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Sherwood, Mary (Elizabeth) Wilson

SHERWOOD, Mary (Elizabeth) Wilson

Born 27 October 1826, Keene, New Hampshire; died 12 September 1903, New York, New York

Daughter of James and Mary Richardson Wilson; married John Sherwood, 1851; children: four sons

Mary Wilson Sherwood was the oldest of seven children of a distinguished family of Scotch-Irish origin. She attended a fashionable private school for girls in Boston, where the training focused on good manners, not academic studies. Sherwood became part of Washington social life as a hostess during her father's term in Congress (1847-50). Upon her mother's death in 1884 Sherwood also assumed the duties of family management.

After her marriage to a New York lawyer, Sherwood settled in Manhattan. She had four sons; Robert Sherwood, the playwright, was a grandson. Sherwood first began to sponsor literary events in a fundraising effort for the restoration of Mount Vernon. By the 1870s, the Sherwood residence had become an establishment in New York literary and philanthropic circles. Sherwood served as president of the Causeries, a literary gathering of distinguished New York women and was a member of several benevolent societies.

The drain on the family resources induced by entertaining persuaded Sherwood to turn her efforts toward writing professionally. She had already published short stories and occasional verse in New York and Boston magazines. A Transplanted Rose (1882), her second novel, about the acceptance of a western girl into New York society, and a later, similar novel, Sweet-Brier (1889), were well-received. Sherwood also published a volume of poetry and two autobiographical books, An Epistle to Posterity: Being Rambling Recollections of Many Years of My Life (1897) and Here & There & Everywhere: Reminiscences (1898). Her style is lively, idiomatic, and touched with humor. Sherwood's most notable works, however, are in the field of etiquette. Sherwood's experience in Washington and Europe, where she traveled extensively, gave her great familiarity with a variety of styles of manners. Her articles on manners appeared in Atlantic, Scribner's, Harper's, Appleton's Journal, and Frank Leslie's Weekly. Manners and Social Usages (1884) was the most successful of Sherwood's books.

Sherwood wrote popular manuals of style treating such standard topics as table manners and the art of conversation. Like later 20th century philosophers of social convention such as Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, and Peg Bracken, Sherwood pointed to kindness and regard for others as the universal law of manners. Sherwood was, however, keenly aware of class differences. She was frank and firm in advocating the leadership of society by a class possessing talent and money. This was largely in reaction to the "upstarts" of the lower orders who were coming into sudden fortunes and social prominence.

Sherwood's several books on etiquette are addressed to a status quo of domestic women in the roles of wives and mothers—ladies of leisure and some means, whose main duties were, in Sherwood's belief, to temper the uncivilized tendencies of men and to serve as exemplars of congenial and decorous interpersonal relations. Like those social arbiters following her, Sherwood sees women as the directors and managers of social setting and action.

Although Sherwood can be criticized for not using her talents for more serious ends, and although her assessment of the role of good manners and the position of women in society was conservative, she should be remembered as the author of the most influential etiquette book of her time.

Other Works:

The Sarcasm of Destiny; or, Nina's Experience (1878). Amenities of Home (1881). Etiquette (1884). Home Amusements (1884). Royal Girls and Royal Courts (1887). The Art of Entertaining (1892). Poems by M.E.W.S. (1892).

Bibliography:

Reference works:

AW. NAW (1971).

Other references:

NYT (15 Sept. 1903).

—MARGARET J. KING

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