People have gathered together for feasts and other food-centric celebrations since time immemorial, but until about the 20th century, the formal dinner party was largely reserved for royalty and those who could afford to feed lots of guests — and had enough servants to ensure that they were all appropriately taken care of. In Victorian England, those events were frequently governed by a strict code of etiquette, which regulated exactly when each course should be served and how the napkins should be folded.
But as times changed and more and more people found social mobility in the early 20th century, the dinner party flourished. The middle class was growing, in the United States and beyond, and its members were impatient to show off their homes and (their wives’) cooking and entertaining skills. Dinner parties were the ideal way to do that: Invite your colleagues into your home, serve them fancy cocktails and beef bourguignon, and they’ll see that you’re truly living the American dream.
Considering the enduring popularity of the dinner party, it is perhaps not surprising that there have been a slew of books written to advise prospective hosts on how to throw the perfect shindig. Their tips range from the mundane — make sure you have enough food, don’t run out of booze — to the absolutely absurd. Here, written between 1880 and 1987, is a sampling of some of history’s most unhinged entertaining advice.
Your napkins need to be folded in a way that suggests you hold a degree in structural engineering.
Published in 1888, How to Fold Napkins by Jessup Whitehead remains a comprehensive guide to the most maniacal folded napkin designs. “The eye must be feasted as well as the palate,” Whitehead wrote. Within the book’s pages, you can learn how to fold crisp linen into a fleur-de-lys, a crown, a bridal serviette, or a Double Horn of Plenty (whatever that is). Notably, you will need a lot of starch to make most of these feats of napkin architecture happen.
Your lighting must not throw your guests into an unbecoming shadow.
For most of the 20th century, the magazine Good Housekeeping was a key arbiter of dinner party taste, a tradition that dates back to 1905, when the magazine published The Good Housekeeping Hostess, a compendium of hosting tips, dinner party theme ideas, and strict rules for entertaining. The book takes particular interest in setting the appropriate vibe for your party, especially when it comes to the table. “The tout ensemble must have the appearance of being planned for the convenience and delight of the guests, and not for vulgar display of wealth,” the text reads. “The lighting must be so arranged as to throw nobody into a disagreeable or unbecoming shadow, and the decorations should not be high enough to obstruct the view between any two persons.”
Your tea service should be as complicated as possible.
If you are the “lady of the house,” you’ve got a lot of work to do when it comes to a dinner party. Especially if you stick to The Whole Art of Dining by J. Rey, published in 1921. Even serving the tea is going to be complicated. “To the left of the lady of the house are placed as many cups and saucers as persons present at the table,” the book exhorts. “And to the right a tray holding a large tea-pot with the tea ready prepared and a jug of boiling water or a silver kettle on a spirit-stand, a jug of cold milk, and another (smaller) with cream.” Got all that???
Your guests should be neither too talkative nor too brilliant.
Emily Post has long been the authority on all things etiquette, so of course she’s historically had lots of opinions on how you should be hosting your dinner party. Of paramount importance to Mrs. Post is the selection of guests you plan to invite. “Nothing [is] compared to taste in people! Some people have this ‘sense,’ others haven’t,” she writes in her 1934 tome Etiquette. “The first are great hosts and hostesses, the others are the mediocre or the failures.” Ouch!
She cautions against inviting too many “great talkers,” because “brilliant men and women who love to talk want hearers, not rivals.” As such, you should seat your “very silent” friends between those who never shut up. She also suggests that you avoid seating two “brilliant people” together. “If both are voluble or nervous or ‘temperamental,’ you may create a situation like putting two operatic sopranos in the same part and expecting them to sing together.” Quelle horreur.
Your toast must be unassailable.
Many dinner parties begin with canapes, because who doesn’t love a tiny little snack? If you plan to serve any of those canapes on toast, though, you’d better be precise. In The Constance Spry Cookery Book, published in 1956, the rules for toast-based canapes are seriously intense. “The bread should be evenly sliced and about three-eighths of an inch thick,” Spry writes. “It should be toasted to a good brown and the crusts removed. It should be made at the last possible second and dried off a little to allow the steam to evaporate before buttering.”
You should not, under any circumstances, overawe your guests.
As a dinner party host, you are responsible for inspiring the consummate amount of awe. Not too much, and not too little. In 1948’s The Complete Party Book, written by Alexander Van Rensselaer, the author cautions that one must be very careful to avoid subjecting their guests to too much. “These misguided entertainers overawe their guests at the very start with the elaborateness of the arrangement and decorations; chill the atmosphere with their officious and fussy directing; and scare the daylights out of everyone by their too obvious concern for the deportment of their guests and the safety of their household furnishings.”
Never EVER serve chips.
If you’re even thinking about setting out a bowl of Doritos for guests to snack on while you cook at your next party, perish that thought right now. Otherwise, Canadian chef Michael Smith, the author of the 1987 Handbook for Hosts: The Complete Guide to Successful Entertaining at Home, will lose his shit. “It would be unthinkable to serve either crisps or nuts or twiglets,” Smith writes. “‘Out, out, OUT!’ I say. Any host who cannot organize a simple cheese shortbread, some canapes, and freshly pickled olives has his priorities seriously a-twist.”
You’d better be smiling at the door when your guests arrive.
Even unexpected guests deserve the utmost courtesy, or at least that’s what Barbara Taylor Bradford argues in her 1969 book How to Be the Perfect Wife: Entertaining to Please Him. Should a bunch of random family members show up at your door, Bradford suggests that a great hostess must be able to throw together dinner at a moment’s notice, and always with a smile. “Whatever the circumstances, you should be smiling at the door when greeting your unexpected guests,” she writes. “You must make them feel at ease by being pleasant and unruffled.” If you are not able to do so, that will embarrass your husband, a fate worse than death.
Claire McCracken is an illustrator, tattooist, and graphic designer who specializes in drawing anthropomorphic objects, all things food-related, vaguely esoteric objects, and anything with a sense of humor.