Belonging and belongings : etiquette writing as design discourse 1920-1970

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


Etiquette is, in one sense, the making visible of a person’s worth. With an interest in dress codes, visiting cards, table settings and social settings etiquette may be viewed as a visual phenomenon. Etiquette texts that address such aspects of visual culture, and reproduce illustrations of ideal domestic social environments, are therefore to be viewed as interventions in both the discourse of design and in the quotidian design practice of home making. Etiquette writing is bound up with the material culture of everyday life: readers are told what to choose for their homes and how to use such ‘props’ to create domestic settings appropriate to a range of interactions.

Etiquette writers disseminate a rarefied ‘best practice’ to aspirants, and as such they guide design consumption. However, etiquette texts also reflect changing behaviours and changing fashions on the part of both design producers and consumers. As such, etiquette authors are one cadre of the self-appointed gatekeepers of acceptability, joining other mediators such as magazine editors and film and television designers in guiding consumption.

A key constant motif of etiquette writing is the attempt to reconcile tradition and modernity. For the period 1920 to 1970 this relationship is especially visible in discussions of modernist design. British resistance to modernism is tangible in those etiquette texts which seek to persuade readers of the benefits of clean lines, unornamented forms, flexible living spaces and furniture, space-saving solutions and new materials such as Formica and stainless steel. Such persuasion is couched with references to generational distinction, economy, practicality and hygiene and fashionability.

The primary data for this paper are the several hundred etiquette texts published in Britain between 1920 and 1970. Using quotation and imagery from the etiquette texts in comparison with other sites of design discourse from the period such as magazines, this paper will begin to elucidate the function of etiquette writing in shaping the everyday domestic design artifice of creating a social home.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIn: Making and unmaking : selected proceedings. Design History Society annual conference 2000
EditorsTim Putnam, Ruth Facey, Valerie Swales
Place of PublicationPortsmouth
PublisherUniversity of Portsmouth, School of Art, Design and Media, 2000
Number of pages16
ISBN (Print)9781861372277
Publication statusPublished - 2000


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