The Etiquette of Prohibition, Vol. 13, Issue 57

Etiquetteer delivered these remarks at the 2013 Repeal Day Celebration at the Gibson House Museum in Boston, Massachusetts. Among other things, the madness of Prohibition created a Culture of Alcohol Concealment, leading people to find ingenious ways to secrete liquor in their homes or on their persons. Images survive of hollow canes, fake books, and even shot vials concealed in high-heeled shoes so that people could travel with their tipple unrevealed. In the 21st century, already awash with alcohol, similar devices are used to get around outrageous liquor prices at sports and concert venues. These include hollow flip flops, a necktie flask, and even a “wine rack,” which is a sports bra with tubing.

Prohibition left a permanent mark on American manners, illustrated uncompromisingly in a little etiquette book called No Nice Girl Swears by Alice-Leone Moats, first published in 1933, the final year of Prohibition. The last chapter, headed "Our Plastered Friends," begins "When our mothers came out, learning to handle a drunk was not an essential part of a debutante's education. Now every girl has to be capable not only of shifting for herself, but, more often than not, of looking out for her escort as well." Can you imagine?! This is not the way Best Society is supposed to conduct itself. But Miss Moats goes on to detail the ten different types of drunks and how to make the best of their bad situations (often using one's mad money to abandon them and take a taxi home. Miss Moats paints a worst-case scenario from the beginning. "If you're going out very often, you might as well be prepared to think quickly and be ready to exercise your ingenuity at any time. You may be called upon to do anything form catching the bottles that your escort, in his exuberance, may chance to throw, to burrowing in the sawdust for him." (You must remember that often the floors of gin joints and other dives were sprinkled with sawdust.)

And going out was what people did. Prohibition saw entertaining at home decline (though of course it still went on) in favor of the jazzy rise of café society. Willa Cather famously described the phenomenon in 1924, saying "Nobody stays at home any more." And that meant men and women drinking together in public, whereas before Prohibition, saloons were for men only. At home, one was less likely to be entertained at a traditional seated dinner of several courses as at that brand-new gathering, the cocktail party. Ladies and gentlemen just standing around drinking liquor without a meal, or perhaps any food at all, being offered -- revolutionary!

Miss Moats makes it sound easy: "Cocktail parties have become the line of least resistance in entertaining. They are convenient for the person who must get 50 or 60 people off the list of obligations and prefers to do it at one fell swoop, saving money at the same time. It certainly isn't much trouble; all you need is a case of synthetic gin and a tin of anchovy paste. The greater the number of the guests, the smaller and more airless the room, the stronger the gin, the more successful the party. But if you give one, you must be prepared to have your friends on your hands until two in the morning, as they will invariably forget their dinner engagements and stay on until the last shakerful is emptied."

One of the places they went in Boston was the famous Cocoanut Grove on Piedmont Street, which opened in October, 1927. But in spite of some shady connections, the Grove was on the up and up. They didn't serve hard liquor, but would provide setups, trays of siphons and glasses, so you could discreetly add your own booze from your flask under the table. It was often better to bring your own to some places. In The Greeks Had a Word For Them, a gentleman at a speak asks "Well, what do you have that won't kill us, blind us, or burn holes in our clothes?" The brutal Dinah Brand in Dashiell Hammett's equally brutal Red Harvest said that someone's liquor tasted like it was drained off a corpse. Other places would get around the law by serving booze in teacups.

Tolerance for drunken behavior became more accepted, too. Again, we hear from Miss Moats: "There was once a time when a man who got drunk in a lady's drawing room was never invited to that house again. If he showed the same lack of control in another home, he ran the risk of having every door closed to him. Now a hostess who insists that all her guests remain sober would find that she was giving parties to a chosen few, and very dull ones at that. She takes it for granted that the majority of her guests will be wavering before the evening is over." A Paul Cadmus painting of 1939, “Seeing the New Year In,” shows just such an occasion, with drunken, careless intellectuals coming apart at the seams. It’s a mean and tawdry descent.

One of the most astonishing ways that Prohibition changed America was the sudden appearance and acceptance of young women drinking in public. And it was this that led Pauline Morton Sabin, an aristocratic heiress to the Morton Salt fortune, to begin to campaign for Repeal. She said "Girls of a generation ago would not have ventured into a saloon. Girls did not drink; it was not considered 'nice.' But today girls and boys drink, at parties and everywhere, then stop casually at a speakeasy on the way home." And indeed, a Topeka police chief observed "The girls simply won't go out with the boys who haven't got flasks to offer." But a girl still had to hang on to her reputation, as Miss Moats makes clear in No Nice Girl Swears. "A great many people have come to believe in the single moral standard, but few have been converted to a single drinking standard. A drunken woman is still looked upon with disgust and she is certainly more objectionable than a drunken man. Liquor generally hits her in one of three ways: she gets boisterous and wants to play games, or she gets maudlin, or, more often, she grows desperately amorous. Whatever the effect, she is dangerous."

To which Etiquetteer can only conclude, "Hotcha!"

Three Snapshots of New York, Vol. 7, Issue 3

Etiquetteer recently spent some time in Manhattan and saw a few things worthy of comment.

This sign, which appeared outside a popular restaurant/nightspot, reads "This is a residential building. Please be respectful of our neighbors. Kindly keep your noise level down and the sidewalk clear for pedestrian traffic."

 

Etiquetteer didn’t return at closing time to see how effective it was, but can only admire the sentiment and the effort this sign represents. Etiquetteer is sure that readers could suggest other establishments where such notification would be welcome!

Etiquetteer very much enjoyed a late lunch at Max Brennan’

s, but how on earth are you supposed to drink hot chocolate with Perfect Propriety out of a cup like this?!

 

Etiquetteer first thought it was being served in a gravy boat, but it’s really called a HugMug. You’ll note that it has no handle of any kind. The best Etiquetteer could manage was to grasp the wide end of the HugMug and sip from the spout. Certainly the hot chocolate was the best Etiquetteer had ever had!

If you’re wealthy enough to swan about Manhattan in a full-length fur coat, then you’re able to afford Perfectly Proper shoes in which to do so. Etiquetteer was appalled to see this misguided lady trudging along in a glamorous fur wearing wool socks and tennis shoes! Sweet merciful heaven, one doesn’t have to wear high heels, but one could at least wear non-athletic shoes and stockings instead of socks.

An Unwanted Houseguest, Vol. 5, Issue 12

Dear Etiquetteer:Twenty years ago, the man in my life was named in a paternity suit and couldn't deny the possibility. I threw him out, and we have had limited social contact since then (once every six or seven years). Not too long ago he showed up at my front door because he was 'in town and looked me up,' apparently hoping for a place to stay. This would have been awkward enough if I had been home, but I was traveling on business, and the door was answered by my housemates. They felt obliged to extend hospitality to this man on my behalf, but fortunately called me first. I explained to him, very apologetically, that it would be a terrible imposition for me to ask my housemates to put aside their plans for the night, and that he would simply have to make other arrangements. He did, and I have not heard from him since.While I have no reason to believe he was in physical or financial distress, was it rude to turn him out like that without making sure? Should I call him to find out if he is OK? If I had been home, how much hospitality would I be obliged to provide? I am curious to hear how he is doing, but I think I would prefer some advance notice to prepare myself, and perhaps explain things to the current man in my life. These spontaneous sorts of things always seem to work out well in the movies, but my life is more complicated than that. What should I do?Dear Survivor:"When you assume," as one of Etiquetteer’s best friends is tiresomely fond of pointing out, "you make an ass of you and me." Your Former Love showed bad planning and poor taste by showing up at your door, suitcase in hand, without warning of any kind. Etiquetteer cannot fault you for declining to offer him overnight hospitality. Had you answered the door to him yourself, you could have said "Oh, I’m sorry, but it won’t be possible for you to stay tonight" and nothing more. If he’s so ill-bred as to ask why it’s not possible, add no more than "Well, I have plans that make it impossible." They could be nothing more than a pedicure, but he doesn’t need to know that.If you felt safe with him, you could have invited him inside for a beverage and brief conversation, but only if you felt safe. Etiquetteer still has visions of Ike Turner molesting Tina in that parking lot in What’s Love Got to Do With It? And please fight down the urge to call and check up on this guy. The whole thing sounds like you’re well rid of him.

Dear Readers: Etiquetteer made a trip to Manhattan not too long ago and was amused to see this sign outside a synagogue. Etiquetteer couldn’t agree more!

 

 

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Restaurants and Coffee Shops, Vol. 4, Issue 34

Dear Etiquetteer: On a recent trip with some friends, we stopped for lunch near a large university. The street was lined with any number of the usual sandwich and pizza joints, and a couple of nice-looking restaurants. We chose one almost at random that looked a little nicer than pizza joints and wasn't too crowded. There was no menu posted at the door, but we thought nothing of it given the neighborhood. After we were seated and the bread and water had arrived, we opened our menus and were aghast to find lunch entrees in the $30-$40 range, far more than we had intended to spend. Properly speaking, what are our options in such a situation? Dear Starving and Startled: Your letter reminds Etiquetteer vividly of a trip many years ago to that most interesting and self-oriented of cities, Manhattan. The news that Sally Ann Howes was performing in the Oak Room of the famous Algonquin Hotel lured Etiquetteer there with two friends. The entrance was so dark that we could not find a sign with the cover charge or menu; like you, no inkling of any financial outlay was revealed until we opened the bar menu and learned that the cover charge was $35 (or some equally outrageous figure) and that the drinks were priced on an equally lavish scale. The restaurant was so dark we think the waiter did not realize we were gone until the show started. At least Etiquetteer continues to hope so.To leave a restaurant as soon as you’ve been seated will only call attention to your party. And properly speaking, it’s never a good idea to call attention to oneself in public. You may infer from this that Etiquetteer finds it Perfectly Proper to lunch on ice water, salad, and Chagrin seasoned with Good Humor.That said, Etiquetteer knows it is simply not possible, financially, for some people to take even that course. When departure is the only option, leave the restaurant quietly. If stopped by the waiter or maitre d’, simply say "I’m sorry we can’t stay for lunch, but we have been suddenly called away" and no more, no matter how tempted you are to keep talking. Trust Etiquetteer, they know why you can’t stay.This should also be a lesson always to look for the menu posted outside most restaurants in little glass cases so that you know what you're getting into before you get into it.

Dear Etiquetteer: Something happened today that really annoyed me and I have to ask your advice. At a coffee shop in the town where I vacation, I was patiently waiting for my coffee for a longer than usual time. Turns out my coffee had been taken by the mayor of the town where I live! Is this reason enough to vote for the other candidate? Dear Caffeinated Constituent: Heavens, people change their votes over much more trivial reasons, so Etiquetteer doesn’t see why not. On the other hand, was it abuse of power, absentmindedness, or ignorance of whose coffee he had that led him to take your coffee? Unless the mayor in question has a record of corruption, Etiquetteer would encourage you to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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