Mind Your Manners

Cowboy philosopher Will Rogers sheds a little light on good etiquette.
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Cowboy philosopher Will Rogers sheds a little light on good etiquette.
Credit: Corbis

Credit: Corbis

Will Rogers might have been the first cowboy renaissance man. Not only was he a top hand on the ranch, he began his career using his skills as an expert and trick roper in Wild West shows, billed as the Cherokee Kid. Later, he moved into vaudeville and starred in the Ziegfeld Follies as a lassoist and comedian. Before long, he became known for his sharp wit and homespun philosophy. He also starred in motion pictures.

In the midst of those endeavors, he also developed a loyal following as a writer. V.V. McNitt, president of the McNaught Syndicate, watched Rogers’s performance at the Follies and decided that the cowboy philosopher’s remarks could be made into a regular newspaper feature. Rogers wrote his first column for the New York Times, which appeared on December 24, 1922. Before long, approximately 600 daily and weekly newspapers carried the Will Rogers Weekly Articles. Rogers wrote the weekly column from 1922 until his untimely death in 1935. In perusing his extensive tome, it’s apparent that Rogers’ style was the forerunner of today’s political bloggers: funny, off the cuff, and informal.

The Will Rogers Research Project has compiled his work and it is presented by them—as well as in this article—as Rogers originally penned it, spelling mistakes and all.

“When I first started out to write and misspelled a few words, people said I was plain ignorant,” Rogers wryly said. “But when I got all the words wrong, they declared I was a humorist.” 

Most of Rogers’s Weekly Articles were focused on the politics of the day, and take quite a bit of context to understand. However, the following reprint, which appeared in 1923 when Rogers was living and performing in New York, is a humorous look at a cowboy’s struggle with etiquette. The word etiquette derives from the French idea of how to behave in court. Etiquette is—at its core—a code established to show respect.

The following is reprinted with permission of the Will Rogers Memorial Museums in Claremore, Okla. —Bob Welch



Somebody must have seen me out in public; I think it was Emily Post, for she sent me a book on ETIQUETTE that she had written herself.


It has 700 pages in it. You wouldn’t think there was that much Etiquette, would you! Well, I hadn’t read far when I found that I was wrong on most every line of the whole book.

700 pages of Etiquette and not a line how to remove dogs and cats and still remain non challant.

Now, you wouldn’t think a person could live under fairly civilized conditions (as I imagined I was doing) and be so dumb as to not have at least one of these forms of Etiquette right. Well, when I got through reading it, I felt like I had been a heathen all my life. But after I got to noticing other people I met I didn’t feel so bad. Some of them didn’t know much more about it than I did.

So I predict that her book and all the other things you read now on Etiquette are going to fall on fertile soil. Now take, for instance, being introduced, or introducing someone; that is the first thing in the book. I didn’t know up to then that inflection of the voice was such a big faction in introductions.

She says that the prominence of the party being introduced determines the sound of the voice, as she says for instance, “Are you there?” and then on finding out you are there she says, “Is it raining?”

Now the inflection that you use on asking anyone if they are there, is the same inflection that you are to use on introducting Mr. Gothis, if he is the most prominent of the two. Then for the other person, who Mr. Gothis probably got his from, why, you use the “Is it raining?” inflection.

You see, a fellow has to know a whole lot more than you think he does before he can properly introduce people to each other. First he has to be up on his Dunn and Bradstreet to tell which of the two is the more prominent. Second, he has to be an Elocutionist so he will know just where to bestow the inflection.

Well, I studied on that introduction chapter till I thought I had it down pat. So I finally got a chance to try it out. My wife had invited a few friends for dinner, and as she hadn’t finished cooking it before they come, I had to meet them and introduce them to each other.

Well, I studied for half an hour before they come, trying to figure out which one was the most prominent so I could give her the “Are you there?” inflection. It was hard to figure out because any one of them couldn’t be very prominent and be coming to our house for dinner. So I thought, well, I will just give them both the “Is it raining?” inflection.

Then I happened to remember that the husband of one of them had just bought a drug store, so I figures that I had better give her the benefit of the “Are you there?” inflection, for if prohibition stays in effect it’s only a matter of days till her husband will be prominent.

So when they arrive I was remembering my opening chapter of my Etiquette on introductions. When the first one come I was all right; I didn’t have to introduce her to anyone. I just opened our front door in answer to the bell which didn’t work. But I was peeping through the curtains, and as I opened the door to let her in 2 of our dogs and 4 cats come in.

Well, while I was shooing them out, apologizing, and trying to make her believe it was unusual for them to do such a thing, now there I was! This Emily Post wrote 700 pages on Etiquette, but not a line on what to do in an emergency to remove dogs and cats and still be non challant.

The second lady arrived just as this dog and cat pound of ours was emptying. She was the new prescription store owner’s wife and was to get the “Are you there?” inflection. Her name was (I will call her Smith, but that was not her name.) She don’t want it to get out that she knows us.

Well, I had studied that book thoroughly but those animals entering our parlor had kinder upset me. So I said, “Mrs. Smith, are you there? I want you to meet Mrs. Jones. Is it raining?”

Well, these women looked at me like I was crazy. It was a silly thing to say. Mrs. Smith was there of course, or I wouldn’t have introduced her, and asking Mrs. Jones if it was raining, was most uncalled for, because I had just looked out myself and, besides, any one that ever lived in California knows it won’t rain again till next year.

But that didn’t discourage me. I kept right on learning and from now on I am just mangy with Etiquette.

Why, just the other day, I heard what I had always considered up to then a well behaved woman, introduce one gentleman friend to another and she said, “Allow me to present.”

Now anybody that’s ever read the first five lines in the book knows that the word present, is never used only on formal occasions. You should always say “May I introduce” on all informal occasions. There was a woman who, to look at her, you would never have thought she could possibly be so rude and uncultured as to have made a mistake like that.

It just spoiled her for me. I don’t care how many nice things she may do in the future, she just don’t belong.

Rule 2, Chapter 5—: 

“No Gentleman under any circumstances chews gum in public.” Now that kinder knocked me for a goal, for I had been chewing gum before some of the best families in this country. But from now on it is out. I am going to live according to the book.

Chapter 6—: 

“Gentlemen should not walk along the street with their cane or stick striking the picket fence. Such habits should be curbed in the nursery.”

Now that rule didn’t hit me so hard for I am not lame and I don’t carry a cane yet, and furthermore, there is no picket fences in California. If they had enough pickets to make a fence they would take them and build another bungalow and rent it.

Outside of eating with a sharp knife, there was no rule in the book that lays you liable to as much criticism as the following: “Whether in a private car, a taxi, or a carriage, a lady must never sit on a gentleman’s left, because according to European etiquette a lady ‘on the left’ is no lady.”

I thought at first when I read that it was a misprint, and meant a lady should never sit on a gentleman’s lap, instead of left. But so I guess you can go ahead and sit on the lap. It don’t say not to. But don’t sit on his left, or you can never hope to enter smart society.

Then it says “the owner of the car should always occupy the right hand side of the rear seat.” No matter how many payments he has to make on it, that is considered his seat.

Chapter 7 is given over entirely to the Opera. What to wear, when to applaud—it tells everything but how to enjoy the thing. The fellow that figures out how to enjoy the Opera in a foreign tongue, without kidding himself or fourflushing, has a fortune in store for him.

Chapter 12 tells how the Butler should dress. You don’t know what a relief it was to me to find that news. I never had one, but if I do I will know what to costume him in.

The book says: “At six o’clock the Butler puts on his dress suit. The Butler’s suit differs from that of a Gentleman by having no braid on his trousers.”

Now all you birds that never could tell the servants from the guests, except somebody called one of them a Butler and the other a Gentleman, you can’t tell them that way. More than likely the Butler is the Gentleman of the two.

But I can tell the Butler. He has no braid on his trousers.

Now, all I got to do is find out how to tell the Gentleman.

If you see people walking around looking down at trousers, in the future, you will know they are looking to see if the braid is left off.


This article is from the American Cowboy Code of the West Collector's issue. Purchase your copy here.