Mid-Century Parties: 1950s

published Dec 9, 2010
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Anyone even vaguely interested in interior decorating and design can’t help but be familiar with the mid-century modern aesthetic. Through vintage photos and movies from the era or through contemporary designs that play homage to the mid-century style, we have a pretty good idea what a 1950s home may have looked like. But authentic images of 1950s homes populated with real people are harder to come by on the Web. The decade was known for its cocktail parties and sock hops but it’s hard to imagine any such revelry in some of these sleek homes. What might a 1950s party actually look like? Where would people sit? Or would they stand? And what would they eat? What drinks were popular and where were they poured?

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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

To get a glimpse into the 1950s party scene I turned to my lovely mother-in-law. She says cocktail parties in her (rather posh) social set began with a real invitation, sent by snail mail — never by phone. Buffets were considered “not quite proper.” Fancy finger foods were passed by the host and a helper (either a friend, relative or hired staff). According to the website Food Time Line, nibbles may have included broiled grapefruit, silver dollar hamburgers, bacon wrap-arounds, Lobster Newburg spread, deviled ham-cheese dip, Chex Mix or fruit kabobs. Various tidbits in blankets, pineapple fingers, and broiled stuffed mushrooms were also popular. Mint chocolate thins and hard candies were staples at many parties.

My mother-in-law recalls that drinks orders were taken by the host and filled away from the guests, usually in the kitchen or pantry. “Guests would only have helped themselves to refills later in the party when they were fairly tipsy,” she explains. In her home, there was a butler’s pantry between the kitchen and dining room where the drinks were dispensed. A dumbwaiter went down to the basement where the old kitchen used to be. In many homes, liquor bottles weren’t displayed out in the open like they are today. She recalls a round heavy fruitwood piece that when closed was just a basic wooden cabinet. But when you pushed the circular door and it opened to display all kinds of bottles and decanters and a top shelf for cards and poker chips.

Mixed drinks and cocktails (e.g., martinis, Side Cars, Tom Collins, Vodka Highballs or Whiskey Sours) were de rigueur. If beer or ale was served it would never be in a bottle or can. There was some wine and sherry and soft drinks were usually ginger ale or mineral water. Punch was common and was served in punch bowls with matching glasses. “It was critical that each drink was served in the appropriate glass,” my mother-in-law explains.

A lot of the party accessories centered around smoking. In addition to fancy ashtrays and table lighters, some hosts had silver cigarette boxes filled with a choice of cigarettes for guests. Ashtrays were constantly being emptied into silver butlers. If the men smoked cigars they would do so away from the ladies in a separate room or outside on the patio.

Party decor depended on occasion and season, though fresh flowers or greens were a must. In my mother-in-law’s home they never used paper or plastic plates. Cloth cocktail napkins were used or possibly high-end paper napkins, embossed with the host’s initials or some seasonal theme.

Guests may have listened to Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Lester Young, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker on the “hi-fi”.

The photos above capture some scenes of 1950s revelry. These parties are semi-formal but hardly staid. There appears to be a lot of smoking and a lot of hard alcohol, possibly to take the edge off. Or maybe the need for so much booze is explained by these quotes from columnist Hal Boyle in the 1950s, found on Retro Housewife and Slow Cocktails:

“The modern wife will drag her husband to anything she’s invited to, including, probably, a blood transfusion. Anything to get out of the house” 

“The cocktail party has a simple function in modern society. Its basic purpose is to pay off social debts.”

“The cocktail party isn’t a feature of modern living. It is a factor in modern dying. Anyone who has ever stood upright at a cocktail party (and who ever gets to sit down at one?) can never forget the sinking feeling in his arches, the popping out of new varicose veins, the slow numbness as of death creeping over him.”

Let’s just hope that not all partygoers in the 1950s were as grumpy as Mr. Boyle!

Images: 1 flickr member X-Ray Delta One licensed for use under Creative Commons; 2 The Kitchn; 3 flickr member X-Ray Delta One licensed for use under Creative Commons; 4 flickr member Dovima_is_Devine_II licensed for use under Creative Commons; 5 flickr member Roadsidepictures licensed for use under Creative Commons; 6 flickr member X-Ray Delta One licensed for use under Creative Commons; 7 flickr member Patrick Q licensed for use under Creative Commons; 8 flickr member Dovima_is_Devine_II licensed for use under Creative Commons; 9 Retro Renovation