild but contagious sickness?

Answer—Many people with a mild but contagious sickness close their door to their good friends. [In this way,] friends are not exposed to catching the sickness: in this case, their friends should be thoughtful enough to slip their card under the door or in the box […]

Other handbooks are more moralistic.

Traits caractéristiques d’une mauvaise éducation, ou actions et discours contraires à la politesse, et désignés comme tels par les moralistes tant anciens que modernes. L. Gaultier. Quebec: Librairie de W. Cowan et fils, 1839. OCLC 49023922

This collection contains 555 examples of character traits that are contrary to politeness and good manners, and explains what a sensible young person should not do (in terms of clothing, cleanliness, conversations and contact with others).

Finally, people say that some fashions and lifestyles never fade. I like to say that good ideas are timeless. The following publication discusses the art of receiving guests.

Manuel de l’étiquette courante parmi la bonne société canadienne-française. Evelyn Bolduc. [Ottawa]: [1937?]. OCLC 1015541211

[Translation] For the hostess expecting dinner guests […]

We will now turn our attention to the menu that the hostess will have created based on locally available resources and the season. In November, for example, game will be easier to find than it would be in April; grapes are tastier and better than strawberries; and oysters are abundant.

During this season, the following dishes might be served: oysters, consommé, fish (not a crustacean since oysters are already on the menu), a first course, a roast; hopefully not a roast of chicken or turkey every time; salad, a dessert of fruit ice cream or jelly. Coffee is usually served in the living room.

Eating local and seasonal products: a lifestyle choice that nutritionists recommend even today! It also conforms to our responsible consumption principles.

The following pre-1953 publications on etiquette are also in the LAC collection:

How to Arrange a Public Dinner. Walter Gardner Frisby. Toronto, Ryerson Press [1938]. Series: The New Dominion Books, [no. 6]. OCLC 42308995

Etiquette in Canada: The Blue Book of Canadian Social Usage. Gertrude Pringle. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1932. OCLC 5322767

Manners. Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1914. OCLC: 222701034

Good Table Manners. Narcissa Burwell. [Toronto: Reader Mail, Ltd., 193-?]. Series: Home Service Booklets, 118. OCLC 1007367401

Every publication is unique and the information they contain is invaluable. Some stylists and fashion designers, vintage and contemporary, say they found their niche through the inspiration they discovered in books from a bygone era or in the styles and manners of their grandparents. The same applies to various other occupations.

In any case, the publications discussed in this article are somehow irresistible. They are absolute page-turners!


Euphrasie Mujawamungu is a retrospective acquisitions librarian with the acquisitions team in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

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