Solid Advice on Living Alone from a 1936 Guide for Single Women
More Americans are living alone now than ever before. Between the 1920 and 2013, the share of single adults in the U.S. rose from 5 percent to 27 percent. Living alone, especially as a woman, has become much more normal since the 20th century, but back in the 1930s, single ladies seemed to be remaking society. “New York has witnessed, during the past 36 years the mustering of an entirely new kind of army,” the journalist Frank Crowninshield wrote in 1936, “a host composed of a quarter million capable and courageous young women, who are not only successfully facing, and solving, their economic problems, but managing all the while to remain preternaturally patient, personable, and polite about it.”
That’s from his introduction to Live Alone and Like It, a chipper self-help guide designed for “the extra woman” (which we spotted over on Vox) by Vogue editor Marjorie Hillis. If anything, in the intervening decades, Hillis's advice has become even more applicable to a wide swath of the population, and not just women. Here are nine pieces of advice on living the single life that still ring true today:
1. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.
“You have got to decide what kind of a life you want and then make it for yourself. You may think that you must do that anyway, but husbands and families modify the need considerably,” Hillis explains. But singles have the opportunity (and burden) of doing exactly what they want, without considering someone else.
“When you live alone, practically nobody arranges practically anything for you.” She hammers this point home again later in the book: “Never, never, never let yourself feel that anybody ought to do anything for you.” Go out and buy that toolbox and step ladder now. You'll need it.
2. BAN FOMO.
Hillis may have lived before the age of social media, but that doesn’t mean she was a stranger to Fear of Missing Out. She recommends suppressing those feelings, and remembering that everyone else is out living their lives, too. “Another good rule for any liver-alone is not to feel hurt when Mary Jones doesn’t ask you to her dinner-party, or when Cousin Joe fails to drop in to see you,” she writes. “It probably wasn’t convenient for either of them … everybody, these days, is busy—or thinks she (or he) is.” Still a true observation in the 21st century.
3. CULTIVATE A WIDE SOCIAL CIRCLE.
But while you may let go any resentment over not getting invited to one party, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get yourself invited to another one. “As we have already suggested, one of the great secrets of living alone successfully is not to live alone too constantly,” Hillis quips. “A reasonably large circle of friends and enemies whom you can see when you want to, and will often see when you don’t want to, is an important asset.”
4. HOST PARTIES ...
In the ‘30s, social mores dictated that if you got invited out, you needed to return the invitation, or people would stop hosting you. While we no longer practice precise tit-for-tat party hosting, it’s true that the easiest way to get yourself to a party is to throw one. Hillis, as always, was all about being proactive: “In your own solitary mélange, parties won’t happen unless you plan them, and there won’t be many guests unless you invite them. Moreover, you won’t be a guest yourself unless you are also a hostess,” she writes.
5. ... EVEN IF YOUR PLACE ISN'T IMPRESSIVE.
Don’t think “My place is so small!” is a good excuse for never volunteering to host a game night, potluck, or dance party. “You can still feel like a grande dame if you entertain a lady living in a single bedroom with no kitchen whatsover,” she claimed—especially with canned goods! “In fact, with ingenuity and the things that now come out of cans, you can give her a Park Avenue dinner.” Just think of what Majorie Hillis could have done with Seamless.
6. GET A HOBBY.
If you want a more active social life, go out and get a hobby. “The first rule is to have several passionate interests,” Hillis declares. “Be a Communist, a stamp collector, or a Ladies’ Aid worker if you must, but for heaven’s sake, be something.”
There are, however, hobbies that might make you more popular than others, and a stamp collector is not one of them. “The hobbies your friends will appreciate most are astrology, numerology, palmistry, reading handwriting, and fortune-telling by cards (or anything else),” she writes. “In practicing any of these, you have to give your exclusive attention to the other person, which invariably fascinates him.”
7. MAKE YOUR BED LUXURIOUS.
Hillis was a big fan of the “treat yourself” lifestyle, encouraging women to buy fashionable clothes (even if no one was home to see), fresh flowers, and stylish furniture, even if most of it came from the thrift store. And she was a really, really big fan of getting all dolled up and going straight back to bed.
“It is probably true that most people have more fun in bed than anywhere else, and we are not being vulgar,” she says in the opening of one chapter. She instructed women staying in for the night to “look upon the evening as a party. Even if you’ve never liked staying in bed—we’ve heard that there are people like this—persuade yourself that it’s fun and keep at it till it actually is. Plan what you’re going to do in advance, and have all the requisites at hand—a good book, or some new magazines, or the things you need for writing letters.” But she didn’t think of it as an excuse to hang around in pajamas—unless they were really nice pajamas: “And make yourself very, very comfortable, as well as as handsome as you know how.”
8. THINK OF HOW MUCH EVERYONE ELSE SUCKS.
Living alone can be lonely and a little arduous (no one to split the bills with, no one else around to cook dinner for you occasionally) but there are always upsides, as Hillis well knew. “If all this sounds a little dreary, think of the things that you, all alone, don’t have to do,” she advises. “You don’t have to turn out your light when you want to read, because somebody else wants to sleep. You don’t have to have the light on when you want to sleep, because somebody else wants to read … From dusk until dawn, you can do exactly as you please, which, after all, is a pretty good allotment in this world where a lot of conforming is expected of everyone.”
9. EAT WELL.
“There is no denying that it is hard to make meals for one only seem worth the effort,” Hillis acknowledged, before chastising readers for scrimping on their dinner dates with themselves, writing that “solitary meals ... are a comfortably inconspicuous place to economize. But this is the wrong place, my children; you can’t be great strong girls without plenty of nourishment. And there is seldom the right sort of nourishment in a meal ‘out of the ice-box.’”
Considering that Hillis was living in the early days of home refrigerators (an estimated 48 percent of American families lived without a fridge in the ’30s), modern readers certainly don’t have any excuse for making tepid dinners for one.