Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Proprieties and Usages of Good Society — Preliminary

Proprieties and Usages of Good Society — Preliminary

By: Ardis E. Parshall - January 28, 2010

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.
  • Dress.
  • Ball-room etiquette.
  • Traveling.
  • Shopping.
  • 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.”



  1. I’m looking forward to this series.

    I anticipate that the suggestions the YLMIA board has will fall into two categories: advice based on timeless doctrine and advice based on the opinions of ladies who want to turn back the clock 50 years. Today instruction–even in the Handbook–includes stuff from both categories.

    Of course, determining whether the advice is “sound doctrine” or merely a product of “itching ears,” (as Paul says) is why I’m looking forward to the series–and the comments.

    Comment by Clark — January 28, 2010 @ 8:56 am

  2. Great! Thanks, Clark.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 28, 2010 @ 9:00 am

  3. I’m interested in reading this, too, if only because I am painfully aware of my personal shortcomings in the deportment department. Part of my growing-up years was spent in an impoverished part of the US (rural Appalachia) and the niceties of life I learned there were vastly different from those I later observed in college, etc. A sense of uniformity would be nice (much of modern Emily Post-type etiquette seems so beyond-the-mark as to be silly to me, but I’m all for the polite-that-puts-people-at-ease type of manners).

    The modern equivalent I would like to see taught would address these adult issues:

    How to participate in after-work business functions graciously (ie, when everyone else is holding a cocktail in their hands).

    How to participate in social discourse graciously, even with people who disagree.

    My life as an LDS female attorney in Boulder, Colorado would greatly benefit from such lessons!

    Comment by Coffinberry — January 28, 2010 @ 9:24 am

  4. I have conflicted feelings about this. First, this paragraph:

    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.

    Who said that part which is in the quotation marks? I guess I bristle a little at the concept of “inferior” vs “superior”, and can only hope the other part of that quotation about the “strong to the weak” implies an obligation on the part of the strong to protect and support the weak.

    Yet, I do feel a need for greater civility in general. It seems that our efforts at creating a more egalitarian society often trends towards the lowest common denominator. I cringe at the folks in the line at the grocery store with their bluetooth headphone firmly in place, carrying on a really personal conversation while checking out, of thr particular rudeness of most of our political discourse.

    Perhaps the wording might change, and some of the terms would be different, but good manners are always needed, and we ought to do a better job of teaching, and that mostly by example.

    Comment by kevinf — January 28, 2010 @ 10:23 am

  5. Excuse me, but the last line of my next to last paragraph in # 4 should read “…or the particular rudeness…”.

    Comment by kevinf — January 28, 2010 @ 10:28 am

  6. Didn’t the senior senator of some eastern state give us a lesson just a few days ago about how to and treat a lady, as he was “instructing” her to act like one? : )

    I’m with Potter Stewart when it comes to modesty in dress–I know immodesty when I see it. But coming up with workable descriptions is a little more difficult. I’m looking forward, with the others, to these lessons–which, for some of us, Ardis, would have been directed at our grandmothers!

    Comment by Mark B. — January 28, 2010 @ 10:28 am

  7. There are too many errors in my last comment to bother trying to correct any of them.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 28, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  8. Coffinberry, much of this series has the kind of thing you’re asking for — 1902 style — in that it tells girls what to expect when they travel for the first time and tries to teach them to see themselves as others see them. There’s very little arbitrary “use this fork and not that one” instruction. I don’t know whether they still do it, but when I was at the MTC there were “culture” classes that tried to prepare missionaries for traveling, eating in public, and dealing courteously and appropriately with the opposite sex, so that we felt comfortable and didn’t embarrass ourselves or each other. I wonder what would be an appropriate venue to teach the type of adult, real world, professional business and social behavior you mention?

    kevinf, there aren’t any names associated with any of the apparent quotations, so I can’t guess whether they are taken from a recognized Emily Post-type “authority” or are simply supposed to represent generic good breeding. You also point to something that I think may make a lot of readers uncomfortable — the language. I hope we can overlook the vocabulary to understand that the way, say, “inferior” and “superior” are used here does not imply any sort of moral judgment on character or the worth of a person, but only represent temporary social fictions — you know, that in making introductions, the older person is generally “superior” to the younger one, and the members of the garden club are “inferior” to the guest of honor, and the “stronger” man surrenders his streetcar seat to the “weaker” mother with a baby.

    I agree that manners are best taught by example. Still, the perceived need for formal instruction intrigues me. If girls of 1902 were patterning their manners after those of women who had grown up in cabins with a single change of underclothes and who were in the habit of spitting the dust from their mouths, they needed other examples before they went out into the world, or else they would be at a social disadvantage through no fault of their own. Just as today, maybe, some girls their age who have lived mostly on fast food and eating on the go might need formal instruction on how to eat from a plate with a knife and fork. Know what I mean?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 28, 2010 @ 10:46 am

  9. I know, Mark, my grandma, too, but we’re old. (Actually, if Keepa’s Facebook fans are representative of Keepa’s readers as a whole, we skew a little older than most of the Bloggernacle. We’re also very evenly divided between men and women, which I think isn’t true for many of the blogs.)

    I think — I hope — you’re going to be pleasantly surprised by the modesty lesson. There *is* a lesson on clothing, with expected disparagement of “low-necked dresses” and other specifics of body coverage, but the modesty lesson really isn’t about clothing at all. We may have forgotten that “modesty” has other meanings which were more important to our great-gr — er, to our GRANDmothers. Typing up the lessons was reminiscent of reading the debate a few months ago about the meaning of “virtue” and its use as a Young Women value.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 28, 2010 @ 10:51 am

  10. Thanks for the shout-out, Ardis. What strikes me on first read-through is the desire of these lesson writers to instruct young women, because those YW were the representatives of the Church to the outside world. They were its face for curious tourists. They needed to develop evidence of good breeding, in all senses of the word. I find it notable that their leaders believed they would need to shed their rube ways and become ladies of refinement, not for when they went out of Utah, but because by this point in history the boundaries between Utah and the world were rapidly disappearing and the world was coming to Utah. And Utah better be ready.

    Comment by jeans — January 28, 2010 @ 10:59 am

  11. Nice perspective, jeans — looking at behavior not because of “what’s in it for me” (I’ll fit in better and be more comfortable), but because it’s a duty owed to the people (church, family) I represent as a young woman of that or any other era.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 28, 2010 @ 11:08 am

  12. Whenever you post a turn-of-the-century piece like this, I think of my great-grandmother who lived with us until her death when I was a small child. She was born in Provo, and would have been learning to act like a young lady somewhere around this time. I like to imagine that she and her brothers and sisters read this and some of the other gems you unearth. Then I wonder what kind of effect they had on the quiet, apple-baking, horticulture-loving woman I didn’t get to know very well. This is a kind of hearts-turning-to-the-fathers I can get behind. Thanks! (PS- sorry if I throw off your average reader age stats 😉 )

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — January 28, 2010 @ 11:16 am

  13. Moniker (you young’un, you), I love the way you personalize history like this!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 28, 2010 @ 11:35 am

  14. I’m willing to guess that “Ballroom Etiquette” may be the most foreign to us. All those dance cards, and how many times you can dance with a particular partner whilst acting respectably.

    Looking forward to reading more!

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — January 28, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

  15. Perhaps our young women could learn manners from their Japanese or Chinese counterparts as the original post suggests, but the most well-mannered, polite young person I’ve met in years has been the Amish girl who sold us some — what was it? — asparagus, I believe.

    I wish I knew how to raise polite children like that, short of moving into an Anabaptist community.

    (Not that my children are poorly behaved in public, as a rule, but I sure saw a difference!)

    Comment by Researcher — January 28, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

  16. Yup, asparagus. I remember that she said “yes, ma’am” and answered questions promptly and ran off barefoot to get the produce without keeping us waiting. I suppose that acknowledges the “superior/inferior” relationship of the OP, but also shows how inadequate those words are in our modern usage. There was certainly nothing subservient about the way she looked us in the eye and held her head up and was confident of her role as merchant. “There is no servility in true politeness,” and “the charm of fine manners will always win respect,” indeed.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 28, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

  17. I hope you share “How to participate in social discourse graciously, even with people who disagree,” when you feel you’ve mastered it, Coffinberry. I could use some lessons on that, too. I can’t seem to turn off my Death Glare.

    Comment by Mina — January 28, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

  18. i can’t wait to see this series!

    there are some absolutes in this arena (such as spitting), but truly, making others comfortable is the pinnacle of good manners.

    one of my favorite quotations regarding formal rules of etiquette is attributed to many, although it’s probably bernard baruch: “those who matter don’t mind, and those who mind don’t matter”.

    Comment by ellen — January 29, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

  19. I hope this series lives up to expectations, ellen — I think it will, and I think most will be surprised at how few hard and fast rules the YLMIA leaders prescribed, and how much their ideas of good society were based on teaching correct principles and expecting the girls to govern themselves.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 29, 2010 @ 8:32 pm

  20. I’m anxious to get into this series. My mother and her sisters would have been reading this information and it will help me understand what they were going through.

    Comment by Maurine — January 29, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

  21. I wonder what would be an appropriate venue to teach the type of adult, real world, professional business and social behavior you mention?

    This question stood out to me because I’m a business person by training, so here are some thoughts….

    I have found some of this mentoring happening in my experiences volunteering mentoring business students. We do ‘mocktails’ with the students, hold networking activities and conferences, etc. But I am already thinking of things we could add and be more explicit about.

    Does anyone think something like this could make a really cool RS meeting, though, maybe? I do, but I love this kind of stuff, or at least the business application. I’m a bit of a clutz in more formal, non-business social situations.

    When I have served in YW, we have done etiquette nights before, and I did a little class on communications skills for a combined YM/YW activity.

    And to jeans’ comment about the youth being the face of the Church — I think our world adds a whole significant dimension to that with new media. There are a set of rules for ‘virtual’ behavior that I think adds a level of complexity to social rules and graces. And I’ve been interested to see the Church addressing these things (blogging rules, anyone?)

    Comment by m&m — January 31, 2010 @ 2:11 am

  22. I’m sure I really need a refresher course.

    Question-can it really be a REFRESHER course if you’re sure you missed the first one? My days growing up in Young Women’s pre-dated, well, everything, etiquette nights and combined YM/YW activities and everything.

    My service in YW consisted of serving as Ward Camp Director and um, the last year’s Ward Camp Director.

    Comment by Diane Peel — February 1, 2010 @ 11:18 pm

  23. Sneak it in now via these lessons, Diane, and nobody will ever know!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 2, 2010 @ 11:34 am

  24. some comments mention looking forward to this series of lessons…are these etiquette lessons? for kids? for teens? or adults. can you give me where and how I can get in on these lessons?

    thanks! Mary

    Comment by mary — March 17, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

  25. mary, these are lessons for the young ladies of the church in 1902, between ages 15-25 (approximately). They teach principles of good behavior and introduce the girls to social situations that they may not yet have encountered, but they aren’t traditional etiquette lessons. That is, they teach general principles rather than a lot of specific rules.

    We’ve posted about half of the lessons so far, with the next one scheduled for this Friday. The last lesson posted can be found here — you can visit that lesson, then use the links at the top to work your way back through the earlier lessons.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 17, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

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