The Retro Entertaining Advice That We Should All Heed

Party tips from ladies past

By Anna Hezel

Published on August 10, 2015

When I first read Dorothy Draper's 1941 Entertaining is Fun! How to be a Popular Hostess, I was an 18-year-old in ripped jeans, living in Oakland and slowly teaching myself how to cook. To me, the book was a strange piece of ephemera, and a fount of fascination. The strange breed of affluent 1940s suburban entertaining—the elegant bar carts, the regal ashtrays, the country clubs — could not have been more foreign to me. And yet, as someone who loved to cook and throw parties, I ate up every sentence.

Some of Draper’s entertaining advice was delightfully outdated. For instance, in one chapter, she recommends inviting your husband’s friends over to listen to a sports game on the radio, being sure to serve them a large platter of “man-sized” sandwiches.

But in spite of the occasional laughably old-fashioned tip, the book was peppered with innovative ideas and taught me a valuable lesson; the women of previous centuries knew as much about throwing a good party as the frat boys of our current century. Here are three pieces of party wisdom from women of the past that still hold up to the challenges of party planning today:

Dorothy Draper, 1941: Give your guests something to talk about even when you’re in the other room.

One of the highlights of Entertaining is Fun! How to be a Popular Hostess is Draper's checklist for before the first guest walks in the door, including tidbits like "Are the children, if they are old enough, ready to say how-do-you-do to your friends before going upstairs?" and "Are the family pets ready to play their part as hosts?" and perhaps most importantly, "Are unusual or foreign magazines placed where a guest can pick them up and perhaps start an interesting conversation?" The wording may be a bit stiff, but it's a great idea. Put a few unexpected conversation starters around the room — a magazine, a strange souvenir from a trip, a book about entertaining from the 1940s — and you'll keep the chatter lively.

Alice B. Toklas, 1954: Your food can double as a party decoration.

In her famous Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, Toklas tells a story about Picasso coming over for lunch. Wanting to amuse him, she poached a striped bass and decorated it in an elaborate pattern with mayonnaise, tomato paste, and shredded hard-boiled eggs. Picasso was blown away, but also asked if the fish wouldn't have been more suitable for Matisse. With one dish, Toklas provided sustenance, decoration, entertainment, and a story for the ages. Take a page out of Toklas's book, and cook something for your guests that involves a little more spectacle than you might include in a typical weeknight dinner; a bass served flaming, or a colorful multi-layered cake.

Fannie Farmer, 1896: Save a surprise for the end of the party.

In The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Fannie Farmer remarks that "Since there are usually a few guests who stay on after a cocktail party is over, it's nice to plan for them by having one hot buffet dish, like Lentils and Lamb or Cheese-stuffed Manicotti, that you can pop into the oven and bring out for the late stayers-on." Okay, more than one hundred years have passed since this piece of advice was originally given. And yes, since then, pizza delivery has been invented. But how inviting and cozy would it be to always have something delicious and comforting for all of the people left over at your house after a cocktail party or a football game — a pot of soup, or a baked pasta stored in the freezer, or maybe just the supplies for a hearty batch of nachos.

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