Although they are of humble origin and their era of glory is well past, nowadays they will show up only at fancy dinners. Furthermore, they arrive only in time for dessert, make many people feel uneasy and fail to make themselves useful.
Fingerbowls: How do they manage, like people of similar characteristics, to hang on socially long after one might think their time had passed?
Miss Manners admits to a sneaking fondness for the old things and the useless ritual that they require. When fingerbowls are presented on their little doilies, with the dessert fork and spoon on their respective sides of the underlying plate, she welcomes the pause while diners remember to place the bowl and doily to their left and the silver to the sides of the remaining plate in expectation of being offered dessert.
Unless more basic rituals have been violated during the meal, nobody at a formal dinner should need a finger-wash at this point, so the warm water with its pretty petal or two generally remains untouched, as does the doily, which was originally there to be used as a towel. But goodness knows we can all do with a pleasant pause before plowing into dessert.
However, Miss Manners suspects that if fingerbowls don't stop scaring people and figure out how to make themselves useful once again, even these remaining nights of theirs are numbered. They could be spending the rest of their lives in the cupboard, sulking.
It is lonely in there. The old-timers who didn't chip or slink off to the flea market faced their loss of grandeur bravely and devised ways to make themselves acceptable in modern times. Even the table cigarette urns managed to reinvent themselves, for heaven's sake. Once they realized that they would never again be required at grand feasts to offer puffs between courses, they pulled themselves together and asked what a small silver cup had to offer under the new circumstances.
They got jobs holding potpourri or violets. Some managed to earn back a place at the table, where they can occasionally be found holding chocolate sticks, perhaps reunited with their old partners, the tiny silver ashtrays, who found employment holding nuts.
Fingerbowls could be used for cold soups and desserts, but a false pride keeps them clinging to their old job, even though its purpose is long gone. The custom dates from times when refined people not only ate with their fingers but from shared helpings. You wanted to make awfully sure that your dinner partners washed their hands, under those circumstances, and the best proof was witnessing it being done.
From this humble, not to say suspiciously utilitarian, necessity grew the grand ritual of the ewer and the sewer. The ewer was the basin or pitcher containing scented water for a grand ceremonial of cleaning used fingers, and the person privileged to pour this all over important people was also called the ewer, or ewerer. (The sewer was the mealtime chief of staff, and Miss Manners threw him in here just for good measure.)
Whether people are now washing their hands before coming to the table, Miss Manners cannot say, as she does not care to inspect. They at least mostly leave the table no worse than they arrived.
Occasionally, however, finger food, such as corn-on-the-cob and asparagus, are served at informal meals. This is where fingerbowls could make themselves useful again, not only for mopping up, but for making the ritual again familiar and thus removing the panic from formal occasions.
Or, like others with archaic skills, they could resort to working in the fast food industry, where, despite the pitiful efforts of "towelettes," they are badly needed.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: I know you frown on "Thanks in advance," but what's wrong with using it informally in an e-mail?
It's commonly understood in e-mail to be a polite way to end a request for information. Everyone does it, and it saves cluttering up the Internet with thanks after receiving the information.
GENTLE READER: As an etiquette argument, "Everyone does it" is more popular with teen-agers than with Miss Manners. She keeps hoping for a higher standard.
The reason that "thanks in advance" is a poor form of politeness is that it is pre-emptive. In theory, at least, the person of whom you make a request is free to decide whether or not to comply. To encourage a favorable response, rather than to assume one, you are supposed to say how much you would appreciate it.
It does not strike Miss Manners as a great burden to add thanks afterward to your e-mailed acknowledgment of receiving what you requested. However, if you have scruples about cluttering the Internet, there is always paper.