Very early in the 20th century, leaders of the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association addressed a lack they saw in the education of the young women of the church — girls who had been reared in “pioneer circumstances” according to a later entry in this series. The course of study they developed, of which this is the introduction, aimed to teach the girls the elements of polite society: home life, dress, travel, public behavior, entertaining, shopping, everything.
I’ve hesitated to post these lessons. I think they’re fascinating, but some readers’ first inclination may be to mock them as irrelevant. After all, since young women don’t wear big hats anymore, any specific instruction about big hats was transitory and therefore, perhaps, trivial. There is a tendency to dismiss any instruction in etiquette as a relic of an unenlightened, unegalitarian age, of no value.
We can have some fun joking about the specific rules if our conversation goes that way, but I hope we can also talk about what principles leaders were trying to teach our great-grandmothers beyond the surface details. Could, for example, the upcoming installment on modesty reveal anything useful that is missing from our generation’s fixation on sleeve length and the number of pieces to a swimsuit? If the timing works out right, it would also be interesting to compare the content of these lessons to the similar themes that jeans writes about here as being part of this year’s Young Women program.
In any case, it should be fun to note what these lessons reveal about the aspirations and expectations of young Mormon women of that era. It’ll be a lot more fun after a couple of installments have been posted so that we have specific examples to discuss, beyond this general introduction. (End of my introduction; beginning of the lesson text:)
The apparent lack of knowledge of the laws and regulations governing good society and disregard for the same among our young people can not be gainsaid, and has become so noticeable as to call forth much comment, we might add censure from the stranger who comes to visit Utah, “The Queen of the West,” and take note of this modern Zion and her peculiar people. This unfortunate condition attracts the attention and is deplored by the observant ones of our own communities, thus urging the necessity for action from the General Board of the Y.L.M.I.A.
Manners among the young is a subject about which less is written in these days than when our grandmothers were young, although the need is just as great.
We are told, “There are two human relations which underlie most of the customs required by good manners. These are the relations of the inferior to the superior of any sort, and of the strong to the weak.” The ill-mannered woman ignores these and thus evidences that she recognizes no superior, and has no regard for the less fortunate, thus testifying to her own ignorance and stupidity.
The girl who does not know how to behave is as frequently seen in New York as in the lands of the setting sun, and although she may be very pretty, as American girls usually are, may have good instincts as she generally does, and may possess a pure and innocent character, still her rudeness of manner, her loudness of speech and laughter, often creates an impression greatly to her discredit, to say the least.
The rules of etiquette are many and varied and must be obeyed.
It may be urged, we are the free born sons and daughters of Zion and need not ape the manners, customs and servility of the world. Let us remember, there is no servility in true politeness, and that the sweet courtesies of life are worthy of acquiring, because “they are the oil that make the wheels of life run smoothly.”
One author has said, “It would do our American boys and girls good to take lessons in respect for their elders from the Chinese and the Japanese, indeed there are few nations from whom Americans could not learn a lesson in this direction.”
“The charm of fine manners will always win respect” and greatly help to a pleasing personality that shall always make you a welcome guest.
The origin of true politeness is kindness of heart; ever prompting a gentle consideration for the comfort, well-being and happiness of others. there is scarcely an act of our lives that does not exhibit the possession or lack of this virtue.
With our hearts’ desires always alive to the best interests and development of “Our Girls,” while we recognize their innocence, attractiveness and many virtues, we do keenly sense the necessity for improvement in their manners and general deportment which has led to the preparation and presentation of these lessons in their Association work upon the following subjects:
- Courtesy in the home.
- Hostess and guests.
- Social obligations to young women.
- Social obligations to young men.
- Art of entertaining.
- Proper decorum in religious gatherings.
- Ball-room etiquette.
- Summer outings.
We invite your most earnest effort to adopt the teachings of these lessons in your daily practice and believe this line of study will meet with the appreciation and good results it deserves; helping our girls to a knowledge of “the nicest way to do the nicest things,” and acquiring pleasing manners that shall be a constant recommendation – a passport to the best society.
Sincerely hoping that through learning and living up to the “hints” contained in these lessons there will come about a reformation in general deportment that, instead of bringing reproof, shall largely help to proclaim our young people examples of refinement and good breeding, who will indeed become polished shafts in quivers of righteousness.
“A cultivated woman is nature’s most gracious power.”