How to be a Good Hostess: 1950s manual
After writing How to Skin a Lion: A Treasury of Outmoded Advice I have become somewhat of a magpie for seeking out old fashioned manuals and books of instruction, so imagine my delight when my lovely cousin sent me this book entitled ‘How to be a Good Hostess’. It is full of some fantastic gems which I thought I would share here.
The book belonged to my late Grandad and was printed in the 1950s for Spillers, a British company who milled flour. My Grandad worked for Spillers as a chemist. It seems it was hoped that by providing lots of fabulous recipes with Spillers flour in the ingredients it would benefit the brand.
The 1950s had seen a great relaxation of many of the social ‘rules’ that had governed society (it is interesting to note the far more casual tips in this 1950s book, compared to a much more rigid Victorian manual), but a certain amount of social norms remained. This booklet no doubt provided useful tips to those unsure of the changing styles of etiquette.
How to be a Good Hostess
How to be a Good Hostess is marvellously of its time, featuring a foreword by the popular British actress Anna Neagle (1904–86), in which she says:
‘If your home is known as a friendly meeting place: if guests feel well and truly welcome: if whatever you offer them is beautifully made and attractively served, you’ll find your reputation as a hostess grows.’
How to invite people to a party
The first few pages are concerned with how to invite people to a party. It is advised that most invitations should be sent via a letter and that it should be from woman to woman (the hostess writes from herself and her husband to her friend and her husband). A word of caution is given:
‘The TELEPHONE is often a useful way of calling up a few friends … and for those of your close friends who love to be asked “on the hop” for an informal meal, it gives that stimulating feeling of the unexpected. But some people dislike being telephoned to make any date – think twice before you dial their number, and then write instead!’
After discussing the various formal methods for inviting folk to a party by letter or card, the booklet goes on to divulge a more informal method:
‘And for the “young” party, or the out-of-the-ordinary party – perhaps a check-cloth Bohemian kitchen supper – there are novelty invitations in the shops bright enough to spark off the party spirit the minute they arrive.’
Put your house in shining good order
A good hostess’s house ‘should literally shine out a welcome to your guests. Gleaming floors and furniture, winking-bright windows, laundry-fresh curtains.’
The booklet advises a thorough clean of the house the day before, including ‘brushing lampshades, polishing looking glasses, putting extra lustre on brass and silver and, if necessary, washing china ornaments.’
A floral display to cheer up the room is also recommended and the booklet contains a series of instructions to create various flower arrangements, including a centre-piece for the dining table.
It is hard to imagine someone these days going to quite so much trouble for a dinner party, I think my friends would be rather surprised if they came round to dinner to find I had fashioned an elaborate floral display for the table!
What to wear
There is a wonderful section on what to wear, with some great illustrations of many glamorous outfits for a variety of occasions, from a dinner party to a country weekend.
The following advice is given for what to wear for a teenage get-together:
‘A teenager entertaining her own friends can say if it’s to be a shorts and slacks evening. Or, if she wants to wear a black top and flowery skirt, or her white tweed dress with its orange cummerbund, she decides it’s a dress up night and says so. What she mustn’t do is tell everybody shirts and jeans, then floor them all with her new pink taffeta.’
‘She must remember she won’t look good in clothes borrowed from Mum and neither will she get away with Mum’s heavy scent or long, drop ear-rings. As hostess, she must instruct the boys what to wear.’
What to eat
The booklet features a number of recipes for all sorts of occasions. To modern tastes the recipes seem rather old-fashioned, including instructions for how to make delights such as meat loaf, orange chocolate mousse, pineapple gateau, egg and onion flan, coq au vin and Viennese coffee.
There is also some advice on how to order wine if dining out at a restaurant:
‘When the waiter has taken your luncheon order he will ask whether you’d care for anything to drink. If you don’t want a drink, don’t. Offer your friends a drink, of course, but if she refuses don’t let it embarrass you. Many women lunching out together don’t drink, especially when following diets that rule out alcohol.’
The booklet ends with a jolly round-up of advice, which I think is worth sharing as it demonstrates that although times have moved on and things are less formal nowadays some advice is timeless:
‘A good hostess makes certain that guests know what they are expected to wear: and in her own dressing she never tries to outshine them.’
‘She is careful to tell her guests when they are expected: keeps calm when they are late: is ready to accept apologies for lateness with good grace.’
‘She never criticises the drinks her husband pours: the way her son hands them round: never flaps when drinks are spilt – merely mops and smiles.’
‘She never has flowers for her dining table that hide guests from one another: and if she likes background music, keeps it below talk level.’
‘She steers conversation away from a guests who’d monopolise it: gives a talking point to a shy guest: always has a lively anecdote to fill a gap.’
‘She is mindful to serve hot food hot and cold food cold: never needs to make excuses for poor coffee: empties ashtrays before they’re overflowing.’
For more on etiquette, old advice and lost instructions see How to Skin a Lion