Why Do We Invite People to Our Homes?

This is the final article in January of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on January 31, 1909, and is an article on hospitality.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

The Breakfast Table

The instinct of hospitality is inherent in the human race. If one doubt the assertion, let him look at the story of mankind from the days of Abraham and Job until now. Furthermore, at the fact that no tribe, however barbarous, is devoid of it. The most courteous reception I had in the course of extensive travels at the East was from a Bedouin sheik on the plain lying between Jericho and the Dead Sea. He came out of his tent to assist me to descend from my palanquin, and insisted that I should enter his home. When there he summoned his wife to make coffee and serve it with his own hands. But the most marked feature of the reception and entertainment was that, although the dress and deportment of the visitors were strange to the tent-dwellers—especially the costume and unveiled face of the only woman in the traveling party—not a glance or gesture betrayed the amazement the wild men of the desert must have felt at the spectacle. There were at least 50 Bedouins in the great tent, and all followed the example set by the chief of unbroken courtesy and grave deference to the little band of guests. They asked no questions and showed no curiosity, yet were on the alert to anticipate and meet our wishes.

(An example—I observe in passing—that might be imitated by so-called enlightened communities, to the advantage of society.)

Dulled by Domestication.

Naturalists tell us, and our own observation sustains their story, that domestication dulls the instinct of animals. Wild creatures do not eat poisonous herbs and fruits. When tamed and acclimated to the customs and environment of artificial civilization, the power of discrimination between the noxious and the harmless is lost. Have we human animals lost something of the instinct of hospitality with the advance of luxury and refinement? We still ask people to our homes, and, while they are there, go through certain prescribed forms of “entertainment.” Certainly not with any thought of the wonderful truth that the instinct aforesaid is one of the hallmarks of our superiority to and sovereignty over the beasts that perish. Dumb brutes—wild and domestic—are not hospitable. Who ever saw a bear share his winter waters with a fellow outside of his own family? Or a dog resign his bone to a tramp cur—unless the intruder were bigger than himself?

Barring out natural instinct, conscience and conventionality combine to move us to open our doors to our kind. To the thoughtful and benevolent to be hospitable is a Christian duty. It is enjoined in the Scriptures over and over, in terms so strong and explicit that the obligation cannot be denied. I could fill this column with quotations—“proof texts,” as Bible scholars call them—that establish this. It is, then, plain why we ought to exercise the grace. Why we do is quite another matter.

Beginning near the foot of the list of “Whys,” the burdensome sense of social debit and credit impels 90 percent of home-dwellers to institute “functions” for the benefit of friends and acquaintances, issuing cards, writing and giving verbal invitations to enter their respective houses or rooms, and to eat, drink and be merry. From the leader of the “smart set,” who believe that a card to one of her annual crushes means enlistment among the Four Hundred, to the mistress of a five-room flat, pinching her table bills for a week before and after the “family dinner” to which she must ask the country cousins who put her and her baby up for a month last summer, and are in town for a week at a hotel—every housemother acknowledges the debt to other householders and entertainers. We may writhe and fret, but it is as emphatically a debt as that represented by the grocer’s bill. Mrs. Smith makes a dinner for the Thompsons, for whom she does not care a straw personally, because she was asked last winter to a similar function by the prospective guests. It is a bore, but she will experience, when it is over, relief as absolute as when she has paid her semi-annual visit to the dentist. Both “nuisances” are off her mind.

Mrs. Jones bemoans to her husband the necessity of “giving something before long
to pay off the social accounts against her in the neighborhood. She runs over her visiting list, growing more plaintive in marking the name of each person to whose house she has been bidden since her own last “affair.”

“At this rate we shall be social bankrupts before long!” is the winding up of the “exhibit.” “The times are too hard for a succession of dinners that might pay off the big debts. And it would take all the season to get through with them. Better have one large afternoon reception, and—”

“Sponge off the slate!” interpolates her plain-spoken lord.

She may not like the phrase, but what else does she mean?

“A perversion of the spirit and letter of hospitality!” cries the old-fashioned reader. Granted! Let her among you who has not yielded to the like temptation take up the cry.

Mrs. Rising-Parvenu finds a pretext in the visit to the city of a distinguished personage, with whom she had a slight acquaintance at a watering place—or maybe at school, years ago—for sending a card of invitation to Mrs. Haut Ton, who is intimately connected with the “star” by blood or friendship. Mrs. Haut Ton may sneer in private at “that woman’s presumption,” but she accepts the invitation, and finds in Mrs. Rising-Parvenu’s superior wealth and her motor car and steam launch compensations for the condescension.

It is a case of “quid pro quo” all down—and up—the social ladder. Some of the climbers perceive the truth. More blind themselves to the hideous mockery. Be sure none of the lookers on is hoodwinked!

Come we, now—after clearing eyes and lungs—to the pure joy of taking into the heart of the home, which is more to us than the whole world outside of it, true friends who have no ignoble reason for accepting our call to come to, and to be with and of us. We may, out of love and pride in them, summon congenial spirits to partake of our pleasure. For these are they whom we delight to honor. I think we enjoy their dear society the more when we do not break the peaceful routine of family life further than to put another leaf into the table and set on one or two plates the more.

Perhaps love suggest the favorite dish of one or both of the guests; there are fresh flowers in the spare chamber; if the expected visitors travel with light luggage, a dressing gown and bedside slippers are laid in readiness for possible demands. And when they are really here, “we take them in,” in the scriptural sense of the much-abused phrase.

Hospitality of this strain is a privilege so precious that we lose sight of the element of duty.

Which element rises into bold prominence in the exercise of the sacred obligation toward another class of our fellow-beings. Let a single sketch from life illustrate what I mean. It was my happiness to know, not long ago, an “elect lady,” whose beautiful country home was filled all summer long with chose guests. Among these were ever to be seen what an irreverent youth named (behind her back!) “Auntie’s assortment of halt, maimed and blind.” I used to think of them as “other people’s poor relations.”

Reduced gentlefolk of both sexes—pale teachers, who could not afford to go to the seashore or mountains, old and impecunious men and women who had seen better days; semi-invalids of all ages; now and the, the daughter of an old friend, forced by fortune to earn a living as shopgirl or stenographer—representatives of all these classes had, in turn, the advantage of a sojourn in the luxurious mansion and the post of chief guests. If the hostess seemed to overlook any of her visitors, it was never one of these. While they abode under her roof she bound up their wounds, ministered to the broken-hearted and gave temporary deliverance to the prisoners of poverty. She has had her reward in the “joy of her Lord.” I love to think of the full cordiality of the welcome that awaited her in the home of which the sweetest home of earth is but a feeble foretaste. I could fancy, when the end came, that I caught the echo of the Master’s plaudit:

“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done unto Me.”

This is the highest order of hospitality, the noblest exercise of the heaven-born grace.

Marion Harland

Family Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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