Throughout history, the hostess threw
parties, put the right people together at the table, arranged accidental meetings,
charmed and fed the people they liked and sometimes, more often than not, those
they did not like in order to help a husband or politician or both make some
gain in society. There were
certain realms in which women could wield power. In the home, especially in a
time when they were meant to be “angels of the household,” the creation of an
environment of comfort and ease became the starting point. Our environments
affect us greatly. To be welcomed and shown hospitality and attention relaxes
people no matter who they are or from what walk of life they come. A relaxed
group of people can feel close and free to speak their mind, and relationships
can be formed and friendships grown.
Hostesses did this in a cultivative way, as though in a greenhouse,
leading to the blossoming of social goals being met.
is great breadth to the idea and functions of the hostess. The hostess may offer hospitality in
the form of safety, shelter, comfort, ease. The idea of the hostess as performance is not a far stretch,
in the hostess’s capacity to be present with and for others, to listen
attentively and to arrange fruitful interactions. A strange amount of control and power is given to the
hostess by those in her charge, partially because she has more information
about the setting, venue, and the others invited than the guest may have.
Knowledge is power.
and remaining calm and helpful when things go wrong is key to the role of
hostess. She can set the tone for
the entire group, as a parent might guide her child by reacting thoughtfully.
She can create a world for others to move in and a legacy that extends beyond
Look at the Hostess in Society
Mrs. Dalloway is having a party. With these words an internal film
starts to play, illuminating the dialectic. The hostess ideal and the artist
ideal are opposites. The hostess must care for and tend to people, and the
artist needs time alone to work, uninterrupted. The hostess must give, and the
artist must carefully be selfish enough to look inwards, dwelling there to find
the path and ideas. The double
character of Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus represents this internal struggle with
the external. The documentation in diaries and letters of hostesses, both in
fiction and nonfiction give us an excellent birds eye view of the way they
shape culture. In many cases, as it may have been years since these events have
occurred, we as a public have access to what would have formally been private.
This insight allows us to see the inner workings or immaterial labor of all the
work that goes into being an effortless hostess.
In reading accounts of women who were
hostesses, what you do not often see is personal details, their level of
wellness, health issues, etc.
These diaries were almost expected to be read at some point by someone
else. One never knows who the assumed reader may be, but the common separation
of the author even from herself illustrates the necessary detachment of the
hostess in her observations. “It
is only in the abstract, of course. That such structuring devices can be
separated from content. A diarist is a recorder, but she is also an observer, a
witness, and a memory-keeper, and each of these roles affects the way she will
frame her narrative. The word “observer” implies a degree of detachment, and as
an observer, the diarist frequently records events, including the personnel
involved, very much from the margins, as a person neither physically nor
emotionally much engaged” (Cultural Work 30-31).
Considering the cultural icons that a
hostess as a group has in her ranks and has made famous throughout history,
there are too many to name. However, a few that come to mind are Jenny
Churchill, Dolley Madison, Jackie Kennedy, and Adelicia Acklen of Nashville’s
Belmont Mansion. It is safe to say
that all of these ladies were playing at some politics. And having a good time
doing so. “Even if each woman dresses in conformity with
her status, a game is still being played: artifice, like art, belongs to the
realm of the imaginary” (Presentation in Everyday Life 57).
The word hospitality goes back a long
ways. In the distant past, a traveler’s life might depend on it. The roots of
the word go back at least to the crusades and the hospitallers. Following the
First Crusade, the monastic hospitaller order was founded to care for pilgrims
in Jerusalem. In time, they began to ensure safe passage of pilgrims by
offering armed escorts, growing into an increasingly powerful force. Moving forward in time
from the hospitallers, we find a less dramatic application of hospitality: the
ability to magically put people at ease.
a fine example of the hostess creating ease and achieving her own ends through
her ability to do so, we look to Adelicia Hayes Franklin Acklen Cheatham. Adelicia was born in Nashville,
Tennessee in 1817. She would have three husbands and ten children. Only four of
her children would live to adulthood. Her first husband Isaac Franklin was 28
years older than her. Their seven
year marriage before his death produced her first four children, and she
inherited from him the plantations they owned in Louisiana. This set her up for
an independent life, such that while she may have had husbands after that, none
of those men where in control of her in the ways typical of the time period.
Her second two husbands signed marriage contracts ensuring her of this and of
her freewill. In this way, she was something of a historical anomaly and an
excellent link between the past and the present, in regards to the changing
roles of women in society and the evolution of patriarchy.
was an amazing hostess in the city of Nashville in the 19th century
at the largest of her homes, Belmont (originally Bellemonte). However, it is safe to say that she
would have been an amazing hostess anywhere. Her later years were spent in
Washington D.C. She also traveled to Europe with her children after the
American Civil War, where they were all presented at the French court of
Emperor Napoleon the 3rd and his wife empress Eugenie. The French
royals were impressed with her and they become friends. The parties that were held at Belmont
under her reign as Nashville’s queen of American society, were such that she
was formally listed in a book of the same name.
would consult the almanac to arrange the biggest parties on nights when there
was a full moon to best light the road and passage of her guests, not to
mention the extensive gardens. The gazebos and trees were full of brightly
colored paper lanterns, musicians wandered about playing for her guests, and
the food was always of the best variety served in the most elegant style. She
had 6 or 7 sets of dishes each set having 200 to 350 pieces, which is necessary
when serving a 12 or 15 course meal to 20 or so of your closest friends, or
visitors in town from far away and interesting places with stories to tell.
They may have spent time at Belmont, visiting for a month or two, as travel was
much more arduous then. The role of the hostess then would extend far beyond
the organization of a dinner party.
Attending to the needs, desires, and comforts of her guests was a fully
occupying task and one would imagine that she was almost always “on.” Parties
small or large would have visited the zoo and greenhouses, art gallery and
water tower. Notable people were always dropping in. Her son William said that
he had always wished there had been a guest book to record all the illustrious
actors, poets, painters, politicians, scientists, doctors, and musicians
visiting his mother. However, he also says that the only way to get away from
the busy hustle and bustle of these constant unannounced visitors was just to
leave for awhile and travel yourself.
was, of course, not without gravity and peril, and the Civil War left no
Southerner untouched. Adelicia
faced what is likely her most well known battle during this time. Nashville
being a newly confederate city was taken back over by the Union. Many left town to avoid this, including
her second husband Joseph Acklen. He went to the plantations and stayed there
to presumably amongst other things protect their assets there. He would die in
September of 1863 due to unknown causes. This put Adelicia in a particular
situation, with the possibility of losing everything and her financial
security. She and her cousin Sarah
Gaunt set out for the plantations, traveling by gunboat and through hostile
was unusual, to say the least, that these women were traveling alone into more
dangerous areas to achieve their mission, and they relied upon their carefully
honed skills as hostesses, graciousness and charm, as strongly as their guns.
In several examples during the trip, Adelicia and Sarah used to the very best
of their ability every charm they had.
After arriving at the plantation of Angola, she paid the confederate solders
who had taken it over to guard it for them. She entertained union officers in
the area as well, feigning delight at their arrival as now she would feel
safer. She and Sarah saying they were
just out for a walk were described as being dressed in short hunting skirts,
tall boots, and with pointer dogs and guns heavily armed. Still with the same
charming delight of a hostess, she greeted the arriving solders and welcomed
them to please stay and shoot any bird they liked as all the land they could see
was hers and that the cook would prepare any of their hunting trophies for
supper for them all, and that they must stay and be her guests. She would also
ask parlez vous francais? Do you speak French? To which they replied no, but as
a solder writes his captain they could indeed speak French and could understand
what the women were saying to each other when they thought they could not. It
was a very different conversation that was going on there, in fear and
desperation, of they must help us, we must convince them, etc...
example like many from the very long story show how by hook and by crook
Adelicia and Sarah managed to, at different times over the course of the 8
months this trip took, get 2000 and 800 bales of her cotton that was under
constant threat by both sides passed safely through the blockade and to
England, where it was sold to the Rothschild family there for 900 and 65
thousand dollars in gold to be deposited for her in the bank of England and
kept safe till she and her children would travel there after the war ended for
their Grand Tour of Europe. Leaving places in the middle of the night, forging
documents, feigning illness, and as her sister Corrine say she could talk a
bird out of a tree. These two ladies took care of business and got the job done
where the men in their lives that were supposed to be helping them failed miserably.
This is the power of a hostess at its most potent. No is not a word that was
said to her and taken seriously. The strength and sheer determination shown all
throughout her life is astonishing.
When we tell the stories of history, we know their endings and that all
will be well. This is not
information that they had. It was frightening and stressful, truly on many occasions
a life or death situation, but by necessity they maintained their calm façade
and relied upon the skills they had and the outlets for power that were open to
lived more independently than many women of her epoch. Creating her world on
her own terms, only working within the confines of availability. Her role as
hostess was a powerful asset in her toolbox full of skills. There is a legacy to this independence
and owning of one’s power. After
her lifetime, Adelicia’s house would become the home of an elite finishing
school for young ladies for 61 years, known in its prime as Ward Belmont.
Families sent their daughters to the school from all over the country. Both day
and boarding students attended, many of which become famous in their own right.
You may not have heard of Sarah Cannon, but her alter ego Minnie Pearl I am
sure you have, Clare Booth Luce, Ann Ryn, Mary Martian of Peter Pan fame, just
to name a few. The suffragette movement was strong here, and in 1920, Tennessee
voted in the perfect 36, which gave women the vote in this country for the
first time. A powerful woman,
wielding her skills as hostess extraordinaire, can have a lasting impact.
Moving all throughout history, we see
shining examples of women wielding power in the form of being a hostess and
throwing a party as a medium for their goals and desires. First ladies of note
in this area include Jackie Kennedy and Dolley Madison, who introduced ice
cream as fashionable or a la mode, meaning “in the style of the day.” Another
example of note is the American Jenny Churchill, who gave birth to Winston
Churchill at a party she was determined not to miss at Blenim Palace.
the book and film The Great Gatsby, parties and hosting is reminiscent
of the Count of Monte Cristo, used as weapon of revenge and proving oneself
worthy, if not better than all the others. Going much further back to a clever lady, we must mention
Penelope of the Odyssey, keeping all those suitors at bay for years, always
weaving and unweaving the shroud as a project that she said must be finished
before she could choose, asking the newly returned odysseys to move their bed
as a test. She used her power in a subtle way. The strength is something that is passed down from
generation to generation like a great recipe. Patriarchal culture may have had
the rule of the day but that did not mean they were invincible.
Many official hostesses are involved in politics or
government in general. This is a role queens, first ladies, and wives of
important men have always played. When Dolley Madison’s husband became
President, she began hosting parties that anyone could attend. Many came and
sometimes they attracted nearly 400 guests. These events became a popular way
to meet with others from political society. She was very popular as a hostess. “Hostesses who entertain
much must make up their parties as ministers make up their cabinets, on grounds
other than personal liking” (George Eliot). These entertainments required
and continue to require a lot of work, behind the scenes, to make it all
happen. To be a good hostess could improve the business or political prospects
of your husband or whomever you choose to support.
Jackie Kennedy was a
representation of the new and modern world and the future. In her time at the White House, the
other Kennedy ladies did not always get along with her so well and called her
“the deb,” as in debutante. Meanwhile, she knew a lot more about how to run a
house like that than they did. She
also restored the White House and hosted a televised tour of it for the public.
She knew the history of those who had come before her and wanted to preserve
that as well as throw a good party and keep her kids out of the public glare as
much as possible. She famously said, “I want minimum information given with
maximum politeness” (Jackie Kennedy).
She used her skill as a hostess to exert control over public opinion, to
share no more than she chose, but to do so kindly and smoothly enough that no
one noticed the lack of substantive information.
The hostess can be seen as a puppet
master or a genuine caregiver or both, the truth is, it is complicated. The
joys of society, especially in the days before television and the like, were
enormous. People coming to visit from afar had stories to tell that had not yet
been heard in the current locale. The excitement of this is difficult to
understand from a modern perspective and requires a reorientation to grasp the
disproportionate impact. The
hostess facilitated the great joy of society and the interactions therein, with
care, intention, and an appearance of calm. There was work to it, and design. Like Mark Twain’s duck, calm on the surface and paddling
like hell underneath, the hostess let her machinations move beneath her calm
façade. Guests are unsuspecting children that interact well when properly
arranged. There is of course an element of chaos. Being able to swiftly, and
hopefully without outward agitation, defuse any negative interactions is a
great skill that seems somewhat underutilized these days.
paradox of her position is that although there is no place for her as a person,
her function is elaborated within a discourse that concerns and upholds the
status of the person” (The Hostess 226). Tending to the person herself, for
whom there is still no authentic place, is the task left to the hostess alone.
Her role is a complex one, wrought with contradiction. “The combination of
these demands made for the hostess’s job description as someone who was both
administratively dominant- that is, someone who could demand, coax, and coerce
tradesmen, servants, and family members into efficient cooperation and who had
the ability to coordinate a myriad of issues simultaneously- and personally
self-abnegating, that is, someone willing to foreground the interest, and
especially the egos, of others rather than her own. Although she was always
visible, the hostess never paraded her own talents; she was a catalyst whose
job was to set the scene for her guests to render public their interests,
talents, and ideas” (Cultural Work Book 123).
she was at once a vital presence and a negated one, creating space and
potential for others, but often not asserting her own presence and worth in
that space, being a non-person or robot of caregiving almost, creating a space
by cleaning, creating a space by being the void; while at the same time, being
present attending to detail, listening. “In previous sections of this chapter
some general characteristic of performance were suggested: activity oriented
towards work-tasks tend to be converted into activity oriented towards
communication; the front behind which the routine is presented is also likely
to be suitable for other, somewhat different routines and so is likely not to
fit completely any particular routine; sufficient self-control is exerted so as
to maintain a working consensus; an idealized impression is offered by
accentuating certain facts and concealing others; expressive coherence
is maintained by the performer taking more care to guard against minor
disharmonies than the stated purpose of the performance might lead the audience
to think was warranted” (Presentation of Self 65).
paper is about women in history and the present who have less areas of power
open to them for whatever reason, but find a way to gain it, in unexpected
ways. It hinges on the idea of
façade as a tool, or at times, weapon of society. To pay attention to as many individuals as possible at a
party, to be charming and gracious and keep going, these are the skills of the
hostess. Once the crowd is gone;
however, repair of self is necessary.
not disrupt the Matrix. Do not
shatter the illusion of other people’s expectations. The rules society has imposed on women in our western
culture are strong, the roots are deep and old, and disrupting those rules is
something that makes most people uncomfortable, and most people will do
anything to stay comfortable. Women were and often still are expected to offer
hospitality, to be gracious, selfless, and in the service of others, create
comfort, offer social arrangements. None of us are really immune to it, and if
you are they say you are crazy. To have a fainting spell or the vapors or a
headache was one way of being able to stay out of the role if it did not suit you.
We only have to read any number of Jane Austen’s novels to understand the
workings of the whole system. Which she wrote while in a room of other people
and covered up if anyone unknown or servants came into the room. Her
observations are as sharp as they can come however.
artists and famous writers were only allowed the indulgence of their craft due
to otherwise being ill or at least claiming to be. Before finding her calling and
making her escape to be a nurse, breaking through all sorts of rules, Florence Nightingale
often fell asleep at dinner parties at her parents home when she was not
fending off suitors. “The debate over the meaning or subversive possibilities
of identifications so far has left unclear exactly where those identifications
are to be found. The interior psychic space in which identifications are said
to be preserved makes sense only if we can understand that interior space as a
phantasized locale that serves yet another psychic function” (Gender Troubles 67).
seemingly subservient role of the hostess is actually a powerful one. The
hostess can, to a certain extent, control the environment that she has created,
and in many cases the reactions of the guests, if all are playing by the same
game of etiquette. Being able to compartmentalize oneself is quite handy in the
role of playing a hostess. You might be able to do both at the same time if you
have enough Tupperware, both physically and mentally.
is real? What is authentic? The inner life or the performance? The performance
done long enough must become a reality at some point. In a statement of terrifying truth, Kurt Vonnegut said “We are what
we pretend to be,
so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” It can be comforting to
do what is expected of you. Continuously trying to fight the systems of society
is tiring and likely can be more stressful than playing along. All throughout
recorded history this rings true, and we read the same meta-narrative again and
again. “No one is truly free, they are
a slave to wealth, fortune, the law, or other people restraining them from
acting according to their will” (Euripides).
Socio-Cultural Roles of Women
all of these accounts, the hostess involved on this high-end scale of
entertaining had large staffs to do the work, with their ladies planning and
organizing. The ladies though knew
enough to step in anywhere if needed.
So now, besides all the rich and famous historical people who entertain,
there are also regular folks, innkeepers, hotel staffs, and many other private
homes that are welcoming and clean, warm and well fed, cozy and comfortable. Of
course anywhere with good friends with whom you can be yourself and share a
meal together is a wonderful thing indeed. Society could not run without the hostess, and if people do
not realize that, it is evidence of a job well done.
In a broader sense, the art of the
hostess seems largely overlooked today.
We deny the designs and standards we hold ourselves to socially and
artistically. “In spite of our willingness to appreciate the expressive
requirements of these several kinds of situations, we tend to see these
situations as special cases; we tend to blind ourselves to the fact that
everyday secular performances in our own Anglo-American society must often pass
a strictest of aptness, fitness, propriety and decorum… perhaps this blindness
is partly due to the fact that as performers we are often more conscious of the
standards which we might have applied to our activity but have not thought of
the standards we unthinkingly apply” (Pres of Self 55).
Removing my own blinders and looking
personally at my life as a window into the hostess as she has evolved and
exists now in modern times, I see a pervasive pull to perform. A great deal of my life has been spent
as such a performer, whether for tourists in a house museum, pretending I am not
out of breath from my corset, which is part of the 1860s style clothing I wear
there sometimes. Or listening to one more drunk art gallery “patron” asking for
more wine and yet not supporting the event they attend by purchasing anything.
Or being the youngest and only single mother in the room at the children’s elementary
school open house and so far out of place and scared of the so-called older,
wiser professional type parents and condescending teachers. I ask, when am I
Before now I did not know the words to adequately describe
the situations I was in and the stress they caused me, and sometimes still do
cause me. Fear masked with the
very best smile I can muster, like walking amongst monsters, is what it could
feel like. Feeling them judge me constantly. I am still recovering, but if all
this and my early life can make me feel like I can relate more to women in
books and histories from a hundred years ago or more, I can with certainty
depend on their strength and what they and especially Adelicia have taught
me. I will try to the very best of
my ability to honor them by being clever, successful and brave almost everyday.
As a friend once said to me after hearing tales of my travels and my complaints
that so many strangers would stop me and ask for directions or where the
bathroom or exit was in another city I was in, I myself being a tourist,
assuming I worked at any museum I was in. Nina said well isn’t it nice to know
that the docent power isn’t just in the hoop skirts but is a presence you carry
all the time.
This presence is the air of authority and
graciousness that comes from a women exercising her power in the ways that she
feels are open to her, regardless of the year or culture in which she lives. The invisibility of the woman beneath
the façade of the hostess becomes more and more of a choice, as perceived
avenues of power open up. Society today allows a woman to bring forth her
authentic self, honestly, visibly, much more so than in the past. The degree to which women fulfill the
role of the hostess is a choice that we may make. Becoming aware of that choice helps to reconcile the
internal experience with the external performance.
Mansion archives, files and letters.
J. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, NY:
Chapman and Hall, Inc., 1990. Print.
Irving. The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life. Anchor, 1959. Print.
Susan K. The Cultural Work of the Late Nineteenth-Century Hostess: Annie Adams Fields
and Mary Gladstone Drew, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 0312295294 (0-312-29529-4).
Tracy. The Hostess: Hospitality, Femininity, and the
of Identity. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
Virginia, Francine Prose, et al, and First . The Mrs. Dalloway