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Country Manners And Hospitality

PEOPLE who live in the country often make the mistake of endeavoring to entertain their guests in city fashion. They think that nothing else will suit their town-bred friends; or perhaps they themselves have an overweening admiration for city life and all that pertains to it. Hence country cousins indulge in an imitation which is of course the sincerest flattery, but is nevertheless apt to be disastrous.

We go to the country because we are tired of the town; and we hope to find there, not a second or third rate reproduction of ways of life with which we are wearily familiar, but something new and different, change, rest and quiet, refreshing communion with Nature, and a mode of life less artificial than a city existence must of necessity be. We wish, of course, to find refinement of life and manners wherever we go, but in the country the heart of man longs for simplicity; alas! the longing is usually a vain one. Few dwellers in the country have the common sense of Shakespeare's Shepherd, who says: " Those that are good manners at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior of the country is most mock-able at the court."

Manners do not need to be radically changed under differing circumstances, but to be adapted properly to time and place. Happy is the man whose manners fit his situation in life, who can take a lower room, if such be the change fate brings him, without loss of dignity, and who can take a higher station without any assumption of arrogance or pride.

Every change in our circumstances must bring some change in our manners; it depends on ourselves, very largely, whether the change is for the better or the worse. Emerson says: -

" Manners are the revealers of secrets, the betrayers of any disproportion or want of symmetry in mind and character. It is the law of our constitution that every change in our experience instantly indicates itself on our countenance and carriage, as the lapse of time tells itself on the face of a clock. We may be too obtuse to read it, but the record is there. Some men may be obtuse to read it, but some men are not obtuse and do read it."

In our own country, fortunes change hands so constantly, and with such startling rapidity, that many men and women have their characters, and consequently their manners, put to a severe test. Of the two extremes, a sudden rise in- fortune is a greater test of good breeding, I think, than a sudden fall. It takes greater strength to ascend than to descend, and we demand greater things of a successful man than we do of a defeated one. We worship the rising sun; but our sympathies are with the sunset, and we admire it more than we do its gaudy and boastful brother of the early morning.

A lady dined, not long ago, with some friends in the country who had shortly before received a large ac-cession to their fortune and had built unto themselves a new house, wider, more costly, more elegant in its appointments than their former residence. On her return home she was closely questioned about her hosts and their new abode; and she said much in praise of all the new finery, but with a certain reserve in her encomiums. Weren't they cordial were they haughty? " said the inquisitor of the home-circle. " Yes, yes," was the answer, " they were everything that was kind and cordial but but they aren't big or grand enough for their new house ! " which was a homely way of saying that their manners had not grown yet to suit their altered circumstances.

Some people never do change their manners, what-ever may happen to their outer circumstances. It is said that at least one bonanza millionaire of California retains his early simplicity of demeanor, although living in a palace fit for a prince. His wife, recognizing her own inability to be or appear like a fine lady, remains just as she was in the old days of poverty, and seems more like a respectable upper servant than the mistress of untold millions. Of course there is a striking incongruity between the demeanor of this worthy couple and their palatial surroundings; nevertheless they are much more respected than they would be if they tried unsuccessfully to ape the manners of another class, and to bridge over the fatal gaps in their early training and education. There are some gaps so wide that no social engineer has skill enough to throw a span across them.

But we are wandering from our main theme, the manners suitable to a country life. It goes without saying that Newport and other gay watering-places do not and in the nature of things cannot have much in common with the real country, either in manners or in the general way of life. Still, even here there is a growing tendency toward the ultra imitation of city life, which many people deplore. Rugged Mount Desert itself has become too stereotyped to suit the taste of these latter. They say and with good reason that they do not wish to spend the summer in a round of visiting, and perpetual condition of dress parade, in a mere repetition, in fact, of the doings of the winter's gay season. When Bishop Heber wrote,

" Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile."

it is just possible that he had in his mind the environs of a fashionable watering-place, the splendid equi pages, gorgeous toilets, and bored expression of countenance of the gay dames and their cavaliers, contrasting incongruously with the quiet green fields and pastures, and the peaceful cattle taking their ease therein. It is pleasant to note a reaction toward greater simplicity in summer life. The fashion of spending the warm season in a camp is an excellent one. The rage for automobiling also does away with formality, especially as elaborate costumes seem entirely out of place in a motorcar.

Thackeray describes in his own inimitable manner the pitiful humbug, and striving after effect of a foolish family who live in the country. These people endeavor to keep up a style of living far beyond their means, and to consort with persons much richer and more fashionable than themselves, Hence they are driven to all sorts of petty subterfuges, in order to conceal their real manner of life; and live poorly and meanly in private, that they may make an occasional grand display before half a dozen county families.

The mother and daughter are caught by some of their grand acquaintances, when in the act of trimming their own vines and fig-trees, and rush into the house by the back door, vainly hoping that they have not been seen in their old clothes!

Furthermore, they disgust the guest of the household (an old friend from town) by constant and tedious would-be fashionable talk, as well as by giving him an endless succession of dinners made from the family pig, relieved by sour beer and poor wine.

Yes, all this humbug and sham we find in the city too; but contemptible as it is everywhere, it is nowhere so much so as in the presence of the woods and fields and hills, where Dame Nature's broad smile invites us constantly to be at one with her, and to abandon all shallow pretences.

If a lady likes to tend her own flower-beds and prune her own vines, by all means let her do so, and let her not be foolish enough to feel any shame if she is seen engaged in so sensible a pursuit. If she wears a neat garden-hat, and a pretty, becoming " tub " dress, it doesn't matter who sees her at her work. But just here lies another difficulty; namely, that many persons think any dress is good enough to work in, no matter how old, shabby, and soiled it may be. This is a most unsound theory, and one which has more than a little to do with making people feel ashamed of works.

No matter what one is doing or where one is going, it is a part of self-respect to be dressed neatly and. in whole raiment; and it is surprising to find how seldom it is necessary to wear soiled or shabby clothes if one only determines not to do so. With a good big apron, gloves, and short skirts, one may even work in the garden, set out flowers and water them, and look little the worse for it. A person who thinks any clothes are good enough to work in does not appreciate the dignity of labor.

The difficulty of procuring good butcher's meat is apt to be a serious stumbling-block in the real country; and when Thackeray sounds a note of woe apropos of being obliged (in the person of his hero) to feed extensively on the family pig, he touches a chord to which many a heart will thrill responsively. Country hosts should remember that guests from the city are accustomed to plenty of fresh meat, and to meat that is not tough. But if the host cannot procure tender meat, he can at least avoid frying beefsteaks, and roasting beef and mutton to death. Beefsteak should always be broiled over a clear fire and always cooked rare, as also in a lesser degree should mutton-chops.

A guest at a country-house should be somewhat forbearing, and not unmindful of the difficulties that encompass a rural purveyor. It would not be polite, for instance, to copy the behavior of a certain lady who drove several miles into the country to visit some friends, and who accepted their invitation to stay and take " pot-luck " with them. Roast lamb made its appearance upon the dinner-table, and was duly offered to the guest of the occasion. What were the feelings of the hostess and her family when their guest said in an oracular tone, " My' grandmother Jones never could eat lamb, and I never , can! " Luckily a small side-dish of chicken saved the hosts from utter confusion and disgrace; but supposing that there had been no chicken, what then?

In that case they would have been obliged to fall back upon their fruit and vegetables, which, with plenty of fresh milk, cream, butter, and eggs, must always form the chief strongholds of a country table. People who eat vegetables and fruit fresh from their own gardens every day, do not realize what a treat they are constantly enjoying. If they did they certainly would not, like some unwise country house-keepers, take endless trouble to make elaborate desserts and an infinite variety of cake, neglecting the delicious fruit at their very doors, or perhaps (to the still greater vexation of their guests) putting it all into the preserving-kettle to coldly furnish forth next winter's tea-table. Cream, butter, milk, eggs, fruit, vegetables, chickens, let the country housekeeper have these written on her heart of hearts; and what-ever else she may add thereto, she must never take these away, but remember that they are her crowning glory, and should always be of the best quality.

Next, let her have her table and indeed all her house cheerful and fragrant with fresh flowers. Of course it is her sacred duty to have a flower as well as a vegetable garden, and she should not forget to have her children gather the wild flowers whose delicate beauty is sought for vainly in the dusty town.

Let her call in the aid of the sun, too, to make her house bright and cheerful. It is far better that carpets and curtains should fade a little than that human beings should droop and pine in dim, secluded chambers. Of course, in extremely hot weather blinds must be closed in the middle of the day; but there is a vast deal too much closing of shutters in our part of the world, notably in the Middle Atlantic States.

Wherever and whenever mosquitoes congregate, there should be window screens or mosquito nets provided for the beds. These can be made quite inexpensively by taking the frame of an old umbrella and covering it with double netting; around the edge of this as a centre two or more breadths of netting should be sewn. They should be long enough to reach nearly to the floor. The whole fabric should be suspended from a hook in the ceiling, and may be drawn up in the daytime for the sake of convenience.

It is quite interesting to know that the ancient Egyptians not only were troubled with mosquitoes, but were sagacious enough to use mosquito nets! Herodotus says:

" They have the following contrivance to protect themselves from the mosquitoes, which abound very much. The towers are of great service to those who inhabit the upper parts of the marshes, for the mosquitoes are prevented by the winds from flying high; but those who live round the marshes have contrived another expedient. . . . Every man has a net with which in the day he takes fish, and at night uses it in the following manner: in whatever bed he sleeps he throws the net around it, and then getting in sleeps under it; if he should wrap himself up in his clothes or in linen the mosquitoes would bite through them, but they never attempt to bite through the net." .

After the country housekeeper has provided her city guest with a comfortable sleeping apartment, she should take care that the latter is not aroused " at the screech of dawn " with the crowing of roosters, the clatter of the maid-servants and children, and other noises that seem to begin at such a very early hour in the country. A guest who is truly polite will always come down at the family breakfast-hour, unless it be in luxurious houses where breakfast is a movable feast,, and every one can have a cup of tea and a roll in his own room if he prefers to do so.

Many hostesses in moderate circumstances now prefer to send a breakfast tray up to a guest. This saves the trouble of personally entertaining their friends and leaves them free to attend to their own affairs and those of the household, during the early morning hours. Where the men of the family are obliged to start early for their business and the children for school, the break-fast hour is apt to be hectic. If therefore a hostess proposes sending a tray to the guest's room, and assures her this will be perfectly convenient, the latter is at liberty to accept the offer.

As it is now fashionable to begin breakfast with a course of fruit, the country hostess should surely follow this wholesome custom, placing before her guests melons, peaches, or whatever fruit is in season. For the rest she should remember that people's appetites are sharpened by the fresh air of the country, and that the dishes provided should therefore be rather more substantial in character than those prescribed for a city table by the present fashion. Still, it must be admitted that here doctors disagree.

Almost every one prefers to dine early in the country in summer, for a late dinner is sure to interfere with the pleasures of the afternoon riding, motoring, etc. unless the hour is set extremely late, at eight or nine o'clock. Tea, therefore, becomes a very important meal in out-of-town households; that is, " high " tea. It is a pity that this cheerful meal has almost disappeared from city life, driven out both by fashion and necessity, since business men in our large cities can no Ionger come home to two o'clock dinner as they did formerly.

For " high tea " a white table-cloth should be used unless the bare table with centrepiece and placedoilies is preferred. The tea and coffee equipages stand before the mistress of the house, or sometimes are placed one at each end of the table. It certainly looks more cheerful to have tea made on the table; the simmering of the tea-urn, the actual presence of the fire - even of an alcohol lamp give to the occasion a home-like air which otherwise would be wanting. Tea also tastes better when made in this way; but the process entails additional trouble upon the hostess, who already has no light task to perform. To be able to talk to guests and pour but tea and coffee, perhaps to flavor them as well, all at the same time, demands great nimbleness of wits. Most hostesses are sincerely thankful to those guests who are so considerate as " not to speak to the woman at the wheel " until she has finished the dread libation.

The table should be ornamented with fruits and flowers, but not necessarily in the formal fashion of a dinner-party. Preserves, honey, etc., in dishes of cut glass or handsome china, may stand about the table, and also plenty of fruit, in the season. Hot biscuit, muffins, crumpets, waffles, etc., are in their greatest glory at the hour of tea, and should succeed one another in relays, so that they may be always " piping hot." Confectioner's cake or nice home-made cake also stands upon the table. The more solid dishes cold ham, escaloped oysters, chickens cold, fricasseed, or fried, moulded tongue, omelet, salads, and cold meats of various kinds may either be passed by the servants from the side-table or placed on the tea table and served by the master of the house, assisted by other members of the family; the hostess, during the earlier part of the meal at least, will have her hands too full with pouring out tea and coffee to do much else.

Vegetable salads of various kinds are always welcomed on the tea-table, and are preferred by many housekeepers because they can be prepared before-hand. But there must be some hot dishes also, otherwise the feast will be an imperfect one. It suffices, however, to have hot bread or cakes of some sort, and to have the meats, etc., cold, where this arrangement is the most convenient one.

At the seaside, fresh fish nicely broiled is excellent on the tea-table, as are also lobsters, crabs, clams, etc. Cream and cottage cheeses, curds and whey, and other preparations of milk are liked by many people. They certainly look cool, refreshing, and seasonable, and are usually considered very wholesome.

It must be confessed that the old-fashioned High Tea is waning in favor. In many houses the meal is much like a dinner and is served in the same way, except that the hostess pours the tea.

The custom of taking meals on the veranda or ter-race is an excellent one. Some people have an out-of-door dining-room, enclosed with wire netting. The country housekeeper should arrange to give her guests at least one meal every day, in the open air, in good weather, unless they are elderly or rheumatic people.

Every house in the country must of course be provided with a wide piazza if the inmates intend to have either comfort or pleasure. In the hot summer evenings guests should be allowed to sit on the veranda, when they show a disposition to do so, and not be dragged into a hot parlor, will-they, nill-they, to take part in a game of cards.

Now that the guitar and mandolin have again come into fashion, they fill very pleasantly a " long-felt want " in the summer evenings. Many young girls sing simple ballads and folk-songs under the moon to the tinkling of the guitar, and every one is pleased. The same music heard in the prosy atmosphere of the drawing-room under the glaring gaslight would perhaps sound tame; but in the open air it takes very little to make us contented.

The phonograph in its various forms, may add to the pleasures of the summer evening, if used with a wise and sparing hand. It should not be kept going until late hours, however, lest it should disturb neighbors who would like to go to sleep.

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Conversation In Society

On Voice, Language And Accent

Gestures And Carriage


Letters Of Introduction

On Dress

Dress And Customs Appropriate To Mourning

Host And Guest

Country Manners And Hospitality

In The Street And In Public Places

Read More Articles About: Social Customs

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