The Business Guest

This is the third article in March of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on March 21, 1909, and is an article on what to do when a housewife’s husband brings home a surpirse business guest.

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

The Business Guest

JOHN MILTON was not happy in his married life. From what his biographers hint, rather than assert, we gather that Mistress Mary Powell, “a simple and apparently stupid country girl, accustomed to dance with king’s officers at home,” soon wearied of the quiet, humdrum life she led with her poet-husband, and after provoking him to stern rebuke for her follies, she ran away to her old home, under pretense of visiting her parents, and flatly refused to return to John’s household drudgery until such time as pleased her caprice. When she did come back, we are told plainly that she was more of a hindrance than a help to the student; also that she crowded his house with her own friends and kindred and paid scant attention to his erudite associates.

It may well be, then, that recollections of his own unsatisfied desires by the very force of contrast helped him to paint the picture of the first garden party of which he have any record. Espying the majestic angel through the vista of trees, and divining that he would shortly visit him, he ordered his spouse to get ready a luncheon worthy of Eden and the celestial stranger. Eve’s ready promise too—

“Haste, and from each bough and brake,
Each plant and juiciest gourd, to pluck such choice
To entertain our angel guest, as he,
Beholding, shall confess that here on earth
God hath dispensed His bounties as in heaven—”

has stood for over two centuries as a model example for the housewife whose husband, without or with warning, brings home a Business Guest to partake of her hospitality.

A more authentic instance of early and gracious hospitality in like circumstances is the beautiful story of Abraham’s entertainment of the three men who appeared to him as he sat in his tent door under the oak of Mamre in the heat of the day. After seating them in the grateful shade and offering water to wash their tired and dusty feet, he sped him to Sarah and bade her with patriarchal imperiousness:

“Make ready quickly” (the original means in modern English: “And be quick about it!”) “three measure of meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth.”


Sarah, we know, was a bit—and not a little bit—of a virago on her own account, yet she obeyed her lord’s behest with as cheerful alacrity as the chief wife of the Beduin sheik at whose door we alighted when noon was high over the plains of Jericho ten years ago—and made haste to prepare coffee and unleavened bread, honey in a lordly dish and the “leben” our translators have done into “butter” in the narrative of Sisera’s flight and death.

Oriental hospitality is as punctilious in claims upon householder and tent dweller now as when the apostle to the Gentiles admonished the converts not to be unmindful to entertain strangers, adding for their encouragement: “Some have thus entertained angels unawares.”

If the housewifely reader be disposed to cavil at the length of this preamble, I hasten to remind her that few of the minor happenings of domestic life vex her righteous soul more sorely than when John brings home a business friend to dinner, or to spend the night. It so often falls out, in the natural perversity of “things,” that the guest who is not a friend and barely an acquaintance appears upon the scene at the most inopportune season for the family comfort, that reminiscence adds gloom to anticipation. The fact that John—the very embodiment of gentle considerateness of her convenience and happiness—“couldn’t get out” of asking the man from Chicago or Atlanta or Montreal to take “pot-luck” with his family does not abate the nuisance. You may be morally certain in the depths of your conscience that John had some irrefutable reason for imposing the alien element into the peaceful domestic brew. For he loves his home and enjoys an uninterrupted evening in the bosom of his family as much as most men enjoy their clubs. I doubt if the best wife who ever loved and respected her husband as the wisest of men fully appreciated the business expediency of asking “a man” home to dinner, even though his wife may not quite approve of the politic measure.

In our gossip of Eden and Mamre we made clear the point that the angels who dropped in unexpectedly were Business Guests. Also, that the choicest dainties of Paradise and the quick loaves and the roast veal were made ready and pressed upon the strangers before the hosts had an inking of the purport of the business. I did not say this in jest. There are lessons to be learned from every page of Holy Writ. The Martha of the twentieth century may sit at shrewish Sarah’s feet and learn of her here.

I know (nobody better!) what a jar to the orderly routine of the day is the unlooked-for apparition of the aforesaid “man.” I recall dreadful moments when he was three men. Do not smile when I say that the thought of the three who “looked in” upon Abraham, resting after a hot day’s work—perchance dozing—in the tent door, came to me with healing in its wings. I would not be outdone in philosophic composure by Sarah!

Coming to close quarters with the trial—here is where “The Emergency Shelf,” of which we talked together last year, is a stay and a solace. Without stopping to pry into the occult causes of the coincident appearance of the Business Guest with the infrequent assignment of cold corned beef to the place of honor of the menu, if the meal be luncheon or supper, or the second day’s appearance of the roast (warmed up, or down?) which you and the cook decided would just “do” for the family proper, or the more mysterious fact that the most important “man” for whom John would have you and the home show at their best, inevitably shows up on washing or ironing day—let us reason together regarding the manner in which the infliction should be met. Before we attack the “shelf,” put yourself in John’s place from the moment he informs you through the telephone that he has asked a business friend from out of town to dine or sup or lunch with him. The telephone booth being soundless and discreet, he deprecates the necessity confidentially, and hopes—anxiously—that it won’t throw you out in the least. If he have the habit of talking over business with you he hands a hurried abstract of the imperative circumstances which have urged him to this step without consulting you. He knows from past experiences how nobly you rise to the situation etc., etc., et cetera.

Putting yourself in his place, justify all that he says of yourself. Bid him bring his Man along and to rest confidently in the persuasion that you will do your best at such short notice.

Cold corned beef is—cold corned beef! Nevertheless, it may be made a shade less plebeian by the accompanying sauce of grated horseradish beaten to a cream with a little white of egg and the slices may be lapped symmetrically over one another on the dish and furnished with celery tops or parsley. Baked potatoes—preferably sweet—go well with the meat, and require no preparation beyond washing and wiping. Baked cream toast is another good impromptu dish. Begin the luncheon with sardines. Serve with them brown bread cut thin and buttered and pass sliced lemon with the sardines. The meat and vegetable and the dish of steaming hot cream toast come next. Then cake and homemade canned fruit from the “shelf.” Hot, creamy cocoa should go around with the cake. If you have time and opportunity to get lettuce for a salad, you give a touch of elegance to the meal without much expense. Season with a French dressing and pass heated crackers and cheese with it. It should immediately precede the sweets.

This schedule is designed as a suggestion of what may be done at short notice to alter the character of a luncheon. It is not likely in this age of telephones and well-trained husbands that you will not have an hour’s notice of the addition to your family group. Should the business guest be picked up on the way uptown and introduced to you unceremoniously, meet the shock with a smiling face, and make up by a cordial welcome for ant deficiencies in the menu.


Excuses and and flurries accentuate blemishes and do not engender charitable judgment. On the contrary, the stranger is led to the conviction that you are careless of John’s everyday comfort. Stand fast by the rule which every bride should make at the outset of housewifely life, namely, that what is good enough for her husband is good enough for ant other man. The clean and smooth tablecloth should be a matter of principle; shining silver and unnicked china, bright glass and clean napkins are the honest due of the man whose labor supplies the means to keep the house “going.” Study for him little niceties of table appointments and daintiness of personal appearance.

An Honored Guest.

“I have been married forty years,” I heard a white-haired lover-husband say. “In all that time I have never seen my wife sit down to a meal in a slovenly dress or with unkempt hair. And I have never been ashamed to set an accidental visitor at the table she has spread for me and the children. Such things make a man respect a woman, you will say? Yea! and they keep up the average of his self-respect. The boys and I must live up to what she believes us to be. Since she prepares for us as for honored guests, she must not be disappointed in us.”

He was not a sentimental man in the usual acceptation of the word. He was sensible and appreciative of the position his wife assigned him in his own house.

One brief word as o your attitude toward the Business Guest. Never let him feel himself to be an interloper. You may think to yourself that he might have gone to a hotel instead of deranging your plans for the day by accepting the invitation John could not help extending to him. While he is within your doors, it is your sacred duty to treat him as if he were there by your especial and cordial wish. You owe it to yourself, to your husband and to the holy name of Hospitality.

Marion Harland

Meals for a Week
The Housemothers’ Exchange

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