Strange Social Entertainments of the Past

Times change. What can be fashionable in one century can seem really peculiar in another. This is especially true of types of entertainment. We have an old battered copy of a magazine called Social Evening Entertainments produced by The Butterick Publishing Co in 1895. It is full of ideas for social get-togethers that were popular in the late 19th century. This book has both motivated and amused several generations of our family. Some of the celebrations included are still relevant like Christmas, Easter and Halloween and there are some interesting ideas to inspire. There are others that are quaint or just plain weird.

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Frontispiece, Social Evening Entertainments, 1895

Each party theme is told as a story with a family or group of friends deciding to hold a social gathering. We learn about the invitations, decorations, food and entertainment, through the eyes of the characters. This is why the magazine so delightful to read as you are taken into the lives of people over a century ago and learn a lot about the attitudes of the time. It is a work of fiction and a social history, as well as an instruction manual.

The Artist’s Studio Party got my attention because I was interested in how the ordinary person perceived the creative life in those days. You can read it for yourself below (just click on the image). The scene was set to create the 1890s idea of Boho, with the “garret” decorated with exotic rugs and Asian objects. A drawing game was played on an easel that could be a forerunner of Pictionary, with guests having to guess the object drawn. Wooden trays were cut into palette shapes upon which the simple but probably expensive food was served. There does not seem to be any alcohol provided so it does not bear much resemblance to a real artist’s life in that period. No Absinthe in sight. And the English walnuts served in silver paper paint tubes held together by glue and dabbed with possibly toxic paint were likely to poison the guests. This type of entertainment is a wonderfully naïve depiction of the artistic life and must have provided a lot of fun for the participants who were spared the reality of starving in a garret.

There seems to have been an obsession with instructional themes. Today the very idea of a Mutual Improvement Entertainment, an Evening with Familiar Objects or a Geography party would make people come up with all kinds of foolproof excuses for non-attendance. But these were obviously popular subjects back then before radio quizzes and TV game shows. The suggestions for the Geography Party are very detailed from globe-shaped invitations to scorecards for geographical guessing games and decorations. Further entertainment consisted of a geography match with two teams who competed by answering more geography related questions. The prizes included a gold metal Grecian style stick pin and silk and globe decorated Mouchoir Case (handkerchief case).   Even the menu stuck with the theme. This is a party that you would need to study for in advance and can’t have been much fun for those with poor general knowledge about the world. Glad this type of event has died a natural death. Trivial Pursuit is much more fun.

Some quite odd party themes were for a Senses Party, a Jewel Party and a Poverty or Hard Times Party. In the senses party entertainments were based around each of the five senses with mystery substances to smell and taste, memorizing objects on a tray for sight, recognizing musical instruments for sound and touching unknown items while blind folded for touch. The sixth sense did not come into it, so no ESP games. Taste and smell did not always include pleasant things. To me the activities are a bit like some strange scientific experiment that you might never want to repeat. For a jewel party, the female guests were invited to wear as much of their jewellery as possible and to tell myths and legends about the type of stones they were wearing. It could have ended up being an occasion devoted to one-upmanship like todays socialites and celebrities walking the red carpet.

In complete contrast the Poverty Party was about entertainment without any frills. It was to show solidarity and sympathy for the poor. All items of good furniture, curtains and ornaments were to be put away, and replaced with blankets and plain linen on the floors. The hosts and guests would dress in old clothes, eat simple, homemade food and dance to music provided by local needy musicians. After the event the fabric and blankets were to be donated to the poor. I can’t help thinking that this theme is trying a bit too hard in the frugality department and it is all about the well off feeling good about themselves. Holding a public event for the local poor, who could not afford a party, with lots of food and fun would have been kinder and if you are experiencing hard times, who wants to be reminded of the fact.

There are some very quaint party ideas in the book that would have been time-consuming to produce such as a Logomachy Party. Logomachy was a word game with the letters of the alphabet on a set of cards. It is like Scrabble meets the old card game Casino. The guests were to take part in this game for entertainment. The party in the associated story was held in the springtime, so there were homemade flower shaped invitations and cardboard butterflies and flowers decorated the room and tables. Rabbit decorations were made from peanuts in the shell with brown paper ears. You don’t see a lot of peanuts at children’s parties anymore because of the allergy dangers.

The most unusual food item was the dessert: nests of whipped cream in shallow crystal saucers filled with coloured eggs made from wine jelly. Blowing the white and yoke out of real eggs created these eggs. The liquid jelly was then poured into the cleaned shells through a funnel. After it had set they were peeled to reveal the jelly eggs. This dessert would have taken a lot of patience and care to prepare, as the potential for disaster was ever-present. Jelly was very popular in the 19th century but I doubt that anyone would have the time to go to this much trouble nowadays.

While many of the social entertainments may seem out of date and rather boring in the 21st century, one can only admire the ingenuity and imagination employed in the creation of this book. It can teach us a lot about making do, recycling objects and materials and valuing the handmade over the mass-produced. There was also a great sense of community in those days where such gatherings brought everyone together, even the different generations. This is evident in an Old Folks Entertainment, where young people and their parents dressed in clothes from past decades, sang old songs and ate nostalgic food. Not dissimilar to modern 60s, 70s and 80s parties.

Perhaps popular themes of today, like Hollywood or Hippie Parties, will seem bizarre to future generations. Whatever the period everyone enjoys a good party.

One of my favorite party songs from the past is Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long. Love those 80s clothes and dancers. It is so joyful.

Kat

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