Thursday, August 30, 2012

On Good Manners, Social Etiquette in Washington D.C. and RSVP Requests

"Courtesy is the flower of culture, the expression of the highest refinement, and like hospitality ennobles those who extend it." Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren

Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren
Maura Graber is the fine woman, and etiquette authority who trained my sister and me.  We were already teaching for our church groups, but we wanted some assistance, to see if we could improve our methods. When I first spoke to Graber, she told me that her company name was "a reflection of her biggest pet peeve" ; That people failed to comply with a requested RSVP on an invitation.  In a subsequent email, she wrote "It drove me nuts that I would invite people to something, but very few actually replied.  I thought it was laziness until I had the new name (The RSVP Institute of Etiquette) on my business checks and my business cards.  At least once a week someone would ask or say, 'I can never remember what RSVP stands for.  Does it mean I need to call only if I'm going to go, or call if I'm not?'  That is when I knew I had my work cut out for me.
Maura Graber's Company Logo

One can see from below, that this was not simply a problem in the 1970's, 80's or 90's.  In an excerpt of the much reprinted and discussed book, "The Social-Official Etiquette of the United States", by Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren, there was a problem with people responding to invitations in the 1870's, 80's and 90's.

 "It is not a form, but a virtue. Based upon this sentiment, which should prevail in their case, I would grant a Foreign Minister the extent of precedence which can be given with any measure of propriety or  of respect for our own institutions. Their place relatively to each other, rank being equal, is accorded to priority of residence among us. The Dean or Doyen enters upon his functions in virtue of length of stay near our Government. Yet I have witnessed very grave offence given at a dinner-table, where the host led in the wife of a Foreign Minister, the fair belligerent being the wife of a Senator who claimed the honor as her due.

Now, since it is to be presumed that the special object of every entertainment is to promote good will and not to foster ill-will, it is to be regretted that the rule that defines social-official classification is not more definite. A carefully adjusted ceremonial would be no more incompatible with republican institutions than the legal classification which now exists, and which must continue to endure. These have a fixedness coexistent with the  republic, and our social life is their complement. Let us not undervalue its importance. Daniel Webster called a well-appointed dinner "the climax of civilization." We ought to be able to reach this climax smoothly. The breakfast, the luncheon, the five-o'clock tea, the "matinee dansante," the musicale, the soirte and the assembly are all and each charming in their degree as adjuncts of social life, yet the dinner is "the climax."

Now, there are some dinner rules which are absolute, although I fear at times they are either misunderstood or at all events disregarded. It seems needless to recapitulate; and yet the very fact that mistakes are so often made must serve as an apology here. For instance, an invitation to dine must be precise, and should be couched in some such formula as the following:




On Monday, the 1st December, at 7 o'clock.
Nov. 22, 1893

When such an invitation is received, an answer should not only be given in writing, but it should be sent at the very earliest moment at all practicable.

I knew a diplomat here, renowned for courtly manners and for the incomparable dinners which he gave, whose answer to a dinner invitation came on one occasion so promptly that my own messenger, •who also returned quickly, had not reached the house when the acceptance arrived. And the fine point on this piece of good manners was that this was an acceptance, not a regret, which is considered to demand greater expedition even in the sending. This gentleman entertained his friends so constantly at dinner that he understood the importance of prompt attention. In writing an answer to a formal dinner invitation, one should be careful to make it as exact as the note one has received. Indeed, this note should be repeated. If the host has a title,—for instance, The President,—repeat his title just as he himself may indicate to you. In answer to Mr. Jones, you reply:




For Monday, the 1st December, at 7 o'clock
Nov. 22, 1893

The reason for this repetition is to show that you have perfectly comprehended the invitation, so that no error may have been committed as to time or place.

I have known awkward mistakes to occur from want of attention in this matter.

Then, again, there should be no possibility of mistake as to your acceptance or non-acceptance. Let your answer be positively "Yes" or "No." At any other entertainment we may perhaps avail ourselves of a reasonable uncertainty, but not so with the dinner.

I once knew a poor little lady, "on hospitable thoughts intent," who went to live in a small town in the West. She had been accustomed to the wellregulated dinner at home, and had been taught to consider that the highest form of compliment was to ask a friend to dinner. Wishing to be on the best terms with her new neighbors, she sent out the usual written cards of invitation to a score of guests,—a formidable undertaking in a country village,—but she was in no wise daunted, and all the preparations went on bravely. Everything bade fair to make her dinner a success, except the dreadful fact that up to the very last moment she remained uncertain as to the number of her guests. In reply to her written invitations came a score of verbal messages, such as,' "They hoped to come;" "Would come if they could ;" "Could not tell exactly if their engagements would permit;" "If well enough, would come." But in no one case was a positive response received. So the banquet had to be prepared on this score. The hour came and passed, and, after a famishing delay which spoiled everything, two tardy guests dropped straggling in, and four rueful people sat down to a superb dinner prepared for twenty covers. This actually took place.

This grand collapse is just what may be expected where no one knows his own intentions, and society would receive its final doom did such conditions widely exist. Yet very disagreeable complications have arisen, even in Washington, from not paying due attention to the importance of a definite answer. Suppose, for example, there are fourteen covers at your dinner; and fourteen forms a pleasant and favorite number, suiting very well the size of the home dining-room ordinarily. Let fourteen be all counted, and suppose one guest disappoints! He leaves thirteen miserable souls to tell ghost-stories and wonder if the dinner will poison them, which very likely it may do, since they were all so "blue" in the discussing of it. It must be remembered that the guests at a dinner-table must be properly placed in advance, each plate marked with the name of the expected guest written on a card, or on the menu, or bill of fare, and the dinner chart mapped out, as if by line and compass, so as to avoid all these sunken rocks and breakers I have been considering, so as to place people who will like each other in proximity, so as to give "honor where honor is due," so as to keep husband and wife from treading on each other's toes, so as to please those you entertain by giving widows and marriageable young ladies desirable "partis" to captivate, so as to put the decanter of old Madeira near the bon-vivant, so as to leave the ends of your table open and unoccupied and the central places filled with your most distinguished guests. Now, how is all this, and more too, to be done—pleasure to reign, confusion to be avoided, exact distribution of this cornucopia of blessings to be showered on your blissful guests—unless there is certainty? Is  not life miserable because of the uncertainty of all its enjoyments, and are we thus ever to be cheated of even momentary happiness? A thousand times, say yes or no, and let the pleasure of this supreme social gratification be unimpaired!"

From "The Social-Official Etiquette of the United States, 
by Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren. 6th Edition Copyright, 1894
1st Edition, 1873

On Dahlgren; She was born 'Sarah Madeleine Vinton' on July 13, 1825. Her father was Samuel Finley Vinton (1792-1862), a congressman and leading figure in the national Whig party.
 Dahlgren was educated at Picot's boarding school in Philadelphia and at the 'Convent of the Visitation' in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. 
In June 1846, she married her first husband, Daniel Convers Goddard, a lawyer. However, he died 5 years later, leaving his wife and 2 children, Vinton Augustine and Romaine (who married the Baron de Overbeck of Germany).
In August of 1865, she married Admiral John Adolph Dahlgren (1809-1870), the famous naval officer and inventor of the Dahlgren gun. They had 3 children.

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