I try to buy almost everything I need or want from charity shops. Because:
1. Through excessive charity-shop lingering, I’ve slowly become dependent upon shopping in a 1980s timewarp. Everything is sequinned and £5 is the average cost of a dress. So when I venture into normal high-street shops, it is hell. There are NEVER ENOUGH sequins and it’s all so flipping expensive. Hey, nobody said this blog was classy, ok?
2. You can feel the glow of righteousness, because your £5 is going to charity.
3. You just find mental things.
Today I’d like to expand upon on point 3.
I found this gem in Oxfam Bookshop on Byres Road in Glasgow. Written by Mary Galleti in 1957, it is a comprehensive guide to hosting a party. Hold it right there if you’re dreaming of dresses with twirling skirts, seduction-by-Draper in a dim corner, an Old Fashioned cocktail with your morning meeting, and chain-smoking across dinner (and children), because nobody knew any better. We might look back on the 1950s with a yearning for a less guilt-ridden time, but this book makes clear that this decade was nothing to yearn about. Stop yearning please.
From the beginning, it is made icily clear that the hostess has one job to do. Make sure there is no aspect of your party which may eventually lead to someone having fun. There is to be no fun, and if anyone tries, you must eject them from the party they are spoiling. Unpredictability is the enemy of a successful celebration. Take it away Mary:
‘The party-giver needs expert knowledge to ‘operate’ the various styles of home entertainment coming within the curriculum of our present-day society […] The secret of the successful party-giver? Carrying out all party procedure’. – p.2
It’s still quite early in the introduction, and the tone has slipped into the language of a cagey but undoubtedly tyrannical regime. Where could she go from here?
To meat-jelly recipes. To ensure that your party does not at any point veer into anything as vulgar as ‘enjoyment’ or ‘bonhomie’ or ‘joie-de-vivre’ (European ideas, ergo, probably filthy and adulterous), you are advised to serve your guests a series of carcass-based nibbles, mostly centred on scraped-off-the-bone meat served with meat jelly. I wish I was making this up, but no. One recipe calls for eggs ‘pasted’ with meat-stock jelly. How did anyone get out of 1957 alive? Many didn’t. Many did not.
Between the Communist party broadcast and the things pasted with meat, there is also a handy list of how to address your guests, starting at the top (the Queen Mother), right to the bottom of the social hierarchy (The President of America). Interestingly, somewhere in the middle we have ‘The Wife Only of Married Couple’, who should be addressed ‘Mrs (husband’s Christian name and surname). So if you’re out without your husband, remember that you are simply there as his representative, rather than a person in your own right. Women: know your place.
I’ve been a little unkind so far. All this regimented meanness is just one side of the story. In ‘Table Arrangements’, it’s advised that as well as candlelight and clean napkins, the hostess provides two to four cigarettes at each place setting, which is ‘a polite way of saying you may smoke’ (you must smoke). There have been coy descriptions of aperitifs and wine to pair with meat-jelly, but once we got on to the Cocktail Party section, it all starts to unravel into glamorous disrepair. Now I know what we’re really talking about with this Strict Hostess shtick. The guests need to be kept in line because frankly, they are all absolutely smashed.
Cocktail Party – ‘Here’s How!’
‘Nobody is supposed to sit down, but have chairs in case one has ‘too many’ or head spins because one goes ahead without having snacks beforehand to anchor drinks’. – p.62
The grammar by this point is obviously already drunk; but aside from that, what a swift denial of rampant alcoholism, with those single quotation marks around ‘too many’. (No such thing!) Here are the eye-watering cocktails they drank in the 1950s:
The Atom Cocktail – brandy and absinthe.
The Cider High-ball – cider and whisky. (That classic combo)
The Gimlet – gin and lemon-juice.
Special mention should also go to the ‘Absinthe Frappe’, perhaps a forerunner of our modern day iced coffee frappe. It is made with absinthe, anisette, and a dash of water. Perfect for toting around in one of those giant Starbucks cups with a straw, on a sunny day in the park. Oh, I appear to have fallen over, but the grass is cushiony.
For the inevitable terrifying hangover, she provides a soothing poem:
‘Whoopee! And once more, Whoopee!
The room’s giddy, I can see!
But pink elephants up the wall,
Are not all right, at all, at all!’ – p.75
That didn’t help at all Mary. That was actually horrible. You’re still drunk.
Every so often a little cartoon will appear, which does nothing to quell fears that the 1950s were astoundingly terrible. You say unwanted sexual advances from a portly man; Mary says just play the game. You’re not supposed to be enjoying yourself anyway. Cheers!
On to Television Parties, which are for showing the neighbours that you have a television. Elegant subtext: they are at your party because they do not have a television. If I had to go to a party in 1957, I would choose a Television Party – the snacks are surprisingly good. There are recipes for mini hamburgers, mini pizzas, and deep fried cheese. Glorious. Little did Mary Galleti know that by 1985, the practise of making ‘mini’ version of fast-food would be completely banned.
There are surprisingly touching moments here and there – family parties in particular seem really sweet in their low-key style. A Christening party includes a list of baby names and their meanings (Alan: cheerful helper). This includes names that were extinct by the 1960s: ‘Cyril’, ‘Claude’, ‘Bertram’. These names all mean ‘suspect in a quaint country-house murder mystery play’. There’s advice on what colours you might choose to wear, which I will certainly be consulting from now on:
The Wedding Party section is my favourite. In 1957, weddings were adorably home-knitted and the absolute height of glamour was to marry ‘as late as possible’ in the day, have a big dinner and then run away ‘early next morning’ on honeymoon. This brief moment of fun is allowed. However, Mary Galetti includes the compelling reminder: ‘at worst, marriage is likely to be hard labour for life’. She does redeem herself by advising that the bride should at least get breakfast-in-bed on the morning of her big day. Also: marry for love; but check the laws of your country to make sure it’s legit. Nice touch.
Throughout the book, I kept wondering if Mary really believed her own advice. Did everything have to be so weary and dreary? On purpose? The sexism, the hilarious disregard for vegitarians and anyone with a food allergy (she calls them fussy eaters).
So how does a party in 1957 compare with a party in 2015?
Let us feel the enormous relief of people who are partying at a time when party is a verb as well as a noun. Partying in an age when contraception is easy and free; when you can squeeze and then marry whomever you want; when nobody will make us eat meat-jelly; when burgers are full-size; and a moderate amount of fun is allowed. Indeed, it is actively encouraged.
However, I’d quite like to go back to a time when some parties happened without anybody taking photographs. If you were not at the party, you could not see what happened at the party a few days later on Facebook. That must have been quite freeing. People back then definitely had nerves of steel when it came to absinthe. They also seemed to have much lower standards, which, as we all know, is the key to a happy life. Finally, I’ll be bold and say what we’re all thinking: everyone had much better hair, particularly the men.
Happy Sunday. Hope you partied your little heart out last night. I’ve got this poem here for you…