Sunday, June 6, 2010

When Home is...a 1950s Dinner Party

It’s Saturday night. The children are asleep and dinner is finished. I am on the lounge enjoying another glass of wine while I read a book published during the 1950s. It’s titled the Australian Woman’s Complete Household Guide Illustrated. My husband is watching rugby and washing up. He cooked dinner too, as he often does. The scene in my home tonight does not echo the 1950s Home Entertainment scene I’m reading about.

Let’s play a game and pretend it’s a Saturday night in June 1956. After all, ‘a wise hostess will organise games in which all may join’ and such a game may make this blog post ‘go with a swing’. We’re having an informal dinner party, although I realise there are still ‘rules of etiquette to be followed in setting and arranging the dining table’.

We’re having dinner for eight. I will use a linen tablecloth as they are now more popular and I can’t use place mats as my table is most definitely not in ‘almost perfect condition’. (Didn’t children use textas in the 1950s?!) I will allow my place settings to be spaced so that my guests have sufficient elbow room and the base of my cutlery handles will be a ‘straight line one inch from the edge of the table’. The napkins will be folded in the ‘customary rectangular shape and placed at the left of the dinner forks with the fold outside’ and I will have a small vase of jonquils in the middle of the table, as flowers ‘are still and probably always will be the most suitable decoration for the centrepiece on the table’.

Because I want to be a good hostess, I will plan the seating arrangements beforehand. My husband and I will be at opposite ends of the table and we will separate married couples and seat the opposite sex alternately. Being the mid-1950s, the number of courses presented at dinner parties is ‘now very elastic’ and as my food will be ‘well chosen, beautifully cooked and presented’ I am apparently able to be as free as I like in the choice of dishes.

After our black coffee in demi-tasse and liqueurs are served at the table, a tray of drinks – whisky, gin, beer or soft drinks – will be brought into the living room before our guests leave.


As we don’t have a separate living room or dining room perhaps we shouldn’t be having this dinner party after all. I should have organised a buffet dinner party instead. All we will need to do is remove all the chairs and leave our dining table in the middle of the room. As a ‘buffet meal is mostly informal, the tablecloth can be gay and interestingly patterned and the centrepiece can be made up of flowers or fruit’. There are ‘no fixed rules for setting the table for a buffet party’ and ‘it needs comparatively little preparation’. It will be a much shorter evening too – 5pm – 7pm – ‘excellent for a hostess with many social commitments’. The only other preparation we will need to do is ‘fill all the cigarette boxes and see that there are matches and large ashtrays on occasional tables’.

Seems like it will be relaxed and fun evening, don’t you think? Well, perhaps not for me. I’ll still be busy working. At a buffet party food and drink will be the least of my worries. Once my guests arrive I’ll introduce them to each other and ‘put them at ease’. If there are a couple of late-comers, as always, I’ll have to ‘lead them to one group or another and see them established so that they will not feel embarrassed or ill at ease’. But what will happen if a ‘certain amount of group forming in corners grows into a number of impregnable private conversations’? A good hostess will not let this happen. This is a shame as I wouldn’t mind being a part of a few ‘impregnable private conversations’. However, because I am a good hostess I will ‘apparently casually drift into different groups in turn, drawing some together and breaking up others’.

Well, I hope everyone else had fun because I don’t know that I did. Our guests will leave, piling out our front door, gaily laughing and swapping phone numbers with one another and I imagine I will be exhausted. Hearing them say what a ‘wonderful hostess’ I am as they climb into their cars should be enough for me to want to entertain every Saturday night. After all, ‘to describe a woman as a wonderful hostess is the highest compliment that can be paid, for it means that the person so described has the capacity for taking pains; that she has tact and charm and a genuine interest in other people. The art of entertaining needs practice, and involves a great deal of hard work’.

Back here in 2010, with three children aged under six, I know myself too well and should have paid heed to the warning at the beginning of the Home Entertainment chapter: ‘She should never undertake more than she can accomplish with ease as the pleasure of guests will be spoiled if the hostess appears to be tired’. My wine is now finished and I head off to bed with renewed appreciation and wistfulness for a conversation with my Nanna. I don’t know how she, as a mother of four, managed it back then.

I’d love to hear some real-life 1950s entertaining stories. Please leave me a comment if you have any.

*All photos are taken from the Australian Women's Complete Household Guide Illustrated. Colorgravure Publications (The Herald and Weekly Times Ltd)

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