So you want to host a 1920s-themed party. According to the wise source known as Pinterest, most of these parties nowadays tend to look like this:
Of course, there’s nothing really wrong with a Vaguely-Twenties-themed party–but what if you tried hosting one that was a little less Party City and a little more “weekend in West Egg”? Here are some handy tips!
First off, the 1920s parties that were poured over in the “society pages” of the paper were often large formal dinners, with custom-made place cards and pale pink candlesticks and huge centerpieces of gladiolas and dozens of waiters appearing as if by magic. So if you want a really good Roaring Twenties party you may have to spend a few grand on flowers and invite a hundred or so guests (make sure you have really long tables).
Too much? Fine, then maybe you can have a smaller party–with a theme! (They loved theme parties back then.) How about a Hawaiian luau? Or a patriotic party where the hostess dresses up as Martha Washington, as hostesses are wont to do? What about a prison party where everyone dresses in striped convict uniforms (lol), or a “kid” party, where all the adults dress up as little kids?!
No? You just want a regular ol’ 1920s party, no other theme, no hundred guests?Why, I haven’t even mentioned that you could do a really fab buffet luncheon party–as Motion Picture Magazine put it back in 1927: “This combination of breakfast and luncheon is becoming very popular for Sunday mornings.”
…Fine. Let’s get into those handy tips.
THE MENU: FOOD
First, you’ll want to set up a buffet table (having buffets at parties was common back then). Shine up some chafing dishes, put out some nice china plates and serve:
Shrimp or Fruit cocktail — These chilled appetizers were always popular. If you decide to go with fruit, make sure to use some pineapple–pineapple was very trendy.
Jellied stuff — Jell-o and jellied meat were a huge deal in the ’20s too. Pretty molded fruit jell-o is sure to be a hit with your guests. But don’t stop there–you could also make sardines in aspic, or even jellied anchovy molds! The sky’s the limit!
Ham — People ate ham like crazy back then. No jazzy 1920s party is complete without ham. Ham it up!
Turkey — Also popular, as well as a bit fancier than chicken. Guys, you really want to impress your guests.
Pastry pigs — Made with sausages, these were popular hors d’oeuvres and will look swell on china platters–today we call them pigs in a blanket.
Tea sandwiches — Dainty sandwiches are a must, preferably made with egg salad, chicken salad, or cream cheese.
Salads — Here’s where you can get creative! Back then, “salad” could stand for anything from fruit salad to mixed greens to recipes involving veggies and mayonnaise. You could make a delightful jellied tomato and pimiento salad, for instance, or a nuts-and-dates salad–feel free to serve spoonfuls on gem lettuce leaves.
Cake and Ice Cream — Little chocolate cakes, lemon cupcakes, little dishes of ice cream and bon bons are just a few of the chasers that can follow your delightful meal of sardine aspic and pimiento salad. Yum yum!
THE MENU: DRINKS
There’s basically three adult beverages you need for a swell Jazz Age party:
Highballs — This was THE drink of choice for most flappers and sheiks. The ingredients are pretty simple: put ice in a glass, add a couple ounces of whiskey, and top it off with soda–sprayed from a glass seltzer bottle, of course.
Gin blossoms — The second drink of choice, and equally simple to make. Shake gin and fresh-squeezed orange juice with ice and strain into a glass. Or just pour gin and juice straight into a glass so you get to drink it faster. Some recipes also include vermouth, but that’s if you’re feeling fancy. What’s great is that the orange juice really masks that rough, bootlegged-gin taste–win!
Champagne — What’s a jazzy party without a good glass of bubbly? In the movies, at least, everyone went nuts for champagne. Be sure to serve it in the proper coupe-style glass (not a flute). And be sure to stack the glasses in a big pyramid and then fill them up, top glass first. Sure, lots of champagne will probably spill on the floor, but it will look really first-rate, fellows.
For anyone who doesn’t want an adult beverage, be sure to provide lemonade–freshly-squeezed, of course. (By the way, make sure the iceman delivers several blocks of ice for your party by the day before, if not the morning of–and it’ll take some work chipping it all up for drinks!)
Few really awesome 1920s parties can be complete without:
Streamers — Cheap, easy to put up, and colorful, a few streamers will set a festive mood right away. Even better, be sure to get those party crackers that release those skinny, curly streamers so your guests can throw them all over the place.
Party hats — Colorful cardboard hats are always a hoot, especially if your guests are getting properly silly on champagne and gin blossoms. They’re also useful to help match partners during dances!
And let’s not forget:
There’s some evidence that having balloons at a party was more of a 1920s movie cliché than something mirrored by real life, but no matter–you should totally have lots of balloons. (Ask for “toy balloons” at the store, as they’re called.) Try raining them from the ceiling–it helps if you have a fabulous Art Deco mansion with really high ceilings, just so ya know.
Ensure that your guests have the time of their lives by including:
Jazz — You should of course hire a small jazz orchestra to play all the big hits–Bye Bye Blackbird, Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue, and The Sheik of Araby are just a few. The best orchestras usually have their name painted on the bass drum. If you can’t get good musicians on short notice, have an upright piano and ukulele handy so your musically-inclined guests can play for everyone (group singing is naturally encouraged). If all else fails, go to the gramophone.
Dancing –People were nuts for dancing back then, the Charleston and the Black Bottom being particular crazes. Wax up that beautiful gigantic dance floor and let them go to town! (Guys and girls typically pair up, by the way.)
Bridge — All the hip young moderns of the 1920s were also nuts for playing bridge. Set up a couple card tables so your wild twenty-somethings can play quietly into the wee hours of the morning–scandalous!
Other Games — Of the many popular games you can play, try “Think Fast”–a sort of verbal Pictionary where topics are written on slips of paper, one person draws a topic and has to describe it for several minutes straight while everyone tries to guess what it is. Or “Exploitation,” where guests must act out the name of a film. For Robin Hood you would grab someone’s hat (“hood”) and run off with it. Get it? Get it?!
Charleston Contest — This is a staple of any good jazz party. Have a small trophy on hand for the winner. Not sure how to do the Charleston? Here’s a handy video!
GETTING SPRUCED UP
You of course want to look your authentic best at your party. This section could easily become a whole series of articles, so for now, discard the thigh-high dresses and white gangster ties and check out these very brief, generalized tips.
Guys’ Fashion — Your go-to outfit is a nice black tux. No, silly, don’t walk around in a shirt and vest and no jacket, this ain’t your backyard on a hot July afternoon. I’m not sure where the “white gangster’s tie” look came from specifically, but it’s not a must–a regular dark tie or, better yet, a bow tie will look swell. Never underestimate a nice pocket square. And be sure to brush a little grease through your neatly- parted hair, or slick it back really good for a shiny Rudolph Valentino look.
Girls’ Fashion — Get a fresh bobbed haircut and break out the shimmery hose, t-strap shoes and latest breezy frocks! The shortest skirt hem should be no more than knee-length–and remember, it’s more common for hemlines to be below the knee. Drop waists and handkerchief-style skirts are popular, and so are sashes and fancy beading. (Those super-short dresses with layers of fringe are 1960s “revival style” dresses–steer clear.) Sub that tacky feather boa for a light scarf or snuggly fur. Don’t wear that cloche hat indoors, and for Pete’s sake don’t get a skinny sequinned band with one big feather sticking straight up. There’s lots of hair accessories you can try, from jeweled bands to hair clips to satin scarves to turbans. Take your time and choose the perfect one! And don’t forget your dainty purse, you need someplace to stash your powder and rouge.
So, To Sum Up:
Pineapple, jellied stuff, ham, highballs, jazz, balloons, hair grease and the Charleston. You can’t go wrong!
Have a swell time!
Info on authentic 1920s recipes came from these two sources:
And quite a lot of goodies can be found in online copies of 1920s Dennison’s Gala books:
Don’t forget to poke through old magazines on https://lantern.mediahist.org for info on those Hollywood society parties and party games–you never know what treasures will be in store!