This is the second article in May of the School for Housewives 1907 series published on May 12, 1907, and is the last discussion on entertaining at meals.
Transcribed from the Sunday edition of The Washington Times.
How to Entertain at an Evening Reception
NOBODY calls it a party nowadays. The word has been appropriated by politicians and “personal conductors” of voyagers, until the social flavor has been entirely dissipated.
A hundred years agone what we knew as a “reception” would have been called a “rout.”
I happened the other day upon a sentence in the “Life of Sydney Smith,” by his daughter, Lady Holland, that tickled me amazingly. It might have been printed in 1907, in the satirical critic’s corner of the Morning Trumpeter, of Chicago, Philadelphia, or New York.
The biographer of the clerical wit tells of his dissuading invited guests from attending a certain “rout” by “painting and describing in glowing colors the horrors of a dumplin rout—the heat, the crowd, the bad lemonade, the ignominy of appearing next day in the Morning Post.”
A blunt husband once defined his wife’s semi-annual assemblage of all her acquaintances as “saying grace over the whole social hogshead.” It is not unusual to hear sporting Benedicts allude to the big function as “wiping off the slate.”
The average omnium gathering, christened by society leaders “the reception,” deserves all this and more. It is no compliment to be invited to one, and seldom anything but a bore to the givers of the “rout.” In former papers I have spoken of the knack of bringing together congenial spirits as the very genius of successful hospitality. This selection of harmonious elements is impracticable when invitations are issued by the hundred. Somebody is bound to feel out of place and ill at ease. Host and guests are lucky if the “somebody” be not in the plural and do not include most of those present.
So well is the difficulty of entertaining a motley throng of acquaintances understood that the necessity of providing other forms of amusement than conversation is universally acknowledged. To this end card tables are laid in one room, a band of music a cleared floor for dancing in another, where the entertainers can afford space and money for these preparations.
So much for the general reception that clears off a multitude of social debts and leaves the mind of the hostess easy on the score of slights and affronts conceived in the minds of some of her dear 500 “friends.”
If, however, you, my reader, a woman of fair means and hospitable disposition wish to bring together under your roof fifty or seventy-five friends in the evening, perhaps, to mark the debut of a daughter, or to introduce to your circle of acquaintances a guest whom you delight to honor, you may make the function a pleasant memory to all who take part in it.
The dining table should be drawn to the utmost length that will allow free passage to the crowd that will troop into the room when supper is served. Chairs are set back against the wall leaving as much space as possible for the waiters and the men who supplement the hirelings in caring for the wants of their partners. If you have a handsome embroidered cloth of sufficient length to cover the table fully and hang gracefully over the edge at each end, use it. If not, dispose the prettiest centerpieces and doilies you have over the polished surface, leaving little bare space. The light should come mainly from candelabra and lamps. The supper table must be more brilliantly lighted than that laid for a dinner. A low bowl of flowers has the place of honor in the middle. Smaller bowls are nearer the corners, and dishes of fruit, tastefully arranged and garnished with leaves, flank the central ornament. For eatables have glass dishes of salads—lobster and chicken—sandwiches, boned and jellied tongue and chicken as substantials, and between them saucers or plates of salted nuts, bonbons, olives, candied ginger, small cakes, etc. Forms of ice cream and ices should be at the top and bottom and near the edge at the sides of the table to be accessible to the waiters. Annoying accidents to gowns and table furniture have been the consequence of carelessness in the placing of creams. The waiter should not be obliged to reach over intervening dishes to get at the fragile and treacherous sweets.
Receiving the Guests.
Hostess and daughters, with the master of the house—if there be one who is willing to bear his part in the reception—take their stand near the front door of the drawing room at the sound of the first arrival.
Dressing rooms are provided for men and for women. Wraps and hats are laid off in these, one or two maids being in attendance in the ladies’ dressing room to assist in removing mufflers and cloaks, and lending a hand in whatever rearrangement of toilettes may be required. The appointments of the dressing table should be complete and in order. Hand-glass, shoe and glove buttoners, hairpins, powder-puff, pins—and even a work basket, from which the maid may draw, at a minute’s notice, needle and thread to repair an unforseen rent—are little things which are no trifles in the time of sudden need. While women wear trains and cobweb draperies, and other people’s discarded hair, and renew damaged complexions with cosmetics, the provident hostess must cater to their infirmities.
Punctuality Not Necessary.
The hours during which the house will be open to arrivals are named the card of invitation. Punctuality is not a desideratum at this function. In fact, few make a point of being on time. If the hours be from 9 to 12 the rooms do not fill up until 10 and after. Supper is usually served about 10:30. The dining-room is then thrown open, and some member of the family, or friends who assist the hostess in her task, make the motion to enter. After the first installment of eaters has found the way to the table, the rest follow at their free will. Many partygoers make it a rule never to go into the supper room. There is nothing invidious in the refusal to partake of salads, creams, etc., at a late affair. As the veteran society woman sometimes takes in three receptions in one evening, the propriety of abstinence at one or two is obvious.
Says a social arbiter: “So long as guests are arriving, the hostess has no right to leave her post for food, or drink, or rest.” The justice of this cannot be denied, since the newest comer has the same right to attention as the first. Yet strict obedience to the rule leaves all guests to their own devices in a way which destroys, root and branch, the ostensible end of the reception. A brilliant woman, who is a figure in the best circles of the city where she is at home, told, in my hearing, the other day, the story of her experience in a house to which she was invited:
“I have what may be called a ‘calling acquaintanceship’ with the mother of the debutante in whose honor the evening party was given,” she said. “I had also met the daughter—a pretty and well-mannered girl. She stood at her mother’s side as I entered the splendid drawing room, bowed gracefully, smiled sweetly, and spoke my name as an echo to her mother’s cordial ‘Ah, Mrs. Blank! How very good in you to come.’ To her formula the hostess subjoined, ‘Louise feels highly honored that have paid her the compliment of attending her debut reception.’
‘Indeed I do!’ smiled the echo.
“I am sure that neither mother nor daughter would have recognized me in my evening dress had not the footman’s sonorous enunciation of my name reminded them of my identity. I lingered near the door and the reception group long enough to hear hostess and daughter say the same things in substance to ten other arrivals. Then I drifted through, the rooms, idly seeing, at least, a hundred faces—all strange to me—and not speaking person. Not a creature seemed to see me until I landed in the crowded supper room.
The table was superb, and well tended, for a waiter asked if he ‘might bring me something.’ I said ‘No’ and strayed leisurely back to the drawing room. By now the crowd was a press and it took at least ten minutes to thread it. I had been in the hospitable (?) mansion thirty-five minutes. As I made my adieux to the smiling twain on duty at the door, the hostess said sweetly: ‘Ah, Mrs. Blank! Going already? How very good in you to come! Louise feels highly honored that you have paid her the compliment of attending her debut.’ And dutiful Louise responded, ‘Indeed I do!’
“I went home and marked against the ‘Reception’ on my engagement calendar—‘Done!’ In that ‘social’ half hour I had not exchanged one syllable with a human being except what I have repeated.”
A travesty upon hospitality, you say. Perhaps so, but what more could the urbane hostess do for a single guest?
To avoid the hollow pretense of entertaining those who honor your invitation, ask a few intimate friends to act as pudding-sticks to the incongruous ingredients. Let some belonging to your family circle—relatives, if not members of your household—distribute themselves through the rooms, and look out for the stranger within your gates.
You cannot afford to employ paid artists to make music, to act plays, and recite for the delectation of the assembly. You are poor in expedients if you cannot devise recitations, charades, jugglery, or music that will give people who do not know each others’ names a few themes of common interest.
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