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Official dinners and forms

[from Emily Post’s Etiquette, published 1922, revised 1940]

An invitation to lunch or dine at the White House is a command and automatically cancels any other engagement.

The acceptance must be written—by hand of course—and furthermore it must be left at the door and not sent by mail. It may however be folded once in the ordinary way and not fitted into a full-page-size envelope as is necessary in answering court invitations abroad. The following is

An example of best taste

and the wording of the date is at is should be in all invitations, acceptances, and regrets:

Mr and Mrs Richard Worldly
have the honor to accept
the kind invitation of
the President and Mrs Washington
for dinner on Thursday the eighth of May
at eight o’clock

The following form is to be avoided:

Mr and Mrs Notquite
present their respects (or compliments) to
the President and Mrs Washington
and beg to express
the great pleasure it will afford them
to be present at dinner
on Thursday May the eighth
at eight o’clock

It is ardently to be hoped that one who aspires to social distinction will not write as follows:

Mr and Mrs X
present their compliments to their Excellencies
the Ambassador of France and Mme Bonnet
and are most happy to accept their courteous invitation
for dinner on Thursday May eighth
at eight o’clock at the French Embassy

The above example is given because its counterpart is actually being received in Washington embassies. The proper form is:

Mr and Mrs Richard Worldly
have the honor to accept
the kind invitation of their Excellencies
the French Ambassador and Madame Bonnet
for dinner on Thursday the eighth of May
at eight o’clock

The note to a deserted hostess:

Mr and Mrs Richard Worldly
regret extremely
that an invitation to the White House
prevents their keeping
their previous engagement for
Tuesday the first of December

Although customs vary somewhat during succeeding administrations, the following details represent the conventional pattern from which each administration necessarily adapts its own procedure.

The President and his wife always give a number of state dinners each season, such as the Cabinet dinner and the Diplomatic dinner, as well as many numerous smaller dinners and luncheons. In any event, the guests, who arrive several minutes before the time set, assemble in the Blue Room and form in a large circle, standing according to their official rank with the highest at the head of the line.

Preceded by their naval and military aides, the Chief Executive and his wife descend the stairs promptly at eight o’clock and make the tour of the room. Each waiting guest is presented first to the President and then to the President’s wife by a military aide.

The President escorts the lady of highest rank into the dining-room exactly as every host “takes in” the guest of honor, but his wife, instead of coming last, immediately follows her husband with the gentleman of highest rank.

At the largest dinners, the Diplomatic ones usually, the table is arranged in the form of a horseshoe, and the appointments include gold knives, forks, and spoons as well as the gold-framed plateau, gold candelabra, vases, and compotes which Monroe brought over from France in 1817. The china consists of a service of seventeen hundred pieces of American-made porcelain in an ivory tone, a Wedgwood set of twelve hundred pieces and the Roosevelt china. The latter services are used for the smaller dinners, with silver that is very plain in design but engraved with the national coat of arms, or marked with charming simplicity “The President’s House.” The formalities at White House dinners differ in no way from those at all well appointed houses, full details for which are given in Chapter 16.

Dinner is usually followed by a musicale, to which additional guests have been invited. The President and his wife receive other guests promptly at ten o’clock, after which they go into the East Room and take their places in the front row. As soon as they are seated the guests follow—and as always in Washington, according to rank.

Details of White House etiquette

When you are invited to the White House, you must arrive several minutes at least before the hour specified. No more unforgivable breach of etiquette can be made than not to be standing in the drawing-room when the President makes his entry.

Exactly as at a European court, the President, followed by his wife, enters the room at the hour set and makes a tour of the room, shaking hands with each guest in turn. When your turn comes, you bow deeply and address him—if he talks to you—as “Mr. President.” In a long conversation it is proper to vary “Mr. President” occasionally with “Sir.” You call the wife of the President “Mrs. Washington,” and treat her as you would any formal hostess, but you do not sit down while either the President or his wife is standing. No guest of course ever leaves until after the President has withdrawn from the room.