Inside a Cold War holiday cocktail party
A time-capsule look at how Americans closed out 1957, according to LIFE Magazine
The year is 1957. Dwight D. Eisenhower is President of the United States. Humphrey Bogart just died, West Side Story just opened, and Ayn Rand just published Atlas Shrugged, her fourth and final full-length libertarian fanfic. The Space Race is on, America is falling behind: the Soviets put not one but two Sputniks into orbit this year. The second one had a damn dog in it!
The American experience in 1957 is probably incomprehensible to most of the Fingers Fam (including your humble editor.) So much has changed. Even—no, especially—the institution of the cocktail party.
Friend of Fingers Jason A. recently presented me with a copy of the December 2, 1957 edition of LIFE Magazine that he’d found in an antique shop outside of Savannah, Georgia. “I knew you were a magazine guy,” he told me. “I saw the cocktail party thing and figured you’d be interested.” Indeed I was.
LIFE was sent to the Big Periodical Rack the Sky (just go with it) in 2010, but in 1957 it was one of the most widely read magazines in the country, with a circulation of 6.1 million, according to data compiled by James Madison University’s Circulating American Magazines Project. Only Reader’s Digest and a few other publications reached more Americans, making LIFE’s iconic photography a pretty good visual benchmark for what mainstream society looked and felt like midway through the 20th century.
The December 2 issue’s centerpiece, a spread on the institution of the American holiday cocktail party titled “The Cocktail Party: Hurrah?”, is an amazing window into drinking culture of the early Cold War era, back when the the leading existential thread was nuclear winter rather than climate death, and light beer wasn’t even a glimmer in Dr. Joseph L. Owades’ eye. To document it, LIFE’s journalists fanned out to cocktail parties in major American cities like New York City, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle, as well as ritzy suburbs of Bronxville, New York, and Farmington, Michigan.
Below, I’ve arranged photos of the un-bylined spread that resulted, along with some pull quotes and commentary for your reading pleasure. Forgive the photo quality; the magazine is in pretty rough shape (it’s 64 years old, after all), so I was afraid to try to muscle it into my scanner. These were all taken with my shitty iPhone. If you’d like to see my full-size photos, I’ve uploaded them to a public Google folder here.
As LIFE’s spread demonstrates lot has changed since 1957 about how, what, why, and with whom Americans drink. (For example, the only identifiably Black people in the entire story are a pair of servants cleaning up after holiday soirée in Atlanta.) But two things seem to have remained constant across the intervening six decades.
First: Then as now, a boozy institution like the cocktail party brings out the cultural anthropologist in everyone. “As the cocktail party has spread across the nation a number of peculiar beliefs have spread with it,” notes LIFE, riffing about historical consumption patterns, drinks of choice, and social dynamics. “These beliefs are examined on the following pages.”
Second: Ambivalence towards parties was a feature of the 1957 holiday season in a way that presages, at least a little bit, popular millennial/Zoomer discourse about social anxiety, introversion, and even self-care. To wit, LIFE’s closed the lede of its fête-focused feature with the following:
As to whether cocktail parties will continue to thrive and grow, the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson may be advanced as a hopeful estimate. “Hospitality consists,” he said, “of a little fire, a little food—and an immense quiet.”
Yeesh! Big “I Wish I Was At Home / They Don’t Know” vibes, LIFE. Lighten up!
🎯 My kind of party
LIFE’s writers were extremely keen to correct their mid-century readers’ (apparently widely held?) notions of the cocktail party tradition as a monolith. Not so! “The variety of cocktail parties has proliferated beyond the wildest imaginings of the man who invented the martini,” the wrote. Takes all kinds, sir.
Among the magazine’s codified canon of high-end house parties:
The Hollywood party
The baby party
The fashion party
The literary party
The society party
The business party
I should note that it’s not totally clear whether LIFE considered each kind of cocktail party to be under the umbrella of a holiday cocktail party. But given that this issue came out in the run-up to the 1957 holiday season, it seems like a fair assumption. So I’m making it!
💃 Behavioral boozing
No matter what sort of cocktail party you found yourself attending in December of ‘57, LIFE writers were extremely keen to make sure you understood the rules. Parties, contrary to what non-LIFE reading philistines may have told you, are governed by a strict social code:
Sociologists who have studied the cocktail-party pattern-switch sum it up as follows: under cocktail-party rules, you can (1) drink more, (2) be noisier, (3) be foolish. Not only can you do these things—you had better, if you want to make your evening a success.
OK, maybe “strict” isn’t quite it. But still: a defined behavioral order was to be observed, just as lukewarm hors d'oeuvres were to be eaten, dammit. We used to be a country, a proper country. Et cetera. Moving on!
😅 Women’s work
The most ambitious photo in the spread is a multiple exposure of a hostess (Mrs. R. Craig Montgomery of Bronxville, NY, thank you every much) moving about her party demonstrating her various responsibilities for the evening’s bash. Honestly I thought this part was going to be pretty sexist, and it was a bit. But LIFE also made sure to showcase and celebrate the woman of the house’s libation-related labors:
The cocktail party hostess in her multitudinous chores expends about half as much energy as a college halfback in a tough game. But the halfback has one advantage—when the last whistle blows he can take a rest, not having to sweep out the grandstand as well.
See? Could’ve been much worse. Of course, we’ll never know Mrs. R. Craig Montgomery’s given name, because in the Fifties she was considered merely an extension of her husband (culturally, if not quite legally.) But hey… it’s probably more enlightened than whatever LIFE wrote about women in years prior, right? Almost certainly. I’ll call that progress.
🦌 “A high-powered rifle is recommended” (???)
On the subject of misogyny: I was bracing for some real “Baby It’s Cold Outside” views on broads putting out in the story’s last section. Sprawled across two pages under a subhed about hunting “party game,” it begins ominously: “No matter how or why cocktail parties are held, all bring certain creatures to light, as does the exterminator when he shines his light under the kitchen sink.”
Now I know what you’re thinking. The ol’ “sexual predators are as inevitable as roaches in the cabinet” routine? Really, LIFE?! But writers go off in a different direction entirely—and it’s just kinda weird. They proceed to taxonomize the various dude archetypes that were to be expected at cocktail parties in 1957, including:
The Paralyzed Drunk
The Self-Appointed Bartender
The Unsolicited Musician
The Last Man to Leave
Sure, that all tracks. There are dozens of listicles written much more recently that basically just follow this premise. Typifying people for readership: a media tradition since time immemorial! But LIFE ups the ante considerably over the digital content farmers that would follow its lede decades later. Remember the subhed about hunting “party game”? OK, so according to the writers, the cocktail party host is the hunter, and these dudes are the prey. “A high-powered rifle is recommended, although some collectors may obtain good results with a heavy ashtray,” they explained.
What? I might be misreading this, but it seems like they’re joking to their readership of 6.1 million Americans about gunning down guys (who, remember, they basically just invented for the purposes of this section) at their holiday cocktail parties. (Or at least, like, trapping them, or something. For… reasons?)
Very dark, stuff, LIFE!
What’s that? You wanted to know what people were drinking at these potentially murderous 1957 holiday bashes? Tough shit! The article is notably thin on a discussion of actual cocktails, but its authors do toss in this [citations fucking needed] line:
[O]nly about a fifth of the billions of drinks which will be served at millions of U.S. cocktail parties this year will actually be cocktails. All the rest will be consumed as highballs or “on the rocks.”
That’s forward-looking market research at a level of granularity that would make a Mintel analyst blush today… from a photojournalism glossy in the late ‘50s. Color me skeptical. Then again… by the looks of things, 1957 really was a helluva year.
🎁 A little extra for paid subscribers
As I was leafing through the magazine, I was struck by beautiful vintage booze ads for brands including Budweiser, DeKuyper, Four Roses, Southern Comfort, and others. As a thank you to paying Friends of Fingers, I’ve assembled a collage of those below, as well as a link to a Google Drive folder to check out all the full-size ads. Not a Friend of Fingers? Please consider buying a subscription:
I can only sustain this kind of independent coverage with reader support. If you value my work, purchasing an annual subscription to the boozeletter is the best way to ensure I’m able to keep publishing. Plus, you’ll get to see these sweet holiday alcohol ads from 1957. Win-win. See you on the other side!