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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Emily Post: A riches-to-riches saga

Everyone loves a good rags-to-riches story. In the 19th century, Horatio Alger rose from rags to riches by writing rags-to-riches stories. His were fiction. People also like a good riches-to-rags story of the fall from grace. And then there is Emily Price Post. She was born on third base with a golden spoon in her mouth, to mix metaphors.

But unlike many of her peers, she actually used the advantages she had for the public good, by instructing a nation of immigrants on the nuances of manners. What good is upward mobility if you act like a boor?

Born into the lap of luxury on October 27, 1872,  in Baltimore, Maryland, her early life was training to be a proper lady. This meant teas and cotillions, and finishing school. Her father was esteemed architect Bruce Price, who later influenced Frank Lloyd Wright and other American architects. Price's work can be seen in Canada as he designed hotels and stations for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Later he designed homes for the elite in Tuxedo Park, New York, which gained prominence in the Gilded Age as the home of such luminaries as J.P. Morgan, William Waldorf Astor, and Adele Colgate of the Colgate-Palmolive fortune.

At 20, Emily Price became Emily Post when she married banker Edwin Main Post at a ball in a Fifth Avenue mansion. What a gay life. She gave him two sons. He repaid her by cheating on her with chorus girls. She divorced him in 1905, and raised her sons in one of the homes her father had designed in Tuxedo Park.

She took to writing novels about the grand life she lived. She named one character Richen Vulgar. A humor travel book, and newspaper articles on design followed. Then in 1922, at age 50, she wrote the book which would define her life, "Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home," which was published by Funk and Wagnalls. While etiquette books were numerous in those days, hers became the authority, perhaps because she did not just write about grace, but she showed it.

The success of her book, which would be published in 10 editions and 90 languages by the time she died 38 years later, led to a radio show and daily newspaper columns in which she answered questions from readers. She never gave advice to the lovelorn.

The public thirsted for social acceptance to match their rising affluence. This is not fluff. Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger described the rise in etiquette as “the leveling-up process of democracy.”

Hip hop and the thug culture have led to the demolition of society. We are not as good as our illiterate immigrant ancestors a century ago. But someday perhaps we will regain that.

In her obituary on September 27, 1960, the New York Times wrote, "If you picked up the wrong fork, there was a possibility that your hostess was wrong in having too many forks, Mrs. Post taught. It wasn't necessarily you who were wrong. She believed that what was socially right was what was socially simple and unaffected."

Post herself wrote, “Manners are made up of trivialities of deportment which can be easily learned if one does not happen to know them; manner is personality — the outward manifestation of one’s innate character and attitude toward life.”

Or as Matthew 7:12 reads, "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets."


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  1. I am reminded of a sketch by Sid Ceasar and Imogene Coca; He was a gangster; she was his girl, but left him because he was uncouth. So he opened a night club, which he named "The Couth Club", so he and others could learn to be couth.

  2. The verse you quoted was very like Matthew 25:40. My Dad was a missionary doctor and used it in his fundraising speeches at churches all over. We put it on his gravestone.