The dinner party originated in the early 19th century. During this period many middle-class women in England were struggling to find suitable husband i.e. someone with the means to take care of the women financially. The reason for this problem was that middle-class women did not work as it was not expected. This meant that many women were being supported by their fathers until they married, because single women (spinsters) could not afford to live alone.
Jane Austin’s Emma said:
‘A single women of good fortune is always respectable’
But Jane Austin herself remarked:
‘Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor’
This problem then prompted an ever increasing output of articles, pamphlets and books surrounding domestic issues, to encourage women to have something to offer their potential husbands. Many middle-class women were dependant on their parents and often had domestic servants to care for them; this left a void in their skills needed for running a home once married. The pamphlets and books provided an education to teach cooking, cleaning, budgeting and how to create a beautiful home. Over time this then became the traditional housewives’ role.
The most famous of these books was Mrs Beeton’s “The Book of Household Management”, first published in 1861. This was created for new housewives as a source of all the information needed to carry out the duties of expected by a husband.
This book was one of first to detail how to host dinner parties. It documents all the skills required, from how to introduce your guests, what order people should enter the dinning room and how to set the perfect table. This gave the middle-class women the knowledge to emulate the lavish dinner parties of the upper-classes. Mrs Beeton suggests that dinner parties should be held at least once a month as away to show off the hostess’ improved abilities. This in turn created competitiveness between the women about who could have the nicest home, be the best cook, or have the most important guests.
The dinner party was also a source of entertainment for the middle-class housewives as they had very little to do day-to-day. They were unable to work, as this was deemed socially unacceptable, because it was the husband’s role to work for his family. So, many housewives and their daughters would engage in activities such as sketching, piano playing and embroidery and while many would become proficient at these pastimes, they would still lack any real purpose and be utterly bored.
One women who echoed these thoughts was Florence Nightingale. An extract from her diary expresses her displeasure of the long days and nights filled with nothing:
“O weary days – oh evenings that never seem to end – for how many years have I watched that drawing room clock and thought it would never reach ten!”
The dinner party would provide some rest from the boredom; however, during the Victorian period there was an obsession with etiquette, propriety and social rank. There was a constant fear of immoral behaviour — either accidental or otherwise. For example should a guest be rude at your party then the host would be blamed and often shunned from any further social engagements. Therefore, all guests and hosts were so fearful of immoral behaviour that extreme propriety developed as away to safeguard against social incursions during the party, and this became common place in day-to-day behaviour.
Throughout the early 20th century an increasing amount of cookery books and magazines were published, with more information and how to guides on becoming the perfect housewife. By the mid-20th century, women would be expected to be a proficient housewife, as domestic science was taught in school. Being able to cook, clean and raise children were defined as being the women’s role. Dinner parties where a big part of this education as being able to host a dinner party for the husband’s work colleagues and their wives was seen as away of self-promotion for the husband and his family.
These ideologies that women run the home lasted into 1970’s to 80’s but eventually gave way to change and women where able to leave the home, have careers and have lives away from children, cooking and cleaning. However, due to the expanse of time (over a century) the values from Mrs Beeton’s Household Management, and many more since, are still quite prominent. For example, there are many websites dedicated to helping people understand their role as a host, how to prepare a 3 course meal and how to set a table. This shows that people still feel that they have a social protocol to follow, that is expected from a dinner party or any social engagement.
I personally feel that all of the literature that has been, and continues to be, published caused many women and men to feel the pressure and the expectation put upon them to be the perfect host. Though I do feel that a fear of social ruin is is still in the forefront of people’s minds when planning social events at home. In our society we do have a much more relaxed approach to entertaining at home: allowing cosy nights in with a pizza and beer, but we do still enjoy a 3 course meal that has good wine, expensive ingredients and is beautifully presented.
As a guest we like to be welcomed with open arms and as a host we hope that we able to make our guests feel welcome and comfortable in our home.
I do believe that the worry and stress that can come with party planning does hark back to the time were you were judged on your housekeeping, cookery and entertaining. We now have pressures from different sources: a lot of people eat at good restaurants were the food is to high standed and the host may feel that they must produce that level of food; magazines that show people’s homes looking pristine, with immaculately laid tables and feeling that this is what must be achieved. Online, there are endless articles on how to organise a your event and make it seem effortless and that everyone will think you’re amazing.
Although the Victorian era was such a long time ago we are still feeling their sense of social propriety an even though many people ignore such things, there are so many that feel the pressure to impress and provide a night to remember with no hiccups, no obnoxious guests and with a gracious and elegant host. Even if you achieve all of these things you may still feel that your guest may not return for a second occasion.
I would like to say that these things should be ignored and you should just have fun at your party or gathering and just be yourself and throw caution to the wind. However, I hold some of these fears myself. I only want my friends and family to have a great time and I feel that I can only achieve this by putting thought into any event that I plan and that is usually what makes me feel it has a chance at success. However, from the other side maybe my fears and worries are complety unnecessary and are they just built on over a century’s worth of advice which has turned into expectation and aspiration?
Some links of interest: