Mental Floss

How to Be Entertaining: 10 Simple Instructions from 1904

Adrienne Crezo
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Being the life of the party was hard in the early 20th century, especially if you weren’t into reciting poetry or being Jay Gatsby. Thankfully, there were plenty of guidebooks available to help the uninteresting; of those, the least prominent was likely a little book called Cupology: How to Be Entertaining, authored by an Ohio woman known only as Clara. Here are 10 of Clara’s tips, directly from 1904.

1. Be a Fortuneteller

According to Clara, through careful analysis of personalities and mystical tells, a person “can become his own prophet.” The arrangement of dregs in a coffee or teacup can be interpreted in entertaining ways, as the “sensing of atmospheres” can be performed “for the pleasure of guests, both young and old.” And if reading leaves doesn’t suit you, “palm reading [or] solar biology forecasts” are equally diverting for guests and company. Here’s a condensed list of images you’ll probably see in your guests’ leaves, and their interpretations:

Accordion—Primitive talent Apples—Health, Knowledge Atlas—Sight, Seeing Bats—Moral blindness Bees—Thrift Bed—Illness or need of rest Birds—News, Singing, Joys Bridge—Some event in life Books—Learning Cake—Luxury Cats—Jealousies Children—Good omen Circles—Fine realizations Cow—Good nutriment Crescent—Love token Children at play—Universal good Crosses—Some trials Chickens—Gains Crows—Intrigues Ditch—Dangers ahead Dogs—Friends Door—Some opening Elephant—Some imposition Eyes—To observe Feet—Traveler Feet (bare)—Poverty Flowers—Joy, Pleasure Floods—Sickness, Sorrow Fountain—Public benefit Fruit—Health Hearts—Artistic love of Unity, Friends, Home Hand—Friendship Houses—Home building Jewel-Box—Wealth Lock and Keys—To be put in trust Lion—Moral courage Lighted Lamp—Great success Lock—A secret Moon—Honors Monkeys—Evolution—Darwin News-Boys—Public excitement Palms—Restful victory Bats—Thieving Ring—Contract Road—An outlook Rabbit—Timidity, Cowardice Rainbow—Sublime promise Saw or Scissors—Vexations Star—Hope, Promise Squares—Realizations Ships—Commerce Sinking Ships—Perils and loss Sofa—Social or Courtship Spiders or Scorpions—Illness, Venom Tiger—Onslaught Trees—Lofty thoughts Wheat—Plenty Whirlwind—Distraction Wavy lines—Vexations Weeds—Petty trials Window—In a new light. Scattered objects—Lack of harmony and no propitious time for action

2. It Takes Two to Party

It’s hard to be a lady, what with being constantly nervous and inept. And it’s perhaps just as difficult to be a man with seemingly no ability whatsoever to remember who anyone is or how everyone knows one another. So it’s best to have one of each, a man and a woman, to host each party. What could go wrong?

"The most successful social functions are those managed by a host and hostess," says a society scribe, "not by either alone. Leave a man to make up a party and he is sure to forget that Mrs. B. was engaged to C. before she married D., and that Mrs. C. is aware of the fact, and that the D.s and E.s have long been at daggers drawn, and he will have no eyes to detect the designs of Mrs. H. On the other hand, a woman gets nervous and fatigued with the constant effort to keep the ball rolling, and fails just where a man would succeed. What is wanted is a division of labor, and if this were done oftener there would be less disappointment on the part of entertainers and entertained."

3. Play a Game! (Ladies Only)

Ever heard of the “progressive peanut party”? Well, hold onto your hatpins, chickens, because this is exciting:

Four guests are seated about each table, and on the table is placed a crock full of peanuts. Each guest is provided with a hatpin, and when the word is given all begin jabbing for peanuts. The quartet that empties its crock first wins the game, and then the sets of players change. It is needless to say that the peanut party is strictly a "hen" function. A man couldn't jab a crockful of peanuts with a hatpin in a week, but the young women of Lamar [Missouri] played thirty games in a single afternoon.

4. Check Out Each Other’s Nails

If staring into your own spent teacup and stabbing legumes didn’t overexert you, there’s probably still time to discover your personality through the condition and shape of your fingernails. Get all the ladies in a circle (men need not apply) and take turns examining the hands of the woman to your left. Everything you need to know about her can be summed up thusly:

Broad nails denote a gentle natured person, inclined to be modest and unassuming. Narrow nails denote a studious but not very gentle nature, with a desire for scientific knowledge. White nails denote a fondness for society of opposite sex, not overstrong in health and subject to fevers. Round nails denote a desire for knowledge in general, apt to take great pride in own accomplishments, rather hasty, yet fairly good natured and forgiving. Long nails denote caution, lacking confidence in human nature, decided in opinion and strictly virtuous.

5. Amaze Her with Simple Math (Men Only!)

Men have long been at a loss for polite methods of determining a woman’s age. Here’s an easy trick, quite entertaining, that would have made for an excellent Facebook post five years ago. Simply approach the woman whose approximate age escapes you and follow this script:

"There is a very simple problem in arithmetic which very few people are able to see through, yet it is as easy as possible. I wonder if you can do it?" This sets the person on his dignity, and he or she wants to do it at once. Then you go on: "Think of a number corresponding to the numerical order of the month in which you were born. Oh, no, you need not tell me." (To make the explanation clear, we will assume that the figure is two—standing for February—and that the age is 30.) "Now, multiply that figure by 2," you continue, "and add 5. Done that? Well, multiply that by 50 and add your own age. From the total subtract 365, and to the total add 115. Now, what figure have you got?" "230," replies the person addressed, "Isn't that correct?" "Exactly," you exclaim. "You are one of the very few persons who have managed it." And you turn away to hide your smile of satisfaction at having discovered that your victim was born in February and that she is thirty years of age. You have arrived at this result by separating the figures 230 into 2 (February) and 30. And you can do this with everybody's age. Try it on your sweetheart.

Just don't ask, ever.

6. Know How to Get a Man (Probably Ladies Only in 1904)

What’s the sense in having a party if you’re just going to sit around bowls of peanuts telling people how old you are? Better have a plan, ladies, and know the rules. To get a man, a woman should:

7. Know an Off-Color Lawyer Joke

Everyone has one. If you don’t have one, don’t use this one, either.

8. Know Other Jokes, Too

Clara’s suggestions leave a little to be desired, but these are the types of jokes an entertaining man or lady tells at a party.

"Goodness," exclaimed the nervous visitor. "What vulgar little hoodlums those noisy boys are out there in the street!" "I can't see them," said the hostess, "I'm rather near-sighted, you know." "But surely you can hear how they're shouting and carrying on." "Yes, but I can't tell whether they're my children or the neighbors’."

9. Finally, a Co-Ed Game

Twentieth century party games are more fun when they don’t involve examining cuticles. (Maybe not much more fun.) Here’s a set of cards for the host or hostess. Give each guest a list of famous assumed names, then a writing implement and a predetermined amount of time in which to guess the real names of the people listed. Offer a prize to the winner, which is the person who correctly guesses the highest number within the allotted time.

10. Maybe Know Just a Little Poetry

Every entertaining person knows one great toast. According to Clara, these were always the most popular at her parties, and she was a lady who knew what it meant to please a crowd.

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