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The Adorable, Cute, and Racist Parties of Dame Curtsey

In 1912, Ellye Howell Glover, commonly known as Dame Curtsey, was an entertaining guru. As we approach Super Bowl Sunday, when households across our great country will receive guests bearing gifts of seven-layer dip, I give you Dame Curtsey’s Party...

by Tonya Canada
Feb 1 2014, 9:48pm

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The Book Report is a series that promises to deliver exactly what it promises: reports on books by the people who’ve read them. Catch evenings of live, in-person Book Reports that will remind you of the third grade in the best possible way with hosts Leigh Stein and Sasha Fletcher every month at The Gallery at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street in New York. The next one is February 11, 2014.

In 1912, Ellye Howell Glover, commonly known as Dame Curtsey, was an entertaining guru. She had several books in circulation, including Dame Curtsey’s Book of Novel Entertainments for Every Day of the Year—just in case you couldn’t figure out what to do with yourself on a daily basis.

Meanwhile, 1912 was the year the Titanic sank, the Republic of China was founded, and Woodrow Wilson was elected, but Dame Curtsey didn't care about world events. This is not a book about history. This is a book about partying.

As we approach Super Bowl Sunday, when households across our great country will receive guests bearing gifts of seven-layer dip, I give you Dame Curtsey’s Party Pastimes for the Up-to-Date Hostess.

Now, some of you are perfectly content with microbrews and box wine, nachos and pickled pork, but Dame Curtsey is here to guide our party passions.

She says in her forward, “The schemes herein presented are all practical, many of them arranged for moderate purses, with directions clearly stated, for the benefit of the thousands of people who have no time to do their own thinking.” OK, party Nazi.

This is 296 pages of pure entertainment. Martha Stewart is an amateur compared to the Dame. No pictures, no craftastic sidebars highlighting the finer points of glue guns and glitter. It’s just a thousand reasons to invite people over, serve things on doilies, and make us wonder how we as a human race have not solved the world’s problems with paper lanterns and salted nuts.

Dame Curtsey guides us through the festive forest with a monthly breakdown.

Though there are ten to 20 suggestions on how to party each month, I will only highlight a few. Dame Curtsey starts with January and the annual standard of a Good Resolution party. Guests write down five or six aspirations and hand them to their hostess unsigned. She then reads them over a 10 AM meal as the guests attempt to pick who owns the holiday hopes.

She lists a few of the top resolutions in case we are stumped for ideas of our own:

“I will be as honest as the times will permit.” (Feels modern, right?)

“I will spend less time before my mirror—be the self-denial what it may.” (Clearly I was not at this party and did not write this resolution since my mother says I have never met a mirror I didn't like.)

“I will break no more hearts.” (This person must be sober, because really, by midnight who hasn’t broken up with at least three people in the hallway.)

Then there's this: “I will tell no more lies—except social ones, which are necessary or I should be ousted from society.” (Someone’s been reading my journal.)

In February, aside from the usual Valentine's Day and whatnot, Dame Curtsey puts her finger on the political pulse by celebrating with Lincoln's lunch as well as a nod to Washington's wafers. I am still not sure what those are, but I plan to find something crisp and inflexible to celebrate the season.

As we move on to March, it seems there has been so much partying after Saint Paddy's Day that it is necessary to embrace a “scheme” that involves laying down as a small quartet plays lullabies in the next room. After a half hour, guests reveal their peaceful thoughts. This is called the Rest Cure party. Somehow, I find it hard to believe pharmaceuticals are not mentioned.

During April and May, it’s a bevy of spring flowers, Shakespeare's birthday if you're bored, and several ruminations on what to do with eggs.

June is, of course, for graduates and brides, but like all bridesmaids, there is a twinge of bitterness couched in the festivities. Dame Curtsey lists a series of bridal omens, which include the warning that if a funeral procession should cross in front of the bride, she'll die soon after. I suspect some traffic patterns were altered one way or another depending on who you were in the wedding party.

Now it's July, the month the Dame reminds us is more than a time to celebrate our nation's birth. The Fourth of July often marks the gathering of the clan for the first time since the winter holidays. While clan is spelled with a c, this chapter makes me sense all might not be right with the Dame's world vision.

Now, I am a big fan of sparklers, ice cream, fireworks, and flag flying, but here on page 100, there’s a new kind of party. This one involves racism and a fruit plate.

It's called the Porch Watermelon party.

According to Dame Curtsey, invitations were “melon-shaped bits of green cardboard ornamented with a row of little darkies eating triangular pieces of watermelon” with the words Den O Dat Watermelon (spelled exactly as seen here) done in gilt letters across the top. I don’t think they sell those on Etsy, but maybe they do.

Seven courses of watermelon were served (iced, frappé, salad-style, cubed in a cup, right on the rind, and others) and then “after this unique repast, a quartet of darkies sang coon songs for an hour.” Super awkward. It's like a juice fast with the Tea Party.

Then Dame Curtsey casually mentions that the black folks, who I suspect are not volunteering their time, are “concealed by the shrubbery on the lawn.” What?

“The music was greatly enjoyed by the guests on the porch, the moon came up, and it was all lovely and unusual.”

Now, lovely and unusual are words I use to describe a friend’s new girlfriend or my mother's rhubarb pudding, not a watermelon party where blacks are serenading white folks from under the bushes.

Then it's August where we scale back the partying with honey teas and cucumber sandwiches. Whew. There's been a lot of entertaining, and you do get the sense that if the Dame had a successful bowel movement, invitations were dispatched immediately.

But just in case, as fall is approaching, you feel like gourds on ice are not enough, and Dame Curtsey offers up another one her personal pastimes, the Wigwam. In this game, half the players hide and have ten minutes to make their trail of corn or confetti. No mention of the Trail of Tears, of course, because we're sensitive.

Each Indian goes a different way. Then when time is up, the other players, who are “white men,” go on the trail. Now, why the quotes? They are not allegedly white men. They are white men. But the game is to see who can return to the wigwam first with his Indian, and Dame Curtsey reminds us while these are supposed to be boys' games, girls enjoy them too.

I bet they do.

What girl doesn’t love being dragged home by a white man? Sign me up.

Dame Curtsey also says it was the delight of her childhood days to “play Indian” and “I still thrill with genuine terror when I think of my fear of being scalped.” I will just state for the record, if I ever receive an invitation that includes cocktails and scalpings, I'm in. I don't care if I am under anesthesia, hiking the Himalayas, or some strange combination of both—I will travel.

We're only halfway through the book, so I will just give you a few of the holiday highlights. For October, she suggests a Ghosts We All Know party, which I guess means the dearly departed on ice. November is football spreads and turkey treats, and December includes dressing up peppermint sticks to look like members of your family. My conservative, ex-military, black father will love his face on a stick of candy. 

The Dame also suggests distributing gifts from a “horn of plenty.” 

I didn't even know I wanted a horn of plenty, but I do.

Finally, the year ends. If you're like me, you might be asking, “Where is God in all of this?” Dame Curtsey, the party oracle, knows all. God is at a church bazaar and needs to make some extra money.

One of her final chapters concerns around-the-world teas and umbrella booths, but no event is more riveting than the theme entitled “The Seven Ages of Woman.” 

Imagine a church basement filled with seven booths of wonder.

The first table is First Age and is “cleverly” represented by all things baby, including two attendants dressed like infants. The second table, Childhood, has dolls and toys galore with the ladies dressed as children from age five to ten. The Sweethearts booth comes next, filled with dainty articles of engagement, candies of love, and other heart-shaped mementos. (I personally would label this the “sucker table,” but I have never been allowed to run any church activities). The fourth table is the Bride's Table and also could be labeled Table of Suckers depending on your inclination toward weddings. This table is draped in white linen with the ladies dressed as… brides. Shocker!

The Mother's Table follows, because once you've got the ring, there’s nothing left to do, I guess, but have a baby. I love that the items for sale at this table include pies and broom bags. Why does one need a bag for a broom once you've given birth?

The next table is, of course, the Spinster's booth because it's just really wife or knife at this point. Dame Curtsey has grandly pointed out that this table is conducted “by a merry bunch of unappropriated blessings.” If anyone ever referred to me as an unappropriated blessing, I would stab them with my broom, which is not in a bag since I am not a mother.

The spinsters are selling tea and kittens that go like “hot cakes.” 

The final lap at this bizarre bazaar is the Grandmother's Table, which is hosted by the oldest ladies of the parish. Now, how did they recruit for this event? Baby costumes or everlasting life? Tea cozies? You can chit-chat with God.

Dame Curtsey has covered it all, from Easter bonnets to warm nuts. When I finished the book, I figured this doorstop has got to be out of print, so I googled the book to see if it was in print, which I am sure Dame Curtsey would appreciate because it means more opportunities to recruit others for singing in the shrubs or random scalpings.

Shockingly, I found that Dame Curtsey is alive and well, at least in paperback, on Amazon. The only thing that has changed is the font.

If I haven't sold you on Dame Curtsey's Party Pastimes for the Up-to-Date Hostess, allow me to quote the one review from July 2013. Under the subject line “an essential (for the right crowd),” Alex Embrey writes, “This is perfect for a person (or a friend of a person) who enjoys living briefly in an authentically recreated past. A group more interested in Monopoly than Scattergories may find the games too social or not competitive enough, but if the crowd is willing (and willing to forgive and presumably skip over some occasionally racially-insensitive games), there is fun to be had from appropriating the past for years to come.”

Based on that, I look forward to attending your lovely and unusual events. As Dame Curtsey didn’t say but probably felt, party on!

@tonyacanada

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