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A museum for minding your manners

Photo courtesy the Hayward Area Historical Society

Head to the East Bay city of Hayward, and you’ll find a museum with a little bit of class. There, the city’s historical society puts on exhibits about the way we used to live. But were Bay Area citizens of the past really so different than us?

KALW’s Hana Baba wanted to know more, so she stopped by the museum for a lesson in what many people consider a lost art: formal etiquette.

DIANE CURRY: The different sections in the exhibition look at four every day situations: visiting, table manners, walking down the street, and being at work. For each section, including the "at work" section, what we usually do is pull quotes from various books and set them next to the artifacts. So you can look at a period artifact and then look at this quote, which then makes you go, "Huh! Those are pretty relevant to today.” Some of them aren't so relevant, especially the ones directed towards women. They're a little sexist (laughs). HANA BABA (on location): Can you read one? CURRY: Sure! "A woman's expectation in business: the clever business woman realizes that she's on ground long held sacred to man and that, while she must remain a lady in the finest sense of the word, she must not expect to find drawing room manners in an office," from the Book of Modern Etiquette, 1935. BABA: Wow. Sexist! CURRY: A little bit! (laughs) And a lot of the books, especially the ones from the ‘40s and ‘50s, are really addressing how women should behave. Although there are some towards men, and the bosses, like not expecting special favors from your secretary… BABA: But it's mostly towards women? CURRY: It's mostly towards women and how they should cater to their bosses. How they should dress and behave properly, and they shouldn't be there looking for a husband or anything like that.

BABA: I'm walking around the exhibit, and something catches my eye. An unset dinner table with a sign on it. And a challenge: testing your table setting knowledge. So what do I need to do?

CURRY: You take a look at what's on the menu today, and that is soup, salad, baked potatoes, peas, and red wine. You want to set the table like you would be serving this in your house. BABA: Okay, if I was serving this in my house? Soup – so this is my soup bowl, I'll put my salad here, my soup here. And then steak, baked potato, peas – that's an entree, should all go on one plate, so let's see … the plate doesn't match, but that's okay.

So I set my table – is it correct?

CURRY: Well no. You check the back side of the menu to see if it's correct. Napkin on your left hand side... BABA: I forgot the napkin! CURRY: With the utensil. A fork, normally. A big dinner plate, with a salad plate sitting on top of it. BABA: Oh okay, so like this! So these are totally wrong right here. Oh, I am horrible. Okay! (laughs) Of course, rules of etiquette aren't just for grownups.

While I'm at the Hayward Historical Society, a bunch of three- and four-year-olds walk in with their parents. They sit down and one of the curators reads them a story about when to say “sorry,” “please,” and “thank you.”

CURRY: Here we have a Spanish-speaking preschool group. They're touring the Good Manners exhibit. They heard a story about good manners, and now they're doing an interactive activity where they are making "thank you" cards to their parents.

Then the preschoolers are led into a toddler room, where some of them sit down for the ultimate test of proper behavior: a formal tea party.

BABA: May I have some tea, please? KID: Yes ... I took it away from you! (laughs)

But I guess in the end, kids will be kids. Nothing a little lesson in etiquette can't fix.

The Hayward Historical Society Museum is actually now closed because they are moving locations. We’re sure they’re doing it very politely. This story originally aired August 9, 2011. 

Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.