Today’s Thought: The Old Days…The Well Appointed House….Emily Post Style…

And we think we have it bad!  This Chapter on the well appointed house back in the days of formal culture would sit most of us on our fainting chairs out cold! I actually enjoy reading this and being grateful that working Divas have it a little better in the snooty department these days. Excerpted from Emily Post Book of Etiquette…Gutenberg Press….



Every house has an outward appearance to be made as presentable as possible, an interior continually to be set in order, and incessantly to be cleaned. And for those that dwell within it there are meals to be prepared and served; linen to be laundered and mended; personal garments to be brushed and pressed; and perhaps children to be cared for. There is also a door-bell to be answered in which manners as well as appearance come into play.

Beyond these fundamental necessities, luxuries can be added indefinitely, such as splendor of architecture, of gardening, and of furnishing, with every refinement of service that executive ability can produce. With all this genuine splendor possible only to the greatest establishments, a little house can no more compete than a diamond weighing but half a carat can compete with a stone weighing fifty times as much. And this is a good simile, because the perfect little house may be represented by a corner cut from precisely the same stone and differing therefore merely in size (and value naturally), whereas the house in bad taste and improperly run may be represented by a diamond that is off color and full of flaws; or in some instances, merely a piece of glass that to none but those as ignorant as its owner, for a moment suggests a gem of value.

A gem of a house may be no size at all, but its lines are honest, and its painting and window curtains in good taste. As for its upkeep, its path or sidewalk is beautifully neat, steps scrubbed, brasses polished, and its bell answered promptly by a trim maid with a low voice and quiet courteous manner; all of which contributes to the impression of “quality” evens though it in nothing suggests the luxury of a palace whose opened bronze door reveals a row of powdered footmen.

But the “mansion” of bastard architecture and crude paint, with its brass indifferently clean, with coarse lace behind the plate glass of its golden-oak door, and the bell answered at eleven in the morning by a butler in an ill fitting dress suit and wearing a mustache, might as well be placarded: “Here lives a vulgarian who has never had an opportunity to acquire cultivation.” As a matter of fact, the knowledge of how to make a house distinguished both in appearance and in service, is a much higher test than presenting a distinguished appearance in oneself and acquiring presentable manners. There are any number of people who dress well, and in every way appear well, but a lack of breeding is apparent as soon as you go into their houses. Their servants have not good manners, they are not properly turned out, the service is not well done, and the decorations and furnishings show lack of taste and inviting arrangement.

The personality of a house is indefinable, but there never lived a lady of great cultivation and charm whose home, whether a palace, a farm-cottage or a tiny apartment, did not reflect the charm of its owner. Every visitor feels impelled to linger, and is loath to go. Houses without personality are a series of rooms with furniture in them. Sometimes their lack of charm is baffling; every article is “correct” and beautiful, but one has the feeling that the decorator made chalk-marks indicating the exact spot on which each piece of furniture is to stand. Other houses are filled with things of little intrinsic value, often with much that is shabby, or they are perhaps empty to the point of bareness, and yet they have that “inviting” atmosphere, and air of unmistakable quality which is an unfailing indication of high-bred people.

“Becoming” Furniture:  Suitability is the test of good taste always. The manner to the moment, the dress to the occasion, the article to the place, the furniture to the background. And yet to combine many periods in one and commit no anachronism, to put something French, something Spanish, something Italian, and something English into an American house and have the result the perfection of American taste—is a feat of legerdemain that has been accomplished time and again.

“The personality of a house is indefinable, but there never lived a lady of great cultivation and charm whose home, whether a palace, a farm-cottage or a tiny apartment, did not reflect the charm of its owner.” [Page 132.]

A woman of great taste follows fashion in house furnishing, just as she follows fashion in dress, in general principles only. She wears what is becoming to her own type, and she puts in her house only such articles as are becoming to it.

That a quaint old-fashioned house should be filled with quaint old-fashioned pieces of furniture, in size proportionate to the size of the rooms, and that rush-bottomed chairs and rag-carpets have no place in a marble hall, need not be pointed out. But to an amazing number of persons, proportion seems to mean nothing at all. They will put a huge piece of furniture in a tiny room so that the effect is one of painful indigestion; or they will crowd things all into one corner—so that it seems about to capsize; or they will spoil a really good room by the addition of senseless and inappropriately cluttering objects, in the belief that because they are valuable they must be beautiful, regardless of suitability. Sometimes a room is marred by “treasures” clung to for reasons of sentiment.

The Blindness Of Sentiment:   It is almost impossible for any of us to judge accurately of things which we have throughout a lifetime been accustomed to. A chair that was grandmother’s, a painting father bought, the silver that has always been on the dining table—are all so part of ourselves that we are sentiment-blind to their defects.

For instance, the portrait of a Colonial officer, among others, has always hung in Mrs. Oldname’s dining-room. One day an art critic, whose knowledge was better than his manners, blurted out, “Will you please tell me why you have that dreadful thing in this otherwise perfect room?” Mrs. Oldname, somewhat taken back, answered rather wonderingly: “Is it dreadful?—Really? I have a feeling of affection for him and his dog!”

The critic was merciless. “If you call a cotton-flannel effigy, a dog! And as for the figure, it is equally false and lifeless! It is amazing how any one with your taste can bear looking at it!” In spite of his rudeness, Mrs. Oldname saw that what he said was quite true, but not until the fact had been pointed out to her. Gradually she grew to dislike the poor officer so much that he was finally relegated to the attic. In the same way most of us have belongings that have “always been there” or perhaps “treasures” that we love for some association, which are probably as bad as can be, to which habit has blinded us, though we would not have to be told of their hideousness were they seen by us in the house of another.

It is not to be expected that all people can throw away every esthetically unpleasing possession, with which nearly every house twenty-five years ago was filled, but those whose pocket-book and sentiment will permit, would add greatly to the beauty of their houses by sweeping the bad into the ash can! Far better have stone-ware plates that are good in design than expensive porcelain that is horrible in decoration.

The only way to determine what is good and what is horrible is to study what is good in books, in museums, or in art classes in the universities, or even by studying the magazines devoted to decorative art.

Be very careful though. Do not mistake modern eccentricities for “art.” There are frightful things in vogue to-day—flamboyant colors, grotesque, triangular and oblique designs that can not possibly be other than bad, because aside from striking novelty, there is nothing good about them. By no standard can a room be in good taste that looks like a perfume manufacturer’s phantasy or a design reflected in one of the distorting mirrors that are mirth-provokers at county fairs.

To Determine An Object’s Worth:   In buying an article for a house one might formulate for oneself a few test questions:  First, is it useful? Anything that is really useful has a reason for existence. Second, has it really beauty of form and line and color?(Texture is not so important.) Or is it merely striking, or amusing?  Third, is it entirely suitable for the position it occupies?  Fourth, if it were eliminated would it be missed? Would something else look as well or better, in its place? Or would its place look as well empty? A truthful answer to these questions would at least help in determining its value, since an article that failed in any of them could not be “perfect.”

Fashion affects taste—it is bound to. We abominate Louis the Fourteenth and Empire styles at the moment, because curves and super-ornamentation are out of fashion; whether they are really bad or not, time alone can tell. At present we are admiring plain silver and are perhaps exacting that it be too plain? The only safe measure of what is good, is to choose that which has best endured. The “King” and the “Fiddle” pattern for flat silver, have both been in use in houses of highest fashion ever since they were designed, so that they, among others, must have merit to have so long endured.

In the same way examples of old potteries and china and glass, at present being reproduced, are very likely good, because after having been for a century or more in disuse, they are again being chosen. Perhaps one might say that the “second choice” is “proof of excellence.”


The subject of furnishings is however the least part of this chapter—appointments meaning decoration being of less importance (since this is not a book on architecture or decoration!), than appointments meaning service.  But before going into the various details of service, it might be a good moment to speak of the unreasoning indignity cast upon the honorable vocation of a servant.

There is an inexplicable tendency, in this country only, for working people in general to look upon domestic service as an unworthy, if not altogether degrading vocation. The cause may perhaps be found in the fact that this same scorning public having for the most part little opportunity to know high-class servants, who are to be found only in high-class families, take it for granted that ignorant “servant girls” and “hired men” are representative of their kind. Therefore they put upper class servants in the same category—regardless of whether they are uncouth and illiterate, or persons of refined appearance and manner who often have considerable cultivation, acquired not so much at school as through the constant contact with ultra refinement of surroundings, and not infrequently through the opportunity for world-wide travel.

The Housekeeper:   In a very big house the housekeeper usually lives in the house. Smaller establishments often have a “visiting housekeeper” who comes for as long as she is needed each morning. The resident housekeeper has her own bedroom and bath and sitting-room always. Her meals are brought to her by an especial kitchen-maid, called in big houses the “hall girl,” or occasionally the butler details an under footman to that duty.

In an occasional house all the servants, the gardener as well as the cook and butler and nurses, come under the housekeeper’s authority; in other words, she superintends the entire house exactly as a very conscientious and skilled mistress would do herself, if she gave her whole time and attention to it. She engages the servants, and if necessary, dismisses them; she sees the cook, orders meals, goes to the market, or at least supervises the cook’s market orders, and likewise engages and apportions the work of the men servants.

Ordinarily, however, she is in charge of no one but the housemaids, parlor-maids, useful man and one of the scullery maids. The cook, butler, nurses and lady’s maid do not come under her supervision. But should difficulties arise between herself and them it would be within her province to ask for their dismissal which would probably be granted; since she would not ask without grave cause that involved much more than her personal dislike. A good housekeeper is always a woman of experience and tact, and often a lady; friction is, therefore, extremely rare.

The Organization Of A Great House:  The management of a house of greatest size, is divided usually into several distinct departments, each under its separate head. The housekeeper has charge of the appearance of the house and of its contents; the manners and looks of the housemaids and parlor-maids, as well as their work in cleaning walls, floors, furniture, pictures, ornaments, books, and taking care of linen.  The butler has charge of the pantry and dining-room. He engages all footmen, apportions their work and is responsible for their appearance, manners and efficiency.  The cook is in charge of the kitchen, under-cook and kitchen-maids.

The nurse and the personal maid and cook are under the direction of the lady of the house. The butler and the valet as well as the chauffeur and gardener are engaged by the gentleman of the house.

The Butler:  The butler is not only the most important servant in every big establishment, but it is by no means unheard of for him to be in supreme command, not only as steward, but as housekeeper as well.

At the Worldly’s for instance, Hastings who is actually the butler, orders all the supplies, keeps the household accounts and engages not only the men servants but the housemaids, parlor-maids and even the chef.

But normally in a great house, the butler has charge of his own department only, and his own department is the dining-room and pantry, or possibly the whole parlor floor. In all smaller establishments the butler is always the valet—and in many great ones he is valet to his employer, even though he details a footman to look after other gentlemen of the family or visitors.

In a small house the butler works a great deal with his hands and not so much with his head. In a great establishment, the butler works very much with his head, and with his hands not at all.

At Golden Hall where guests come in dozens at a time (both in the house and the guest annex), his stewardship—even though there is a housekeeper—is not a job which a small man can fill. He has perhaps thirty men under him at big dinners, ten who belong under him in the house always; he has the keys to the wine cellar and the combination of the silver safe. (The former being in this day by far the greater responsibility!) He also chooses the china and glass and linen as well as the silver to be used each day, oversees the setting of the table, and the serving of all food. When there is a house party every breakfast tray that leaves the pantry is first approved by him.

At all meals he stands behind the chair of the lady of the house—in other words, at the head of the table. In occasional houses, the butler stands at the opposite end as he is supposed to be better able to see any directions given him. At Golden Hall the butler stands behind Mr. Gilding but at Great Estates Hastings invariably stands behind Mrs. Worldly’s chair so that at the slightest turn of her head, he need only take a step to be within reach of her voice. (The husband by the way is “head of the house,” but the wife is “head of the table.”)

At tea time, he oversees the footmen who place the tea-table, put on the tea cloth and carry in the tea tray, after which Hastings himself places the individual tables. When there is “no dinner at home” he waits in the hall and assists Mr. Worldly into his coat, and hands him his hat and stick, which have previously been handed to the butler by one of the footmen.

The Butler in a Smaller House:  In a smaller house, the butler also takes charge of the wines and silver, does very much the same as the butler in the bigger house, except that he has less overseeing of others and more work to do himself. Where he is alone, he does all the work—naturally. Where he has either one footman or a parlor-maid, he passes the main courses at the table and his assistant passes the secondary dishes.

He is also valet not only for the gentleman of the house but for any gentleman guests as well.

What the Butler Wear:   The butler never wears the livery of a footman and on no account knee breeches or powder. In the early morning he wears an ordinary sack suit—black or very dark blue—with a dark, inconspicuous tie. For luncheon or earlier, if he is on duty at the door, he wears black trousers, with gray stripes, a double-breasted, high-cut, black waistcoat, and black swallowtail coat without satin on the revers, a white stiff-bosomed shirt with standing collar, and a black four-in-hand tie.

In fashionable houses, the butler does not put on his dress suit until six o’clock. The butler’s evening dress differs from that of a gentleman in a few details only: he has no braid on his trousers, and the satin on his lapels (if any) is narrower, but the most distinctive difference is that a butler wears a black waistcoat and a white lawn tie, and a gentleman always wears a white waistcoat with a white tie, or a white waistcoat and a black tie with a dinner coat, but never the reverse

A butler never wears gloves, nor a flower in his buttonhole. He sometimes wears a very thin watch chain in the daytime but none at night. He never wears a scarf-pin, or any jewelry that is for ornament alone. His cuff-links should be as plain as possible, and his shirt studs white enamel ones that look like linen.


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