Here’s a 1960 copy of “Emily Post’s Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage.” See how well-worn (and loved) it is?
As you might expect, there are parts of the book that are old-fashioned, and other parts that are still completely appropriate for today.
For instance, rare is the person who is familiar with the concerns of a house staffed with a housekeeper, housemaids, parlor maids, butler, footmen, cook, under-cook, kitchen maids, nurse, personal maid, valet, chauffeur, and gardener — as described in the chapter “The Well-Appointed House.” (Even when the book was written, the information was provided mostly to make a well-rounded book: “How can any house require a score of servants? The answer is, it can’t, unless the house is of a size that in this, our day, has become virtually obsolete,” Post wrote.)
However, a later chapter, “Cook, Waitress, and Charming Hostess!” is far more relatable, and addresses that host “who has not only to cook the dinner but to serve it without ever leaving the table.” In other words, pretty much everyone these days.
Some advice from that chapter, written for the 1960s host:
• Set your table formally and have the first course on the table before your guests go into dinner. Use a pair of sturdy serving tables for “supplies and discards,” placing “one to stand at the side of your husband’s chair and the other next your own.”
OUR TAKE: Think through the entire dinner party from start to finish. Before guests arrive, arrange your serving pieces and place labels on the serving counter so you won't forget to take anything out of the refrigerator (although if you do forget something, it's probably just because you are having a great time!). When it comes to clean-up, keep courses moving seamlessly by designating a place for used dishes and utensils. If you are using your sterling, have a dish of sudsy water ready to make cleaning quick.
• Plan your menu, keeping your serving platters in mind. Think of quality and ease. “It doesn’t really matter whether you give...saddle of lamb or corned beef hash - what does matter is that it shall be good of its kind,” Post wrote. “It is much better to serve something simple than to try a dish too difficult to prepare alone.”
OUR TAKE: Focusing on simple, good recipes that you know well will make for a far less stressful event for the host.
• As your guests lounge post-dinner in the living room, take a prepared coffee tray, carry it into the living room, put it on your coffee table (oh! that’s what they’re for!) and make the coffee in the company of your guests.
OUR TAKE: This would be a lovely way to end a night. However, use your judgment: sometimes, moving from the dinner table to another room might interrupt the conversation and flow of the evening. Sometimes serving dessert at the table is easiest; other times, you can ask guests if they would move into the family room (or around the fireplace, patio, or porch, depending on weather). Wherever you end up, always make your guests feel like the most important in the world!
Other tidbits from the Mad Men era:
• Keep a Little Jack Horner shelf for unexpected dinner guests. This is an “emergency shelf of provisions,” filled with food stored in “Cartons or tins, ready to eat as they are or as soon as heated,” as well as paper plates, cups, napkins, and flatware. “When the party is over, all you need to do is to take off the little remaining food...and dump everything else into the fire or garbage can,” Post wrote. Treat it like an impromptu “picnic supper.”
OUR TAKE: We love the idea of always having something on hand for guests, although we suggest a more environmentally sound approach—your own plates and silverware, or reusable bamboo plates and flatware—than disposable items to chuck in the garbage. We also love that this puts the focus on the company, not the food. We know of one pop-in visit that turned into a dinner where the main course was Pop-Tarts - and it was both delicious and memorable.
• You don’t have to be wealthy to have fun. “A young couple living in a single room that has a folding sofa-bed so that the room can be made into the semblance of a sitting-room, may ask friends they care for — and others are of no importance — to come to their ‘home in a room,’” Post wrote. “The real secret of successful party-giving is simply the gift of never outgrowing a child’s imagination. In other words, the spirit of ‘let’s pretend,’ which enters into the play of all children, is the very spirit that animates the subconscious mind of every ideal hostess.”
OUR TAKE: We say a gigantic RIGHT ON, Emily Post! Beautifully summed up.
The general take-home message for the host who does it all?
“When the hostess has a good time, the guests usually do too,” Post wrote. We couldn’t agree more!