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Bygone Days of Polite Conversation, Niceties

Alice Howe 1888
Alice Howe 1888 |

After divorcing her alcoholic husband in 1901, Alice found herself poverty stricken with five children to care for. Having a large home as part of the divorce settlement, she calculated the cost of room and board and then advertised six rooms for rent.

An eclectic group of men were soon living under her roof. The boarding house rules were simple: No chewing tobacco or alcohol, breakfast at six, and dinner served exactly twelve hours later.

One additional rule applied at meal times: Polite conversation was required to keep your seat at the table.

There was plenty of political strife and poverty across the nation yet Alice demanded that meal time conversations have, "Ample decorum with no vulgarities."

Hundreds of meals were shared by a former banker, a craftsman, two steelworkers, a millworker, and a school teacher. These men came from different segments of society, yet shared a single wash room and ate meals together.

The haughty banker knew how to return America to prosperity, but he dared not express it with any vehemence because Alice stood ready to clang a heavy spoon against her cast iron pot and order him to leave the table.

Despite differing political opinions, the men's mealtime conversations were without rancor.

Eventually, each one found steady work and left the confines of Alice's boarding house. But I daresay, no one would ever forget that having a seat at the table was a privilege earned by being respectful.

Meal time

Fast forward to the 21st Century. Now Americans have a seat at the social media table to discuss solutions to big problems.

Notice how conversations escalate to anger in a cyber-second? It would seem Alice's cast iron pot would help in a world of spiteful tweets and posts.

Alas, the niceties of respect for differing opinions seems to be from a bygone era. But perhaps someone will arise with a cyber version of the cast iron pot and spoon.

P.S. And what happened to Alice? Oh, the boarding house millworker fell in love with her. He married her and adopted her five children. In 1907 they had a son. Alice is my great-grandmother. I admire her grit, her boarding house rules, and thanks to my mom, I have her large cast iron pot.

Karen Farris served in the crisis pregnancy ministry — traveling thousands of miles and speaking to over 10,000 students about their life choices — for nearly a dozen years. She became a grant writer and helps find resources for projects that serve those in poverty, mainly children. She's been a blogger since 2010 — Friday Tidings — sharing stories of faith, life, and purpose to give hope in a hurting world.

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