Besides being delightful time capsules, vintage entertaining books can actually offer up some good advice. While the food may not always translate, there are many nuggets of information that are useful for the modern host. Most recently, I've been engrossed by The Vogue Book of Menus and Recipes For Entertaining at Home, first published in 1964. While I don't plan on making aspic rings or ham mousse anytime soon, I did find some tips that are still applicable in 2013.
1. Parties are all about the guests (and the guest list). The Vogue editors had me hooked from the very first line of the introduction: "One mark of a good party is that the guests go away feeling more attractive than when they came." And it's just not about making guests feel welcome, but having put some thought into the guest list itself. Don't just invite people because they invited you to dinner, and you feel you must reciprocate. A successful party has guests of various ages, interests, occupations. Remember, "it is the host who sets the tone; and thoughtful hosts have a way of making even dull guests glitter."
2. Don't overthink the wine list. There are, Vogue says, two wines that can be served with any dinner menu: rosé and Champagne. If you don't know your wine, there are always those to fall back on.
3. If you don't have help, think buffet. Not having enough serving help for a sit-down dinner can cause "mild pandemonium," so consider a serve yourself approach. An à la carte buffet has several main dishes (enough of each to serve a third of your party) and some sides (they suggest one meat dish, one vegetable, one seafood dish, one starchy dish, plus a salad, finger sandwiches or rolls, and two kinds of dessert). The one big dish approach has a hearty dish with enough to feed your entire party, plus a couple smaller dishes, salad, and dessert. Since everyone has to eat the One Big Dish, don't go too adventurous with it.
4. Formal entertaining is all about tradition. While "the dinner party is the backbone of American entertaining," the formal dinner party is, "like a man's tail coat," perfectly classic. Though you probably aren't throwing weddings every Wednesday, in situations where formality is preferred, keeping to tradition saves a lot of headache and "keeps the unexpected from happening."
5. Find your niche. Vogue tells a story about a woman who, when she had a friend in town unexpectedly for Sunday lunch, invited others over, and then began to make the lunches regular events. Maybe you throw an awesome Super Bowl party or you have a knack for hosting brunch. Do more of what you love, and friends will vie for invitations.
6a. Cocktail parties should be slightly crowded, and you should let your guests compose themselves. "A successful cocktail party is always slightly crowded. Emphasis on slightly." I love that they recommend pointing guests toward a powder room, or at minimum having a mirror in the entry, so that "women [can] repair their faces before they meet the eyes of guests already arrived." No one, male or female, wants to walk into a party all haggard from the elements.
6b. Cocktail parties don't need elaborate food and drink menus. Don't feel like you have to offer up all your liquor to your guests, either: "it is not usual at most attractive cocktail parties to offer an extremely wide variety of drinks, nor to have an imitation bar." Stick to a few liquors and basics, mix in the kitchen or pantry, and serve to your guests; it's about the company, not competing with the bar down the street. Vogue has a list of what canapés should not be: hard to eat or too big, too elaborate or contrived; and "no appendage that requires disposal." Keep it simple, sweetie.
7. It's okay to cheat sometimes. The book talks about how one woman served a luncheon where the dessert was a white layer cake made by a neighbor. She could have made the simple cake herself, but she chose to make a "concession to time and circumstance." Use the store-bought puff pastry, or pick up a pre-cooked chicken. No one will know the difference, and if it makes you less stressed, all the better.
(Image credits: Sunset Dinner Party Cookbook, via Bit of Butter; Tara Bellucci)