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An essay by Charles Dudley Warner

Social Clearing-House

Title:     Social Clearing-House
Author: Charles Dudley Warner [More Titles by Warner]

The Drawer would like to emphasize the noble, self-sacrificing spirit of American women. There are none like them in the world. They take up all the burdens of artificial foreign usage, where social caste prevails, and bear them with a heroism worthy of a worse cause. They indeed represent these usages to be a burden almost intolerable, and yet they submit to them with a grace and endurance all their own. Probably there is no harder-worked person than a lady in the season, let us say in Washington, where the etiquette of visiting is carried to a perfection that it does not reach even in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, and where woman's effort to keep the social fabric together requires more expenditure of intellect and of physical force than was needed to protect the capital in its peril a quarter of a century ago. When this cruel war is over, the monument to the women who perished in it will need to be higher than that to the Father of his Country. Merely in the item of keeping an account of the visits paid and due, a woman needs a bookkeeper. Only to know the etiquette of how and when and to whom and in what order the visits are to be paid is to be well educated in a matter that assumes the first importance in her life. This is, however, only a detail of bookkeeping and of memory; to pay and receive, or evade, these visits of ceremony is a work which men can admire without the power to imitate; even on the supposition that a woman has nothing else to do, it calls for our humble gratitude and a recognition of the largeness of nature that can put aside any duties to husband or children in devotion to the public welfare. The futile round of society life while it lasts admits of no rival. It seems as important as the affairs of the government. The Drawer is far from saying that it is not. Perhaps no one can tell what confusion would fall into all the political relations if the social relations of the capital were not kept oiled by the system of exchange of fictitious courtesies among the women; and it may be true that society at large--men are so apt, when left alone, to relapse--would fall into barbarism if our pasteboard conventions were neglected. All honor to the self-sacrifice of woman!

What a beautiful civilization ours is, supposed to be growing in intelligence and simplicity, and yet voluntarily taking upon itself this artificial burden in an already overtaxed life! The angels in heaven must admire and wonder. The cynic wants to know what is gained for any rational being when a city-full of women undertake to make and receive formal visits with persons whom for the most part they do not wish to see. What is gained, he asks, by leaving cards with all these people and receiving their cards? When a woman makes her tedious rounds, why is she always relieved to find people not in? When she can count upon her ten fingers the people she wants to see, why should she pretend to want to see the others? Is any one deceived by it? Does anybody regard it as anything but a sham and a burden? Much the cynic knows about it! Is it not necessary to keep up what is called society? Is it not necessary to have an authentic list of pasteboard acquaintances to invite to the receptions? And what would become of us without Receptions? Everybody likes to give them. Everybody flocks to them with much alacrity. When society calls the roll, we all know the penalty of being left out. Is there any intellectual or physical pleasure equal to that of jamming so many people into a house that they can hardly move, and treating them to a Babel of noises in which no one can make herself heard without screaming? There is nothing like a reception in any uncivilized country. It is so exhilarating! When a dozen or a hundred people are gathered together in a room, they all begin to raise their voices and to shout like pool-sellers in the noble rivalry of "warious langwidges," rasping their throats into bronchitis in the bidding of the conversational ring. If they spoke low, or even in the ordinary tone, conversation would be possible. But then it would not be a reception, as we understand it. We cannot neglect anywhere any of the pleasures of our social life. We train for it in lower assemblies. Half a dozen women in a "call" are obliged to shout, just for practice, so that they can be heard by everybody in the neighborhood except themselves. Do not men do the same? If they do, it only shows that men also are capable of the higher civilization.

But does society--that is, the intercourse of congenial people--depend upon the elaborate system of exchanging calls with hundreds of people who are not congenial? Such thoughts will sometimes come by a winter fireside of rational-talking friends, or at a dinner-party not too large for talk without a telephone, or in the summer-time by the sea, or in the cottage in the hills, when the fever of social life has got down to a normal temperature. We fancy that sometimes people will give way to a real enjoyment of life and that human intercourse will throw off this artificial and wearisome parade, and that if women look back with pride, as they may, upon their personal achievements and labors, they will also regard them with astonishment. Women, we read every day, long for the rights and privileges of men, and the education and serious purpose in life of men. And yet, such is the sweet self-sacrifice of their nature, they voluntarily take on burdens which men have never assumed, and which they would speedily cast off if they had. What should we say of men if they consumed half their time in paying formal calls upon each other merely for the sake of paying calls, and were low-spirited if they did not receive as many cards as they had dealt out to society? Have they not the time? Have women more time? and if they have, why should they spend it in this Sisyphus task? Would the social machine go to pieces--the inquiry is made in good faith, and solely for information--if they made rational business for themselves to be attended to, or even if they gave the time now given to calls they hate to reading and study, and to making their household civilizing centres of intercourse and enjoyment, and paid visits from some other motive than "clearing off their list"? If all the artificial round of calls and cards should tumble down, what valuable thing would be lost out of anybody's life?

The question is too vast for the Drawer, but as an experiment in sociology it would like to see the system in abeyance for one season. If at the end of it there had not been just as much social enjoyment as before, and there were not fewer women than usual down with nervous prostration, it would agree to start at its own expense a new experiment, to wit, a kind of Social Clearing-House, in which all cards should be delivered and exchanged, and all social debts of this kind be balanced by experienced bookkeepers, so that the reputation of everybody for propriety and conventionality should be just as good as it is now.

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Charles Dudley Warner's essay: Social Clearing-House