A Look At Lillian Watson’s 1948 Etiquette Manual Proves That 'Good Manners' Have Evolved

by Susie b Cross
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Fox Photos/Getty

When we think of the 1940s, our minds are immediately drawn to World War 2, even if it was before our time. In 1945, the war finally came to an end and many Americans were freed to occupy themselves with much more mundane concerns, and in rolled the era of finger waves and the Victory Roll. Tupperware (which should have had attached lids by the 21st century) was the new thing in town. And, lucky for every kindergartener who has struggled with laces, George de Mestral was busy perfecting his 1948 revolutionary invention, Velcro.

Also in 1948, Lillian Eichler Watson’s 1921 masterpiece, “The Standard Book of Etiquette,” was republished, and this seminal tome set the bar for good manners magnificently high.

A lot has changed since the 1940s, but they say that politeness is timeless. And overall they’re right, though as our society evolves, so does the way we define “polite” (because let’s face it, “The Standard Book of Etiquette” was, unsurprisingly for the times, ableist AF).

Let’s take a look at what Watson advises—and see if her guidance still rings true in 2021:

“Question: Is it bad form for a woman to knit while listening to a lecture?

Answer: It is discourteous to the lecturer.” (p. 433)

Watson makes a point: knitting in public can be distracting. Of course, we recently saw badass-gold-medal-winning Olympic diver Tom Daley knitting at the Olympics. Tom, you can do whatever the hell you want and wherever the hell you want to. Fashion a commemorative cardigan or make some lucky dog a sweater—and for the love of God, knit me up some doilies. You, my man, are my hero.

Something else to consider: some neurodiverse folks need something like knitting or another task to help them keep focus on listening in a lecture or meeting. And that is something dear Lillian didn’t seem to know much about.

“In a well-managed household, the telephone is always answered by a responsible person: never by a maid who cannot speak the language well, nor by a small child who knows only a few half-intelligible words.” (p. 365)

As Watson suggests, you should never let an irresponsible person answer the phone. But what’s the deal with having a maid, anyway? Get off your ass and pick up your own oily, stiff truss. And then go study a second language instead of sitting in your $13,000 Wegner Swivel Chair, thinking about an idyllic, white supremacist future when it will be illegal to speak anything but star-spangled American.

Again, we see here that Watson made zero attempt at inclusivity with her close-minded remarks.

“Sometimes there is an awkward pause between strangers who have just been introduced…. Make some remark that graciously opens the way to easy conversation between you. It needn’t be anything clever or important. Any simple casual remark will do for your opening gambit…and let it flow where it will.” (p. 20)


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It’s almost like Watson was anticipating the 2020s when she advised us to let the conversation “flow where it will.” Like our ancestors, we don’t need to fill blank air-time with chit-chat about the weather. That is why, if the conversation organically leads in that direction, we can talk about how Sasquatch is as real as hammer toes. While politics, religion, money, and sex are off limits, there’s no reason we can’t broach foot fetishism (it’s not really sex) and the opinion that the COVID-19 vaccination implants a microchip in every ignoramus who gets it. Awkward pauses will always present a great opportunity to educate others!

“Next to good taste and sincerity, the most important factor in guiding your choice of Christmas cards should be suitability… Sending a frivolous skating or skiing scene to one who is a hopeless invalid—is unsuitable and unkind.” (p. 333)

Just like three-quarters of a century ago, suitability is always key. I like to send the hopeless invalids in my life Christmas cards that feature more appropriate images, like iron lungs or tuberculosis sanitariums or even other hopeless invalids. Why taunt them with our seasonal hijinx and frivolity when we could be sending them warm holiday reminders of the sometimes-insurmountable hurdles they face? On the other hand, we can still send our not-hopeless-yet invalid friends the same jaunty cards we send the rest of our friends. That’s what true kindness is!

“Remember that unselfish, considerate behavior is the outstanding quality of a well-liked guest…Many young, gay, social-minded people love to have their friends drop in any hour of the day or evening. And there are those many others—the shy newcomers to a community, the invalids, the shut-ins, the lonely people of the world—who long for visitors and eagerly welcome them at any time.” (p. 36-37)

What is it with Watson and those invalids? First, we have to search for proper Christmas greetings; now, we have to spend time with them AND the other lonely people of the world?!?? At least they will eagerly welcome us at any time. We can spend our days and evenings whooping it up with “young, gay, social-minded people” and then pay a compulsory visit to those shy shut-ins sometime between sundown and sunup. Really, whether it’s 1948 or 2021, making a sympathetic call on a neighbor in need is always apropos. As long as it jibes with your schedule.

“Question: Do men still carry a cane when they wear full dress?

Answer: Only if they wish; there is no firm rule about it. If a stick is carried, it should be of plain malacca….” (p. 360)

Of course, like the classy gentlemen of the mid-1900’s, today’s man (or anyone really!) can carry a cane of plain malacca. And plain malacca only. Listen—if fedoras are acceptable, you can pretty much add any other superfluous accoutrement to your ensemble and look extra-sharp. In fact, the more accessories the merrier, and why stop at the walking stick? Go for full-frontal panache by incorporating any of the following: spats, a velveteen cape, wax lips, or prosthetic mutton-chops. Or anything else that screeches, “I am me and you are not!” Like the ageless fedora, the cane is never out of style, and, at the same time, it is never in style. Ahhhh. A true classic.

“The Standard Book of Etiquette” reminds us that unremitting politesse is not always easy, but it is imperative—and perennial. Watson might not have imagined a futuristic era of the Iko Iko, stiletto nails and Jeff Bezos’s space machine, but she would be pleased to know we have not outgrown our dedication to the art of good manners. Lillian Eichler Watson, may you rest in peace and know that Emily Post’s got nothing on you. She just might be a little more inclusive, is all.

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