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Harmon’s Histories: In search of civility, we turn to timeless rules of etiquette

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.

At times these days, it seems we all could use a refresher course in civility, manners and etiquette.

Normally, looking to the past offers us some guidance – but, in this case, I’m troubled by some advice I’ve found.

Cecil B. Hartley wrote a book on the subject in 1860 titled “The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness,” based on “the best French, English, and American authorities.”

In it, he wrote, “Man was not intended to live like a bear or a hermit, apart from others of his own nature,” and laid out some basic tenets of civility and manners for polite society.

Then, 14 years later, the editor of a Missoula newspaper suggested a few variations on those social rules and guidelines – variations befitting a small Western town like the Garden City.

First, Hartley’s view: “You may set it down as a rule that as you treat the world, so the world will treat you.”

Hartley’s book recommended that a gentleman should “carry into the circles of society a refined, polished manner, and an amiable desire to please, and it will meet you with smiling grace and lead you forward pleasantly along the flowery paths.”

Otherwise, he argued, should a man “go, on the contrary, with a brusque, rude manner … you will find society armed to meet you, showing only sharp corners and thorny places for your blundering footsteps to stumble against.

“You must meet rudeness from others by perfect politeness and polish of manner.”

As for one’s manners at the dining table, Hartley observed, “There is no occasion upon which the gentleman, and the low-bred vulgar man are more strongly contrasted than when at the table.”

Warren R. Turk, the editor of the Missoulian newspaper in 1874, agreed, observing that “half the world appears boorish and uncouth to the other half simply because people are not taught manners.”

So, wrote Turk, “We have carefully prepared a few general hints on etiquette applicable to both children and adults, and if anyone is benefited by them, our labor will be amply repaid.”

Turk then proceeded to make his suggestions, setting a slightly lower standard than Hartley for early day inhabitants of the Garden City.

“Never pass your plate for mashed potato more than six times, especially if there is company at the table.

“Never wipe the back of your neck with your napkin, no matter how hot the day is.

“Don’t use your finger to stir your coffee. The handle of your knife is more fashionable, and if you want to be real aristocratic, take a spoon.

“Refrain from wiping your mouth on the table-cloth … your coat-sleeve is much more handy.”

On the subject of the proper protocol for calling upon a lady, both Hartley and Turk had much to say.

Hartley wrote, “A call may be made upon ladies in the morning or afternoon; but in this country, where almost every man has some business to occupy his day, the evening is the best time for paying calls.”

However, he cautioned, “Never make a call upon a lady before eleven o’clock in the morning, or after nine in the evening.

The Missoulian’s Turk agreed…I think: “An evening call on a young lady should never be made in the forenoon.”

Further, Turk advised, the proper gentleman should closely observe the circumstances and react accordingly. 

“If the old man comes in with a shot-gun,” he warned, “the call shouldn’t be prolonged over an hour.”

Hartley, on the other hand, cautioned, “If you see the master of the house take letters or a paper from his pocket, look at the clock, have an absent air, beat time with his fingers or hands, or in any other way show weariness or ennui, you may safely conclude that it is time for you to leave, though you may not have been five minutes in the house.”

Turk agreed that a self-sacrificing approach was best. “If you are one of a party making an evening visit, and fruits and nuts are passed around,” he admonished, “don’t fill your pockets until someone has had a chance. One must be self-sacrificing about such things.”

Hartley also addressed tact, tyrannical viewpoints, passion, and anger.

““A gentleman will never use his tongue to rail and brawl against any one; to speak evil of others in their absence; to exaggerate any of his statements;

“Maintain, in every word, a strict regard for perfect truth. Do not think of one falsity as harmless, another as slight, a third as unintended. Cast them all aside.”

Thankfully, Turk did not articulate his views on these subjects.

As I mentioned at the outset, I offer up these thoughts from long ago, believing that civility, manners and etiquette could use a re-boot these days, and that normally much can be learned from the past.

I would, however, urge following Hartley – not, Turk.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.