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Good Manners Month

Author Rita Smith
Air Date 9/13/2000

Good Manners Month Transcript

September is Children’s Good Manners Month, and Rita Smith has a most polite rediscovery for us:

September is Children’s Good Manners Month. I suppose that to children it seems like every month is Good Manners Month, considering how they are regularly reminded about their manners. Although humor has crept into the 20th century manners books for children, the 19th century manners books took themselves quite seriously. When I look at some of the older books I wonder whether they were ever actually read by a child.

One such book, published in 1877, has the titled Behaving, or Papers on Children’s Etiquette. When I saw the title, I assumed this was a book for adults on children’s manners. It has something of an academic ring to it. But it is a book for children, primarily girls, between the ages of ten and fifteen. Apparently it did belong to a child because there is a child’s bookplate on the front flyleaf, but there is little indication that it was ever read by a child. It is in excellent shape; there are no scribbles, notations, torn pages or folder corners; no flowers or notes between the pages, no damage to the spine.

From the outside, it isn’t something that would attract a child’s eye. A picture of two children at the seaside is stamped in black on the brown front cover. There are no other pictures in the book. Inside, the typeface is small and whole paragraphs take up one page.

In the text the author speaks directly to the reader, using the word “don’t” a lot: “Don’t be putting your elbows into my side, as you button yourself to me to look at the last Wide-Awake, when it comes from the post-office. Don’t be peeping into people’s letters or staring at a new dress, or a mark on anyone’s face.”

I find some of the texts entertaining, but I doubt if the author meant it to be entertaining, or if children would have found it so. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of nicknames. “Don’t use uncouth nicknames,” she writes, “such as “Toot” for Gertrude. Besides making one think of a fish-horn, it isn’t in the least like the name it is taken for. The worst and most sickishly silly of all [nicknames] is Mamie for Mary… are names any sweeter for being spoken as toothless babies might mumble them in trying to talk? Don’t make dumplings out of your friend’s names.”

With an ambiguous title, an uninviting physical appearance, small print, and no pictures, plus the pristine condition of the book and the didactic tone of the text, my guess would be that this is one of those old children’s books which has survived because it wasn’t read to death. It is a cultural artifact from the last century which presents a picture of the writing habits of adults rather than the actual reading habits of children. An adult definitely wrote it, but the evidence is slim on whether a child actually read it.

Posted in Holidays, Literature