‘At Homes’, tea parties, and tea dances: social etiquette in 1939

ADN-Zentralbild/ Archiv Berlin 1926 Im Garten des Berliner Hotels "Esplanada" spielt zum 5 Uhr-Tee eine Jazzband. 17187-26

The always informative and entertaining Everybody’s Best Friend (n.d. but c 1939) devotes many pages to modern etiquette, some of which reminds us today of how much has changed over the intervening years.

Take, for instance, the etiquette of social occasions. ‘ At Homes ‘ were once common. Here is some advice.

I am attending a formal “At Home “ shortly. As this will be my first experience of this event, what may I expect the procedure to be?

Unless you receive a card stating a particular hour, do not arrive at the house earlier than 3.30 p.m., nor later that 5.30.A heavy coat or a rain-coat should be left in the hall, but the hat is not removed. You will be greeted by your hostess and introduced to other guests.

Usually the hostess will offer a cup of tea and a morsel of bread and butter or cake.

A visit on an “ At Home “ day normally lasts for twenty minutes to half an hour. You should not stay longer unless especially asked to do so by your hostess. Take your leave quietly. Friends who arrive later will not be leaving at the same time, so you do not want to interrupt the proceedings by your departure. Shake hands with your hostess and just smile and bow to the others.

There were specific rules for tea parties too.

I am thinking of asking to a little tea party some of the girls in the office where I worked before marriage. What sort of invitations should be issued and what should I put on the table?

Invitations to a tea-party take the form of little notes something like this:-

“ Dear _____,

“ I am having a few friends to tea on Saturday next, December18, at 4.30p.m., and should be happy if you would join us.

                                                                                “Yours sincerely,


Tea should be set out beforehand in the drawing-room though, of course, the tea itself will not be made until the guests have assembled. It is not advisable to wait for any one of your guests who is very late; some of the others no doubt have engagements for the evening.

Provide thin bread and butte, tiny sandwiches and a few simple cakes, or  a plate of cut cake. You do not want jam or anything of that kind on the table, nor should you have a display of rich cakes. The meal is, intentionally, very simple.


What about tea dances, whatever they were.


What is the correct dress to wear for a tea dance, and should the hat be kept on? 

Any ordinary afternoon frock can be worn for a tea dance. Coats and gloves are laid aside. Strictly, the hat should be worn, but there is a tendency these days to ignore that ruling, especially as so many girls now prefer to go bareheaded at times. So one’s own preference in the matter may be followed.


As for dinner parties…


Having settled down after our honeymoon, my husband and I would like to give a little dinner party to a few friends. When should the invitations be sent ? How should the couples be paired at the table ? Is it usual for the ladies to retire to the drawing- room before the men?

The invitations should be sent out to three weeks ahead. They may be written or made verbally. On arrival the guests should leave their wraps in the hall or in the appointed “ cloak room “.Assuming you have a maid, she will announce the names of the guests as they enter the drawing- room, where you and your husband will receive them. Introductions should be made and at the same time guests paired off in accordance with a pre-arranged plan. An engaged couple should be placed together, but a husband and wife, brother and sister, mother and son, or father and daughter should be separated.

When proceeding to the drawing-room, the host goes first with the lady whose age of social standing gives her precedence. The guests follow as paired, the hostess coming last with the most distinguished gentleman present. The host takes the bottom of the table with his partner to his right. The hostess takes the top of the table with her partner to the left. Each other man seats himself to the left of his partner.

The guests are served in turn—not all the ladies first—starting with the lady taken in by the host.

It is not usual now for the ladies to retire to the drawing-room before the men. Most ladies smoke and they remain for a cigarette with the male guests. Then they all adjourn to the drawing room together at the suggestion of the hostess. Coffee may be served at the dinner table, but the modern custom is to serve it in the drawing-room.


And “ decorations“. What the hell… ?


My husband and I have been invited to a dinner given by a local celebrity. Printed at the corner of the card is the word “ Decorations. “ Should my husband wear his war medals?

The word “Decorations“ on a dinner invitation ahs a special significance even to those who have none to wear. It implies that the diner is a “ dressy “ as possible. You, therefore, should wear full evening dress and any jewellery you wish. Your husband should also wear full evening dress and miniature reproductions of his medals, which can be purchased for a few shillings. He should not wear the actual medals, which are only worn on prescribed occasions.



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