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The Edwardian Garden Party

Garden Party at Downton Abbey
Garden Party at Downton Abbey © killcolor

Garden parties were the easiest and most informal manner of entertaining. As part of the duty owed the county, it was expected that at least once a year, preferable in August or September, the beautiful grounds of the lord of the manor were opened for guests to roam about the park, row on the lake, play lawn tennis on the lawn, to wander through the winding paths, to admire the gardens, and saunter through the conservatories. If the sun were too strong, the reception rooms were opened for these guests, allowing them respite from the heat in the cool and elegant interiors of a castle or palace or house mostly closed off to strangers.

Invitations to a garden party were issued in the name of the hostess, and sent three weeks to a week in advance of the date. Rather than formal invitation cards, “At Home” cards were used, with the words “Tennis” or “Croquet” printed in the corner, with the date of the party written beneath the hostess’s name, and the time above it. The arrangements for a garden party included a good supply of garden-chairs and seats placed on the lawn and about the grounds, rugs spread on the grass for sitting, and several sets of croquet provided for players. At large garden-parties, a band was necessary, and the band of the regiment quartered in the vicinity was frequently borrowed for the occasion.

Sybil, Mary, and Edith
The Crawley daughters

A typical garden party began at four, and unless dancing was specified, the party ended around seven or eight o’clock in the evening. When the guests arrived, they were conducted to the garden, where the hostess stood near the entrance or a tent, to receive her guests. The host or son of the house had a duty to starting tennis or croquet on the lawn, arranging the sets, scrounging up players, and directing the game. Cricket matches and golf were also popular amusements, but usually undertaken only if large fields or links were nearby. Since garden parties were open to guests from eight to eighty, the content of amusements varied from the aforementioned sports, to Punch-and-Judy for the children, impromptu musical performances in the drawing room or music room, to archery matches, and beyond.

Sometimes garden parties were combined with bazaars, flower shows, or public afternoon parties, but this was not common. Since the gathering was both informal and athletic in nature, afternoon dress was advised, and for ladies, the more delicate-looking gown, the better! At sunset guests adjourned to the house for a substantial supper, after which they drive home. If a dance ended the party, it was done under moonlight on the lawn, or in one of the tents, and the garden and grounds were sometimes illuminated by Chinese lanterns and small coloured lamps hung in festoons from the trees, which made the evening scene as “picturesque as that of the morning.”

Manners and Rules of Good Society by A Member of the Aristocracy
Etiquette of Good Society by Lady Colin Campbell

Dining and Dinners


Eating dinnerNothing preoccupied the mind of an Edwardian hostess so much as the planning of a dinner party. From matters of food and drink, table service, the guest list, and matters of precedence, every detail was of the utmost importance. A dinner of tepid or cold food, of dull guests, and of seating arrangements that did not take the rank and form of each guest into account could doom a lady’s social aspirations in one evening.

Since dinner giving was the most important of all social observances, gentlemen and their wives held them much more frequently than balls or other social occasions; a dinner was considered more intimate, and invitations were sent to those one was intimate with or with those the host and hostess hoped to become intimé. In the greater scheme of the inner workings of society, a dinner party was both a test of the hostess’s position and the direct road to obtaining a recognized place in society.

When issuing invitations to a large dinner party, it was customary for the hostess to give three weeks’ notice, though, by the 1910s, the notice was extended to four to six weeks in advance. This permitted sufficient time for the guests to bow out in case of an emergency–though the acceptance of the invitation was socially binding. Invitations could be purchased at stationary shops, and were blank save for lines where the hostess or her social secretary would fill in the names of the guests, the date, and the time of the dinner. These were sent in the name of both the host and hostess as following:

Edwardian Dinner Invitation

The dinner hour was approximately eight to nine, and guests were expected to appear at least fifteen minutes prior to the time listed on the invitation. The long, slow, and heavy meals of the mid-nineteenth century had disappeared by the Edwardian era: now hostesses preferred their dinner parties swift and filling (though this was taken to the extreme by Gilded Age hostess Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, who would hurry her guests through eight or nine courses in forty minutes), most likely to make time for evening entertainments.

waiting to go in to dinnerOn arrival, ladies and gentlemen would take off their cloaks in the cloakroom or leave them in the hall with the servant before entering the drawing-room, where the host and hostess awaited them. The vogue for pre-dinner cocktails was strictly an American custom until about 1910, and once the host and hostess greeted each guest, the ladies sat and the men stood, chatting lightly until the last guest had arrived. If any parties were unacquainted, the hostess would introduce the guests of the highest rank to one another. At very large dinner parties, however, the butler was stationed on the staircase and announced the guests as they arrived, and no introductions were required.

According to Arnold Palmer’s Moveable Feasts: Changes in English Eating Habits, the custom of pairing off to go in for dinner did not begin until early in the reign of William IV, and this was refined throughout the nineteenth century until it morphed into its usual form: The host would take the lady of the highest rank present in to the dinner, and the gentleman of the highest rank took in the hostess. This rule was absolute, unless the highest ranking male and female were related to the host or hostess, in which case his or her rank would be in abeyance, out of courtesy to the other guests.

Another don’t was for a husband and wife, father and daughter, or mother and son, to be sent in to dinner together. The hostess was advised to invite an equal number of men and women, though it was usual to invite two or more gentlemen than there were ladies, so that married ladies would not be obligated to go in to dinner with each others’ husbands only. Should the numbers be skewed, if there were more women than men, the ladies of highest rank would be taken into dinner by the gentlemen present, and the remaining ladies followed by themselves. In there were more men than women, the hostess would go in to dinner by herself, following the last couple. Prior to entering the dining room, the hostess would inform each gentleman whom he would take in to dinner.

The host remained standing until the guests had taken their seats, and he motioned to each couple where he wished them to sit. When the host did not indicate where the guests were to sit, precedence took over, and each lady and gentleman sat near the host or hostess according to their rank. The host and the lady he took in to dinner sat at the bottom of the table, she sitting at his right hand. The hostess sat at the top of the table, and the gentleman who brought her in to dinner sat at her left. According to precedence, the lady second in rank sat at the host’s left hand, and the other female guests sat at the right of the gentleman who took her in to dinner. Place cards with the names of each guest were used at large dinner parties, and in some instances, the name of each guest was printed on a menu and placed in front of each cover. The menus themselves were placed along the table, each viewable by one or two persons. These menus could be simple or elaborate, depending on the hostess’s tastes, and the dishes available in each course were written in French.

table settingFor table decoration, there were a number of variations available, though they were largely a matter of taste than of etiquette. The basic table setting was of a mixture of high and low center pieces, low specimen glasses placed the length of the table, and trails of creepers and flowers laid on the tablecloth. The fruit to be eaten for dessert was usually arranged down the center of the table, amidst the flowers and plate. Some dinner tables were decorated with a variety of French conceits (centerpieces), whilst others were sparse, save for the flowers and the plate. Lighting was an important feature, and though electric lights were in vogue when possible, it was not uncommon to dine by old-fashioned lamps and wax candles. Accompanying the decorations and lighting was the “cover,” which was the place laid at the table for each person, and consisted of a spoon for soup, a fish knife and fork, two knives, two large forks, and glasses for the wines being served.

Dinner-table etiquette was strict–an uneducated or uncouth person who appeared innocuous enough, would reveal his or her inexperience in a finer milieu by displaying such shocking customs as eating off a knife, or tucking a napkin into the collar of their shirt. When a lady took her seat at the dinner table, she removed her gloves at once, though were long gloves, they were usually made to allow the glove to be unbuttoned around the thumb and peeled back from the wrists. Both ladies and gentlemen would unfold their serviettes and place them in their laps.

Soups were, of course, eaten with a  soup spoon, though one spooned away from themselves and never ever slurped. Fish was eaten with the fish knife and fork, and all made dishes (quenelles, rissoles, patties, etc) were eaten with a fork only. Poultry, game, etc were eaten with a knife and fork, as was asparagus and salads. Peas, the test of true breeding, were eaten with a fork. In eating game or poultry, the bone of either wing or leg was not touched with the fingers; the meat was cut from the bone with the knife. Jellies, blancmanges, ice puddings, and practically any substantial sweet, were eaten with a fork. Cheese was eaten daintily, with small morsels placed with the knife on small morsels of bread, and the two conveyed to the mouth with the thumb and finger. When eating grapes, cherries, or other pitted fruits, they were brought to the mouth, whereupon the pits and skins were spit discreetly into the hand to be placed on the side of the plate.

drawing roomDessert was served to the guests in the order in which dinner was served. When the guests had helped themselves to the wine and the servants had vacated the dining room, the host would hand the decanters around the table, starting with the gentleman nearest him, as ladies were not supposed to require a second glass of wine during dessert. If she required a second glass, the gentleman seated beside her would fill the glass–she would definitely not help herself to the wine. Ten minutes or so after the wine had been passed once around the table, the hostess gave a signal for the ladies to leave the dining room by bowing to the lady of the highest rank present. The gentlemen rose when the ladies did, and the women quit the dining room in the order of their rank, the hostess following last. The gentlemen were left to their port and claret, while the ladies retired to the drawing room for coffee. While the ladies drank their coffee, a servant took the coffee to the gentlemen, and after a few more rounds of wine and the cigarettes and cigars were smoked, they joined the ladies. This custom, however, shortened by 1910 or so, and at times, the practice of ladies and gentlemen separating after dinner was abandoned by smarter hostesses.

Dinner ended in town about half an hour after the gentlemen joined the ladies in the drawing room. In the country, it was common to begin games or play cards into the wee hours of the night. There was no etiquette for leave-taking, and after the host and hostess saw each guest into his or her or their carriages, their duties were done for the night.

Further Reading:
Manners and Rules of Good Society by A Member of the Aristocracy
Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John Sherwood
Etiquette of Good Society by Lady Colin Campbell
The Correct Thing in Good Society by Florence Howe Hall

Hallowe’en In the Gilded Age


Comb-and-MirrorDespite its roots in European paganism, Halloween is a thoroughly American holiday. During the Gilded Age, Americans took Halloween quite seriously, even going so far as to celebrate it wherever they happened to be–as German society soon discovered when the expatriates residing in Berlin shook up the Kaiser’s capital with “games, Jack-o-lanterns, mince pies, and other Hallowe’en hijinks.” Americans of this time spread their Hallowe’en celebrations from the 31st of October until the morning of the 3rd of November, a period know as Allhallowtide.

Bobbing for ApplesDuring the Colonial era, only those who kept the customs of England celebrated Hallowe’en, partaking of such amusements as apple-ducking and snapping, and girls trying the apple-paring charm to reveal their lovers’ initials and the comb-and-mirror test to see their faces. Otherwise, ballads were sung and stories told–for the dead were thought to return on Hallowe’en. However, the customs did not take root in American culture until the late 1840s, when the widespread migration of the Irish to the United States, and the immigration of the Scottish after the 1870s, solidified the popularity of the holiday. Hallowe’en was initially a home celebration, where Irish- and Scottish-Americans hosted parties and balls, with perhaps a recitation of Robert Burns’ poem “Halloween” or a telling of Irish legends.

By the turn-of-the century the holiday was thoroughly commercialized. Halloween postcards, and decorations were soldby Dennison Manufacturing Company (which published its first Halloween catalog in 1909) and the Beistle Company. It could also be thoroughly unsafe. Now vandalism and violence in the streets terrorized the holiday, and by the 1910s neighborhood organizations came together to encourage a safe Halloween. Rather than playing tricks on their neighbors, children went from door to door receiving treats. By the 1930s, “beggar’s nights” had become very popular, and the concept of “trick-or-treating” rose in popularity and became the practice for Halloween celebrations after WWII.

Halloween Party

As for traditional celebrations: bobbing for apples, carved pumpkins, and candy corn (The Wunderle Candy Company of Philadelphia was the first to commercially produce candy corn in the 1880s) commemorated the harvest season. While it was not unusual for the children to be put to bed and the adults to depart for riotous Hallowe’en parties, the holiday became one of the few occasions where people of all ages could celebrate with one another.

Further Reading:
The book of Hallowe’en by Ruth Edna Kelley
Games for Hallow-e’en by Mary E. Blain
Food Timeline: Halloween foods: Traditions and Party Menus
Wikipedia: Halloween customs
Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History by Lesley Bannatyne
Death Makes A Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween by David J. Skal