The Great Roundups: Getting Michel Pablo’s Bison Herd To Canada, 1907-1912

By 1890, the once great wild North American bison herds, which had at one point numbered in the tens of millions, were all but extinguished. Within a single human lifetime of slaughter,  less than a thousand individuals were left, scattered across North America in small pockets. A few wild bison remained in areas which became national parks: plains bison in Yellowstone (1872) and wood bison in Wood Buffalo (1922). Most of the remaining stragglers elsewhere were soon after hunted down or captured by ranchers.

Granny and her calf, Wainwright Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: Photo Carsell, Wainwright, Alberta, 1931].peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005137.html

“Granny and her calf, Wainwright Buffalo Park.” Wainwright: Photo Carsell, 1931. PC005137. Image Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

In the 1870s, during one of the last great buffalo hunts in Montana, a First Nations man named Samuel Walking Coyote captured and raised about four orphaned calves after they followed his horse home. After his herd had grown to about thirteen head, he sold them to two Métis men: Charles Allard and Michel Pablo. Pablo and Allard raised these animals over the next few decades, bolstering their stock with animals from other sources such as Charles “Buffalo” Jones. But by the turn of the century, Pablo (Allard had since died) lost the right to graze his bison on the Flathead reservation land where they’d been flourishing because the American government decided to open up native reserve land in the area for white settlement.

Pablo offered to sell his bison – a symbol of the American West – to Teddy Roosevelt’s government, but they vacillated and couldn’t commit. Some say Pablo felt personally insulted and when the Canadian government agreed to buy his bison he went out of his way to ensure that every last animal possible would be sent north above the Medicine Line (the 49th parallel) to Canada.

The roundup was to be no easy task.

You try moving over 700 of these guys somewhere they don't want to go. Image of bison at Buffalo National Park at Wainwright (descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd) in 1931. PC005106, courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.

You try moving over 700 of these guys somewhere they don’t want to go.
Image of bison at Buffalo National Park at Wainwright (descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd) in 1931. PC005106, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Pablo had underestimated the number of bison that he actually grazed: instead of perhaps 300, he had over 700. The bison were temporarily housed at Elk Island National Park from 1907-1909, because the fences at the newly-created (and ill-fated) Buffalo National Park, were not completed until 1909. But those are stories for another time. Rounding up all of Pablo’s bison took far more than the one summer they had planned, but due to the tenacity of the cowboys on horseback working over the course of nearly five years over rugged terrain with the largest and wildest of remaining bison herds, and the significant financial investment Pablo made in wooden corrals and specialized, reinforced train cars, Pablo succeeded in his goal.

These roundups were by no means safe. Like their descendants, these bison were wild and objected to being moved about. The Wainwright Star recounts the dramatic story of a photographer who was nearly trampled to death during one of the roundups in Montana:

“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality. Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Mont., being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd. However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede. How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize. He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree. He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep himself from under the feet of the plunging herd. His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes were torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life. Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral. The Canadian Pacific officials and the riders who knew the location chosen by Forsythe shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay. Consequently they were rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his dishevelled wardrobe. His two costly cameras were trampled to pieces and his opinion of his predicament was summed up in the words, ‘I have had enough buffalo.’” (emphasis added)
Source: Wainwright Star, January 8, 1909, Page 1, Item Ar00104, at Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Bison are still rounded-up today. For the past century, Elk Island National Park has actively handled bison for disease control, population reduction (earlier through culling and now through transfers), and sample taking for academic study. It is no easy task. Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to help with the roundup of wood bison: the largest land mammals in North America. After over a century of work, the conservation of plains and wood bison continues today.

Further Resources

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Bronco Busting On Christmas Day In Sunny Alberta

Out of curiosity, I was searching the Peel’s Prairie Provinces archive for historical images of Christmasses past in Alberta (such as this photo of the Christmas decorations along Jasper Ave, Edmonton, Alberta, in 1924), and I happened across this photoset of some bucking “broncos” being “busted” on Christmas Day in Medicine Hat, circa 1913.

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I was just planning to go for a gentle family snowshoe hike on Christmas Day. Clearly, Canadians in the past had much more epic Christmas Day events than we do in 2014.

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“Buffalo” Jones: The Man Who Tried to Lasso an Elephant

…and according to at least one account, seems to have successfully roped a giraffe, a cougar, and a rhino.

Portrait of Charles Jesse "Buffalo" Jones. Courtesy of the Kansas Memory Archive.

Portrait of Charles Jesse “Buffalo” Jones (1844-1919), circa 1880-1900. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society Archive.

“Buffalo” Jones, as his nickname would suggest, is most famous for his role in bison conservation. He was one of the first ranchers to successfully capture and raise bison. I had heard his name connected in relation to the Pablo-Allard herd – which had stock from Jones and which formed the basis for Elk Island’s herd and therefore most cattle-gene and disease-free bison stock in North America. Only recently did I read the account of how he actually captured his first set of calves:

“I will tell the story of how the great American bison was saved. I roped 8 calves and saved them, although the wolves and coyotes were there by hundreds. As soon as I caught one, I tied my hat to it, as I knew the brutes never touched anything tainted with the fresh scent of man. The next, my coat, then my vest, then my boots, and last, my socks, thus protecting 7. The 8th I picked up in my arms and rode back to the 7th as it was surrounded by wolves and coyotes. When I arrived where it was bound down, I saw the vicious brutes snapping at the sixth one, so reached down and drew up the seventh one and galloped back to the sixth to protect it. I let the two calves down, one with legs tied and the lasso around the eight calf’s neck, the other end of the rope around my horses’ neck. The strain was so great, I fainted, but revived when my boys came up and gave me some whiskey we had for snake bites.”

  • Buffalo Jones, letter to the American Bison Society, 1912, cited in Ken Tingley, Recalling the Buffalo: The Martin S. Garretson Collection (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012.

In summary: Jones, by his own account, reportedly fended off hundreds of wolves and coyotes to save eight bison calves by tying his own clothing onto lassoed calves to give them the scent of human beings. If nothing else, it makes for an amazing story.

The first chapter of his biography, written in 1911 by a friend of his, Ralph T. Kersey, is basically a series of anecdotes listing all of the crazy dangerous animals that he has allegedly successfully lassooed and wrestled to the ground. Kersey wrote that  Rightly or wrongly, [Jones] firmly believes that all wild animals, from the elephant down, can be lassoed, captured and subdued by man if, as he expresses it, ‘one has courage in his heart and determination in his soul.'”  Kersey recounted an impressive anecdote about Jones capturing a live cougar:

“I shall never forget his lassoing a 200 pound cougar which our dogs had chased up a big spruce tree a thousand feet down the Colorado Canyon. Jones climbed the tree without gun or knife and faced the ugly brute, which at times was not three feet above his head. Deliberately and cooly he threw the noose of the lariat over the head of the animal, which was lashing its tail and raising its ominous paw – seemingly at any second about to strike him – while in a quiet voice, alert and confident, with no trace of fear, he carried on an amusing and running talk with the savage beast. When the cougar came crashing through the limbs to the ground amidst the dogs and men, with nothing to hold him save a half-inch rope around his neck, more lively things happened in a second than I could describe in an hour. . . . In such a hunt there are no dull seconds.”

  • Ralph T. Kersey on Buffalo Jones, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography, 5-6.

According to Kersey, Jones had an amazing “successful” trip – in lassoing terms, at least – to Africa well into his old age.

“I knew, of course, the chances were that the African trip, absurd and impossible as it seemed to be, might end in failure and ridicule. Jones might be seriously injured and the expedition wrecked.

‘He is certain to be killed,’ a friend said to me.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘what of it? He is sixty-five years old, and I am sure would far rather die fighting on the plains than in his bed at home.’

The expedition started on its long journey; no one save Jones, perhaps, having much confidence in its success.

At last a cablegram came from Nairobi announcing the lassoing and capture of giraffes, cheetah, warthog, zebras, and many other animals; and best of all, it told of a six-hours’ fight and capture of a large rhinoceros and later, of the lassoing and capture of a full-grown lioness. We were disappointed that the expedition did not have more time at its disposal. Jones wanted to tackle an elephant, which he thought would be easier than a rhino. ‘An elephant,’ he said, ‘stands high; while a rhino is built low and is much harder to overturn.'”

  • Ralph T. Kersey on Buffalo Jones, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography, 7-8. (Bolded emphasis added)

No-one with the nickname “Buffalo” Jones could have a boring life.

Further Reading:

  • Ralph T. Kersey, Buffalo Jones: A True Biography (Garden City, Kansas: Elliott Printers, 1958).
  • Ken Tingley, Recalling the Buffalo: The Martin S. Garretson Collection (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2012.
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Flowers From No Man’s Land

Last winter, I worked as a research assistant for an author writing a book on the Battle of the Somme. While I was at the Canadian War Museum, going through boxes and boxes of mud-splattered diaries and letters written on battered paper from a century ago, I ran across this surprising object. It is a little glass circle containing a clipping of a poem, perhaps from a newspaper, with pressed flowers, presumably from No-Man’s-Land. Holding it in my white gloved hands, I shivered.

Flowers From No Man's Land

We will remember them.

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Postcards That Intrigue Me #6: Warden D. Davison and His Pet Elk Maud

Because if you are the warden of a national park in the 1920s, why not also tame an elk and name it Maud? And have the image of you both distributed as postcards?

Elk. Maud getting her mornings morning in Buffalo Park. [Wainwright]: Photo Carsell, c1928. PC005159. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.

Elk. Maud getting her mornings morning in Buffalo Park. [Wainwright]: Photo Carsell, c1928. PC005159. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Warden D. Davison and his pet elk Maud at Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: Photo Carsell, Wainwright, Alberta, 1920]. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.

Warden D. Davison and his pet elk Maud at Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: Photo Carsell, Wainwright, Alberta, 1920]. PC005158. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

 For more information on the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (but sadly no more information on Warden Davison and Maud), see:

  • Brower, Jennifer. Lost Tracks: Buffalo National Park, 1909-1939. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2008.

 

 

 

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Postcards That Intrigue Me #5: Bison With an Amazing Head of Hair

Living and Elk Island National Park, I see a lot of bison on a daily basis. I am very familiar with how they look, move, sound, and smell. That makes looking at historical photographs of bison all the more fascinating. While Elk Island’s herd is fairly genetically diverse, thanks to the seed stock from which they originated, historical photos and descriptions indicate that there was much greater variety in appearance than I am used to seeing. Some historians say that photographs of gigantic piles of buffalo skulls from the 1880s and 1890s show more diversity in horn shape and size than anything we see in museum collections – and presumably living herds – today.

Case in point: this image of bison at the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (1909-1939) near Wainwright, Alberta. Yes, wood bison in particular have shaggier heads (often reminding observers of teenage “emo” hairstyles) but plains bison caps don’t normally have hair that looks so straight or… wig-like.

Bell [Frank W.] (Photographer) . Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: 1910-1930]. PC010949. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.

Bell [Frank W.] (Photographer) . Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: 1910-1930]. PC010949. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

References:

  • For more information on Buffalo National Park, see: Brower, Jennifer. Lost Tracks: Buffalo National Park, 1909-1939. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2008.
  • For more information on the diversity of bison anatomy in archaeology, see: Michael Clayton Wilson, “Bison in Alberta: Paleontology, Evolution, and Relations with Humans,” in Buffalo: Alberta Nature and Culture Series, edited by John Foster, Dick Harrison, and I.S. MacLaren (Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1994): 1-17.
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Postcards That Intrigue Me, #4: Moose-Drawn Carriages

Today I was attempting to chase down a few historical images of a moose transfer from Elk Island in the 1940s (as one does), and instead ran across something very intriguing. A few months back, I spotted a similar postcard of a chariot being pulled by bison from approximately the same era. Was this a trend in the first two decades of the twentieth century in Western Canada? Let’s see what’s the oddest animal we can hitch up to our buggies…? Was there a shortage of horses or oxen in Alberta that I’m unaware of…?

Gano J.H (Photographer) . [Early transport]. [Wainwright]: Photo J.H. Gano, [before 1920]. PC005072. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces. http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005072.html

Gano J.H (Photographer) . [Early transport]. [Wainwright]: Photo J.H. Gano, [before 1920]. PC005072. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co (Publisher) . Canadian scene, an old team - but they can go some. Montreal: Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co., Montreal, cca. 1911. peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC009664.html

Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co (Publisher). “Canadian scene, an old team – but they can go some.” Montreal: Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co., circa. 1911.  PC009664. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Judging by all appearances, despite the different publishers of these two postcards, it appears to be the same team of moose: one male, one female – and the same buggy, with potentially the same driver. The entry for the second postcard on Peel’s Prairie Provinces includes the following transcription of the description of the image on the reverse (unscanned), which charmingly gives the names of the two moose, as well as the driver: “W.R. (Billy) Day driving two moose (Pete and Nellie) at Edmonton Exhibition.”

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“Old-Timers”: Straddling Time Periods

Studio portrait, taken in July 1882, of the surviving Six Nations warriors who fought with the British in the War of 1812.  Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (official Flickr page), MIKAN 3630023.

Studio portrait, taken in July 1882, of the surviving Six Nations warriors who fought with the British in the War of 1812. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada (official Flickr page), MIKAN 3630023.

We like to think of the past in convenient little time packets: the Victorian Era and the 1920s were completely distinct eras, right? Just look at how fashion changed dramatically during that time! Likewise, between 1812 and 1882, technology advanced, photography was invented, the interior of North America was mapped in detail, railroads were stretching far and wide… and yet one can still be startled by photographs like the one above of men who fought during the War of 1812.

I believe that we in the twenty-first century have a tendency to over-emphasize the uniqueness and discreteness of each era and forget that, well, people often live for a long time. Decades, even! There were many people still alive well into the twentieth century who were born in the nineteenth. Dr. Mary Walker, for instance, was a openly female doctor who served during the American Civil War and lived until 1919 to promote rational dress reform. In the 1930s and 1940s, elderly people who had been enslaved until 1865 could still be interviewed in the United States about their childhood experiences of bondage. In 1949, the world had seen the invention of the automobile, the airplane, and the atomic bomb… and people who were born under the conditions of American chattel slavery still lived. Sometimes I like to examine photographs from the 1960s and imagine what the world would have been like in the youths of some of the elderly people pictured. That older woman with the unfashionable hairstyle in a photograph from the 1980s may have been born during the Edwardian era and grew up in the 1920s.

"An Old Timer Passed Away." The St. Albert Star/Étoile de St. Albert, December 31, 1912 (English), Page 1, Item Ar00102. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.

“An Old Timer Passed Away.” The St. Albert Star/Étoile de St. Albert, December 31, 1912 (English), Page 1, Item Ar00102. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

In the Canadian West, around the turn of the twentieth century, settler communities began to look back at their past in a celebratory manner. Frequent figures in parades and newspapers were those that they called “Old-Timers,” who were often seen as living relics of the past: remnants of the “pioneer times” not too far off. In many newspapers there were not only obituaries but actual columns written by Old Timers reminiscing about the often romanticized past when they were young. They spoke of a time before railroads and radios, often in a truly evocative way. These Old Timers were portrayed as storytellers, always sharing just one more shenanigan-filled tale of early life in the West. Those of the new generation who had come to live in these new cities were fascinated by the way these men embodied living elements of the past. They were the long term memory of the new settlements.

My favourite example of a newspaper article about Old Timers appeared in the Crag & Canyon, Banff’s newspaper, on December 15th, 1900 (page 4). It described a Banquet in honour of the retirement of the elderly Constable Jarvis of the North West Mounted Police. After describing the festivities and the notable attendees, the final paragraph of the article read:

A unique feature of the evening was the substitution of Cree for English, which since nearly all present were old timers, proved a happy inovation [sic], and helped to recall to many present, reminiscences of their former abodes.

 

These men had long lived and worked in the West during a time when Cree was a far more useful and more widely spoken lingua franca than English, and it was pleasantly surprising to read that Cree was still spoken with such zeal by older white men of Scottish origin – who, the article concludes, “dispersed in the ‘wee sma” hours, after singing Auld Lang Sine and the national anthem.” After that last generation was gone – those who had moved West from Scotland or Eastern Canada during the height of the fur trade during the early- to mid-nineteenth century – Cree would never be so widely spoken by Euro-Canadians. 

Old Timers straddled time periods – and the line between the lived reality of the recent past and the romanticized retellings of historical events that came with distance (temporal, physical, and emotional). Even then, generic pioneer narratives – the trope of the brave (European, male) immigrant leaving a land of poverty and striking out for a new and better life in the West where farmland was plentiful – was taking over. Even today, few remember or know that for a time, newcomers to the West found Cree more useful than English. As “Old Timers” passed on, so did the popular knowledge of their life experiences.

Image

“An Old-Timer of Alberta with Indians.” PC017863. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Image

“An old timer of Alberta with Indians.” Cropped image on the reverse of PC017863. Circa 1905-1920s(?).

Further Resources:

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Bison, Past and Present

Buffalo in Wainwright's Park. [Wainwright]: Bell Photo, [1910]. PC005127, courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.

Buffalo in Wainwright’s Park. [Wainwright]: Bell Photo, [1910]. PC005127, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Working as an interpreter at Elk Island National Park this summer (obligatory disclaimer: I am in no way an official spokesperson for EINP, merely a passionate employee who wants to talk a lot about historical bison), I have been conducting a tremendous amount of research into the history of bison extirpation and conservation. As a historian keenly interested in the history of Western Canada, I have been reading and rereading some of the same sources I’ve known about for a while – the journals of explorers and fur traders, postcards of the first conservation herds, etc. – but I am looking at them with a new eye. Why? Because I interact with these iconic animals every day.

When I read some of these historical sources, I find myself nodding along.  Suddenly, certain passages make much more sense than they did only months ago as I read them in my grad student office in Ottawa. Jack Brink, in his work Imagining Head-Smashed-In (PDF on publisher’s website linked below), wrote of one unfortunate explorer’s experience with the massive bison herds in the West:

“In 1820, Edwin James provided the most harrowing account when, struck by a torrential thunderstorm on the Plains, the river rose and ‘was soon covered with such a quantity of bison’s dung, suddenly washed in from the declivities of the mountains and the plains at its base, that the water could scarcely be seen.’ Dinner that night, made with brown river water, tasted like a ‘cow-yard’ and was thrown away.”

When you have on more than one occasion found yourself tripping over a dry pattie on a hike or toeing apart the layers of the spiralled winter dung of a bison before the horrified gazes of city raised fifth graders, you come to realize that bison poop is a fact of life in the park. If a mere 900 or so individual animals can produce enough dung for me to encounter dozens of examples every day, what must it have been like for those people on the prairies at a time when an estimated 60 million bison roamed the continent?

“I am conscious that with many, I run the risk of being thought to indulge in romance, in consequence of this account: but with those who are informed of the astonishing number of the buffaloe, it will not be considered incredible. . . On the hills in every direction they appeared by thousands. Late in the evening we saw an immense herd in motion along the sides of the hill, at full speed: their appearance had something in it, which, without incurring ridicule, I might call sublime – the sound of their footsteps, even at the distance of two miles, resembled the rumbling of distant thunder.”

    – H.M. Brackenridge, 1811, travelling up the Missouri river, cited by Brink in Imagining Head-Smashed-In

What ecological effect did removing 60 million megafauna from the ecosystem have? Prairie fires were one unexpected result. I read that from about 1880, when bison numbers had dropped to an inconsequential and shocking few thousand head, to about 1920, when most of the land in the west was under cultivation, terrible and destructive prairie fires swept through the western prairies. Why? Because bison were no longer keeping those prairie grasses trimmed and so they were growing as high as a person’s waist or more. A single spark in those long grasses could cause devastating fire that would spread quickly. (Having had to mow the lawn in front of my staff residence in the park on many an occasion I can definitely tell you that grass can easily grow higher than my head at great speed if not kept trimmed.)

Bison also maintained the grassland by keeping aspen trees from establishing themselves by trampling seedlings. Many forested areas – including Elk Island National Park – were once grassland, over a century ago when the bison roamed the area. You can’t understand the current ecology of the region without an understanding of the impact of the bison and of their removal.

When it comes to other primary sources, I reexamine them with incredulity and ask myself whether they ever actually saw a real bison. Here, for example, is a painting by George Catlin of a “Buffalo Hunt,” cited by Jack Brink in his book Imagining Head-Smashed-In. What’s so strange about it? I can now easily see that this is a sizable bison bull.  Bison cows were hunted 10:1 to bulls because bull meat has less fat, is tougher, and tastes rank. But bulls sure do look impressive for painters, right?

"Buffalo Hunt." George Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio (London: J.E. Adlard, 1844), Plate No. 5. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN No. 2833501.

“Buffalo Hunt.” George Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio (London: J.E. Adlard, 1844), Plate No. 5. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN No. 2833501.

To conclude: bison may have played a huge part in the past in the North American West, and while their numbers have been mindbogglingly reduced, they certainly aren’t yet history. Elk Island has played a huge role in bison conservation over the last century, and while I am occasionally late for work because bison tend to cross the road at their convenience and not mine, I marvel at the fact that I get to have these encounters nearly every day. At least I can observe the bison and reflect on their historical and current presence from the safety of my metal vehicle.

Further Reading

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Edwardian Etiquette Corner #1: The Worst Breach of Etiquette

The word “etiquette”, when used in the twenty-first century, seems almost invariably to have a pretentious connotation. They’re those rules that we’re almost inevitably messing up that nobody cares about anymore except when they embarrass us. “Remnants” of “sexist” etiquette, such as the idea that men should hold open doors for women, still cause anxiety today, with some men not wanting to appear rude by allowing the door to slide closed in a woman’s face but also not wanting to seem sexist by holding it open.

However, etiquette, at its root, was never meant to embarrass anyone. The idea was that if everybody followed the same set of rules, then one could go through life knowing precisely what to expect of themselves and others. Awkwardness would be reduced because everyone knew their role in a given social situation. Caveat: this did, of course, enable entrenched gendered, racial, and classed systems by making certain actions as “natural.” That being said, the general idea behind etiquette was to facilitate interactions with various members of society.

Where does one learn these rules? Generally by being brought up “correctly”: being “well-bred” and well-educated as a child. Essentials of etiquette include not drawing attention to the body (which is why, say, cleaning one’s teeth at the dinner table with a toothpick or picking one’s nose have generally been faux-pas for ages), knowing how to address others properly, and being calm and courteous in almost any situation.

Immortalized mid-sneeze. Bodily functions were one aspect of life that people of “good breeding” would always ignore. It was because they would avoid drawing attention to bodily functions that actions such as blowing one’s nose loudly, picking one’s teeth at the table, or farting are considered rude even today. Source: Tumblr.

Written etiquette guides, of course, spoke to the anxieties surrounding these usually unwritten rules. The bulk of these books addressed unusual circumstances like introductions and marriages, particularly in situations where one might have to address strangers. One etiquette book from 1896 actually spends over twenty pages on bicycle etiquette: how long a lady could go out cycling, whether or not it was appropriate for her to cycle unescorted, etc. The amount of ink spilled in this chapter is testament to the anxiety the writer felt about this new situation and how society should react to it.

Quick: what’s the worst possible breach of etiquette, according to Edwardian etiquette manuals? It may surprise you. Getting little details incorrect- e.g., whether or not to hold aloft the cliché pinky while sipping a teacup – may mark you out as ill-bred, but the occasional error will not put you in disgrace. No, the worst breach of etiquette is pointing out someone else’s breach of etiquette. So those folks who like to nit-pick other people’s behaviour and correct them in front of others to feel superior? They are in fact worse offenders than those they mock.

(Aside from parents or governesses teaching children etiquette, the only exceptions to this rule seems to be the authors of etiquette manuals, but they always have arrogant overtones to their writing.)

One etiquette manual asked its readers to consider how one should react in a test situation. Say you are hosting a dinner, and you, the hostess, look over and notice that one of your guests is eating his soup with the wrong utensil: a fork. The worst possible outcome of this situation would be for you to chastise this guest in front of everyone, marking yourself out as ill-bred and embarrassing your guest. Alternatively, it would be almost as bad for that guest to look over at you, the hostess, and see that he was eating with a different utensil and for him to feel embarrassed. So what does this etiquette manual recommend you do? Pick up your fork and eat your soup with it like that guest. (Besides, this situation would not have arisen if everyone knew the correct rules; if the problem was that the guest was not brought up well enough to know the correct utensils when he saw them, he should not have been invited, and if the problem was that his table setting lacked the required utensil, that was your fault as a hostess, not your guests’.)

We in 2014 do not live in an etiquette-less society. Some of our etiquette may in flux, certainly, but one of the reasons that people get annoyed is because many of us do not follow the same set of assumed rules. Take, for example, using one’s phone in a lecture hall. Texting, most of us have been taught, is incredibly rude to do when someone is speaking, doubly so if you are, say, a student in a lecture meant to be receiving information from someone with greater knowledge/power than you. However, in recent years, live-tweeting a conference talk has become more and more common; in that case, the audience member glued to their smart phone is in fact being more attentive to what the speaker is saying, not less. Nevertheless, one still can’t, at a glance, see if the person sitting in the front row staring at their phone (and not the speaker) is texting someone about how drunk they were last night or if they are in fact spreading the speaker’s message to attentive followers who couldn’t make it to the lecture.

Historical etiquette books are fascinating because just as often as they enumerate points of etiquette that seem quaint and old-fashioned (one devoted several pages to the merits of using forks or spoons to eat ice cream), much of their advice is still immediately applicable today. Watch this space for further blog entries on forgotten but still useful pieces of historical etiquette.

A group of women walk up the steps of the Rue de Rivoli, Paris, on June 3rd 1906. Notice the way that they have gathered a handful of  their skirts from behind and pulled it forward, freeing the legs to walk up the steps without flashing knees by taking fistfuls of it from the front and raising it up. Source: Edwardian Street Style.

Further Reading (most etiquette manuals available in PDF upon request)

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