Tomorrow, February 22, is the birthday of the Father of Our Country. To celebrate, Etiquetteer refreshes some of the maxims he put forward in George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. Etiquetteer made many of these points way back in Volume 11.
Last week Etiquetteer had the great good fortune to tour the White House, and would like to recommend that you do so as well. Requests for White House tours are handled through the offices of your elected representatives to Congress, so find out who yours is and follow the directions. Etiquetteer will admit to having been drawn to the House to tour after a summer announcement from the Obama White House that the tour format had changed to a self-guided tour, and that tourists would now be allowed to take photographs. From the White House website, "As of July 1, 2015, Smartphones and compact cameras with a lens no longer than 3 inches (stills only) are permitted on the public tour route as long as their use does not interfere with other guests’ enjoyment of the tour" [emphasis Etiquetteer's.] Etiquetteer wants to offer a few tips to make your White House tour both enjoyable and Perfectly Proper.
It's very important not to bring much of anything with you. Aside from the list of prohibited items*, there is no place to check anything belonging to you so you can retrieve it later, including your coat. This is because tourists enter the House through one entrance and exit through another; there's no backtracking. Etiquetteer's concession to this was to forego wearing a hat, which would of course be removed instantly on entering someone's home. Etiquetteer rather regrets that Misbehaving Very Young Children are not included on the prohibited list, but to suggest such a thing would seem to some an Assault on American Motherhood. If Very Young Children must be brought, their parents should be mindful not only of keeping them out of the way of others - and there's a lot of movement with so many people self-guiding about the House - but also of the historic importance of the rooms one is privileged to tour.
The tour begins outside, rain or shine, so dress accordingly for the weather. Etiquetteer also thinks you should dress for Perfect Propriety - one never knows when a Very Important Person might appear - but most tourists appeared in tourist clothes: cargo pants, jeans, sweaters, etc. Etiquetteer observed one large group of chaperoned high school students all wearing identical hoodies with their school logo, which has the advantage of being Perfectly Practical.
The line forms here, in front of the building next door to the White House.
Etiquetteer was fortunate enough to enjoy bright and brisk autumn sunshine while waiting in line with other citizens, chatting with the family from Alabama directly ahead. At the appointed time, National Park Service rangers admit those in line with tickets and government-issued identification. The line curves past a large equestrian statue, and then divides in two, where reservation forms and ID are checked by agents. Tourists then walk past another ranger who distributes small tour guides to an interior space where everyone is briefly checked and goes through a metal detector. It is very important to pay attention before to items not allowed on the tour; Etiquetteer witnessed a tourist have to give up some sort of prohibited item or be turned away.
Tourists then walk outside and approach the entrance to the East Wing. Etiquetteer remembers touring the White House in 1980 and entering directly from this entrance without the intervening security. One proceeds up the stairs and down the East Colonnade overlooking the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, and through a square room containing large portraits of former presidents and a small gift shop. (Etiquetteer thinks Millard Fillmore deserves better than to be hung over the cash register.)
President Fillmore surrounded by cashiers.
From here one enters the Ground Floor of the White House, where the China and Vermeil Rooms and the Library may be viewed. At least on the day Etiquetteer was there, the Diplomatic Reception Room and the other half of the floor were screened off. The rooms on this floor are not suitable for large crowds of tourists, as they have only one door. Ropes across the door keep tourists from entering. Etiquetteer recommends showing courtesy to fellow tourists by not spending too much time in the doorways; have a look and then pass on. Don't become an obstruction for others.
Etiquetteer does not advise making political commentary on current or former occupants of the House to the Secret Service agents on duty. Staff of the House are loyal to the Presidency, and Etiquetteer thinks it courteous not to put any of them into a position of saying "No comment" to an Impertinent Question, no matter how humorously or mock-humorously intended.
From the Ground Floor one ascends a staircase and suddenly enters the East Room from a corner entrance.
The East Room
Mostly roped off so that one can appreciate the true scope of the room, the Obamas have added a few items created by groups they have visited or who have visited the White House.
From the East Room, tourists may proceed at their own pace through the Green, Blue, and Red Rooms to the State Dining Room. Throughout the State Floor rugs have been rolled back to preserve them from extensive tourist foot traffic, but this does not mar the beauty of the rooms, nor much disarrange the furniture.
Notice how the beauty of the Blue Room is retained even with the carpets rolled up.
Each room has two doors. For parties of two or more, Etiquetteer recommends splitting in half so that one half can photograph the other in each room. A uniformed Secret Service agent is present in each room to answer questions and share information. They are also there to keep tourists from sitting on the furniture, even if it isn't behind a rope. Etiquetteer witnessed a Secret Service agent politely directly a young woman not to sit in a Red Room chair, even though it was not behind the ropes.
The deceptively available Red Room chair.
From the Red Room, the tour continues through the State Dining Room (with a peek into the smaller Family Dining Room), through the other half of the Cross Hall, and then out the Entrance Hall through the North Portico. This portion of the tour contains the location where most tourists want to get their pictures taken: the Blue Room entrance flanked by the flags and surmounted by the Seal of the President of the United States.
The most popular selfie backdrop in the White House.
Under the circumstances, waiting for the Perfect Photo Opportunity could take so long that the Secret Service might get overly interested. Etiquetteer considers that "making do" is the best strategy.
Etiquetteer could not avoid being photobombed.
It might seem odd to some that the grand piano has been placed in the Entrance Hall instead of the East Room, but one must remember that it is often used when there is dancing in the Entrance Hall, and that the East Room is used for many types of functions when a piano might be in the way.
And so the White House tour ends with an exit to the North Portico. Tourists want to linger on the steps, but the Secret Service firmly and courteously keep everyone moving down the stairs. Many continue taking photographs down the drive, and in the street outside the gates, and across the street in Lafayette Square. The entire tour was a worthwhile experience, not only to view the rooms which have witnessed so much History, but to see how valuable Fellow Citizens feel it is to tour. Etiquetteer encourages you to do so.
*Items prohibited on White House tours: video recorders, video cameras including any action camcorders, cameras with detachable lenses, tablets, tripods, monopods, camera sticks (the increasingly popular and menacing “selfie stick”), handbags, bookbags, backpacks, purses, food or beverages, tobacco products, personal grooming items (i.e. makeup, lotion, etc.), strollers, any pointed objects (which Etiquetteer took to include pens or pencils), aerosol containers, guns, ammunition, fireworks, electric stun guns, mace, martial arts weapons/devices, or knives of any size.
In honor of Presidents Day, and the Father of our Country's birthday on February 22, Etiquetteer is going to update parts of George Washington's Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. Etiquetteer bets you didn't even know George Washington wrote an etiquette book! He copied 110 maxims when he was only 14. Several of these have to do with precedence and are, shall we say, overly exaggerated for the 21st century. But others remain classic at the core, and need to be restated. For instance:
GW 1.0: "7th, Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out of your chamber half-dressed.
GW 2.0: The idea is, you show respect for others by looking put together in public. Don't leave the house until you're completely dressed; for ladies this means completely made up, too. No one should have to see these things in action: mascara wands, buttons, belts, and especially underwear. Say no to the fashion of sagging! Say no to gaposis! And, as Etiquetteer mentioned earlier this year, don't wear your pajamas in public!
GW 1.0: "18th, Read no letters, books, or papers in company; but when there is necessity for the doing of it, you must ask leave."
GW 2.0: George's essential truth is still sound, that the person with you in person is more important than the person with you through another medium. Do not text or take or make phone calls in the presence of others, especially at the table, unless you ask permission first. This is especially difficult at table, or in a car, when your prisoners - um, Etiquetteer means companions - might be unable to continue talking themselves while waiting on you.
GW 1.0: "22nd, Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another, though he were your enemy" and "23rd, When you see a crime punished, you may be inwardly pleased, but always show pity to the suffering offender."
GW 2.0: Refrain from flaming on online comment boards, especially anonymously. It's no surprise that people give in to their baser instincts when their identities are concealed. Such behavior does, however, brand one a coward.This is only one reason you'll never see a comment board here at etiquetteer.com (not that readers of Etiquetteer behave that way, of course.)
GW 1.0: "48th, Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself, for example is more prevalent than precept."
GW 2.0: Simply put, "Practice what you preach." It is very bad form, for instance, to advocate for the sanctity of marriage when one has been divorced, and certainly when one has been divorced more than once.
GW 1.0: "50th, Be not hasty to believe flying reports to the disparagement of any" and "79th, Be not apt to relate news if you know not the truth thereof."
GW 2.0: Don't trust what you read on the Internet and do your own research. Sad to say, partisans on every side of the political spectrum, in their eagerness to paint as dark a picture as possible of their opponents, do not adhere as zealously to Truth as they ought. Inflammatory email that gets circulated and recirculated, charts and graphs that appear on social media such as Facebook, more often than not contain errors of fact, bald or nuanced. All this has led Etiquetteer to take refuge in the pages of The Economist.
GW 1.0: "110th, Labour to keep alive in your breast the little celestial fire called conscience."
GW 2.0: No change needed for GW 2.0. This little phrase still summarizes the entire book perfectly.
When most people think of George Washington, the Father of Our Country, they think of the story of him cutting down the cherry tree and then confessing to his father “I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my little hatchet.” Ironically, this story of the First President’s unshakeable honesty has turned out to be a complete fabrication by an author named Mason Lock Weems. More on this story may be found here.
Certainly it is a cautionary tale to approach all political biographies with a shaker of salt.What most people do not realize is that George Washington Himself wrote an etiquette book at the not-as-tender-as-it-is-now* age of 14. George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation puts forward no fewer than 110 instructions for Perfect Propriety. Etiquetteer doubts that Washington ever intended them to be published – it appears he copied them from another book – and yet what he chose to copy must represent what he felt was most important in the behavior of a gentleman. Several of these instructions no longer apply, for instance 27th: “Tis ill manners to bid one more eminent than yourself be covered as well as not to do it to whom it’s due . . .” or 57th: “In walking up and down in a house, only with one in company if he be greater than yourself, at the first give him give him the right hand and stop not till he does . . .” Issues of precedence like these make Etiquetteer awfully glad that Washington won the war.
Still, Etiquetteer wishes that more citizens than just churchgoing African-American ladies, for instance, would keep alive the tradition of Perfect Proper Hats and How to Wear Them. But many of Washington’s maxims remain fresh and accurate, especially those concerning table manners and what used to be referred to as “deportment,” the way one presents oneself in public. It’s sort of sad when you think that Americans still have to be told not to talk with their mouths full (98th and 107th) or to take only one bite at a time (97th). But Washington put these forward as essential table manners, and much more. At least now we don’t have to worry about anyone cleaning their teeth with the tablecloth (100th). In public 18th now applies to electronic devices as well as anything on paper: “Read no letters, books, or papers in company; but when there is a necessiry for the doing of it, you must ask leave. (Emphases Etiquetteer’s.) And while the grunge look of the 1990s seems at last to be over, too many people could heed 51st: “Wear not your clothes foul, ripped, or dusty . . .” as well as 52nd: “In your apparel be modest and endeavor to accommodate nature,” which Etiquetteer translates as “No one wants to see your underwear.” But Etiquetteer has to Wag an Admonitory Digit at That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much over 24th: “Do not laugh too much or too loud in public.”
Reviewing all 110 of Washington’s instructions (which Etiquetteer hopes you will do) one sees that he felt it important to make a good impression on others by showing them respect and consideration. One did this through taking pride and care in one’s appearance, paying attention to the feelings of others regardless of rank, and personal modesty. In other words, Washington sought to shape his behavior with self-control. And speaking of shape, Etiquetteer doesn’t like to think of etiquette as a corset so much as a girdle. The first deforms the figure, restricts one’s movement, squeezes the internal organs, and leads to all sorts of debilitating health problems. A girdle, on the other hand, may be tight, but it molds one’s figure into something more pleasing without disguising one’s true self. So let us all use Washington as our guide and “ . . . bedew no man’s face with your spittle by approaching too near him when you speak.”
*What Etiquetteer means by this is that one had to behave like a grown-up much sooner than one does now. Alas, many Americans now put off behaving like adults until they are old enough to earn graduate degrees.