Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties

About a week and a half ago, I discovered something wonderful at the Nyack Public Library’s annual book sale: Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties more or less prevalent in Conduct and Speech (UNMUTILATED and with the Additional Matter. The Only Authorised & Complete Edition).

My copy is roughly four inches square, 96 pages long

Don’t is a marvelous book.  It’s a 1998 facsimile reproduction of an actual manners book first printed in the early 1880’s.  This being the British edition, it comes with the Englishman’s introduction, which concludes that “as a guide to the usages of polite society, the educated English reader will learn nothing from its pages, but, reading between the lines, he will be much amused and astonished.”  I can’t help but feel like the educated English reader must have felt, because this book describes a society so very different from my own.  Take, for example, these following “Don’ts”

  • Don’t reject bits of bone, or other substances, by spitting them back into the plate.  Quietly eject them upon your fork, holding it to your lips, and then place them on the plate.  Fruit-stones may be removed by the fingers. (p. 18-19, in “At Table”)
  • Don’t wear apparel with decided colors or pronounced patterns.  Don’t — we address here the male reader — wear anything that is pretty.  What have men to do with pretty things?  Select quiet colors and unobtrusive patterns, and adopt no style of cutting that belittles the figure.  It is right enough that men’s apparel should be becoming, that it should be graceful, and that it should lend dignity to the figure; but it should never be ornamental, capricious, or pretty. (p. 29, in “In Dress and Personal Habits” emphasis theirs)
  • Don’t expectorate.  Men in good health do not need to expectorate; with them continual expectoration is simply the result of habit.  Men with bronchial or lung diseases are compelled to expectorate, but no one should discharge matter of the kind in public places except into vessels provided to receive it.  Spitting upon the floor anywhere is inexcusable.  One should not even spit upon the sidewalk, but go to the gutter for the purpose.  One must not spit into the fire-place nor upon the carpet, and hence the English rule is for him to spit in his handkerchief — but this is not a pleasant alternative.  On some occasions no other may offer (p. 33, in “In Dress and Personal Habits”)
  • Don’t, if you are asked to play or sing, refuse unless you really intend not to perform.  To refuse, simply in order to lead your hostess on to repeated importunities, is an intolerable exhibition of vanity and caprice. (p. 42, in “In the Drawing Room”)
  • Don’t expectorate on the sidewalk.  Go to the curb-stone and discharge the saliva into the gutter.  Men who eject great streams of tobacco-juice on the sidewalk, or on the floors of public vehicles, ought to be driven out of civilized society. (p. 52, in “In Public”)
  • Don’t say female for woman.  A sow is a female; a mare is a female.  The female sex of the human kind is entitled to some distinctive term. (p. 66 in “In Speech” emphasis theirs)
  • Don’t use wrong adjectives.  There is perhaps no adjective so misused as elegant.  Don’t say “an elegant morning,” or an “elegant piece of beef,” or “an elegant scene,” or “an elegant picture.”  This word has been so vulgarized by misuse that it is better not to use it at all. (p. 67, in “In Speech” emphasis theirs)
  • Don’t conduct correspondence on postal-cards. A brief business message on a postal-card is not out of the way, but a private communication on an open card is almost insulting to your correspondent.  It is questionable whether a note on a postal-card is entitled to the courtesy of a response. (p. 80, in “In General”)
  • Don’t forget that no face can be lovely when exposed to the full glare of the sun.  A bonnet should be so constructed as to cast the features partially in shade, for the delicate half-shadows that play in the eyes and come and go on the cheek give to woman’s beauty one of its greatest charms.  When fashion thrusts the bonnet on the back of the head, defy it; when it orders the bonnet to be perched on the nose, refuse to be a victim of its tyranny. (p. 90 in “Affectionately Addressed to Womankind”)
  • Don’t wear diamonds in the morning, or to any extent except upon dress occasions.  Don’t wear too many trinkets of any kind. (p. 91, in “Affectionately Addressed to Womankind”)
  • Don’t doubt the compiler’s admiration for woman.  Very few, indeed, are the social shortcomings of women compared with those of men, but the few injunctions here set down may not be unprofitable, and are given with entire respect and good-will. (p. 96 in “Affectionately Addressed to Womankind”)

So, with those rules now clearly explained, I can begin my life in high society, so long as it is neither elegant nor bedecked in diamonds before noon.

At the halfway point in the semester, and still in the borderland decades of the turn of the century, finding Don’t made me stop and consider everything I’ve learned up to this point in Women in American History.  And importantly, how it effects my life today.  Most noticeably, some of my friends would point out my inability to keep from yelling while reading some of my textbooks (“Whaaat??? No way was that happening.  No way.  You have to read this).  Because I’m a Christian (yay for evangelical protestantism!) living in contemporary New York state (and sometimes PA), I’m seeing questions of women in the church through the roles established in the Jacksonian period as opposed to the early church.  In fact, I’m taking a class this semester called Male and Female in Biblical Perspective, and it is a wonderful class, but because I am learning women’s history, I can see the fallacy of so many of the writers that we read for the theology course.  I can see that the theological debate has become using Biblical text to either defend or debunk Jacksonian/Victorian gender role assignments — not Biblical manhood and womanhood.  I’m also seeing a lot more in how advertising is exploitative (and not just of women!).  Advertising uses sexual gratification to enforce traditional gender roles and to enforce racial hierarchy.

One thing that I didn’t expect to happen as I learned about women’s history was the social backlash on this conservative campus.  I have considered myself a feminist for years, but now that I am actively pursuing an education in women’s studies (a program which does not exist at Nyack College, yet I am minoring in it unofficially) and have learned some tools to help me understand women in our current society, I’ve been getting a little bit heckled.  It’s calmed down in the past couple of weeks, but I’ve been accused of being a man-hater, labeled a “raging feminist” (a term that I, personally, hate), and had my sexual orientation questioned.  My question for Nyack College:  Women’s studies and gender studies programs are nothing new.  They have existed for decades.  Why, then, is pursuing this education deemed socially and sexually deviant in our allegedly Christian culture?  In my opinion, as both a Christian and a feminist, the church should be at the forefront of women’s equality.  Aren’t our souls supposed to burn out against injustice?  Why, then, do we sit around complaining about women speaking in church when there is forced child prostitution in the world?  Women’s rights are human rights, and that’s what Jesus was all about when he was hanging out in Galilee.

As absurd as some of the rules in Don’t may seem 130 years later, our society’s vision of gender role divisions hasn’t changed much, especially within the Protestant church.  My question for you, readers (and for myself), is how do we re-invision the church to build a more humane and just society that empowers both women and men to reach their full potential and complete human beings?  How can we use the message of the Bible (which, when all is considered through cultural lenses and translations faults and the Law of Consistent Witness, is highly empowering toward women and, dare I say it? feminist in nature) to break down the long-reaching grasp of the Victorian Cult of True Womanhood on American (and even global) society?

I’d like to modernize the Don’t book for 2012/2013.  But among such “don’ts” as Don’t write private messages on someone’s public Facebook wall, or Don’t stick chewing gum on the underside of tables and desks, I’d like my final admonition to be something like: Don’t doubt the sincere importance for valuing one another’s humanity, regardless of societal divides like race and gender.  Those are social constructs, not law, and we ought to be better than that (you silly people).

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