A boomer confronts the ghosts of journalists past

Everyone who would like to read something that doesn’t have “coronavirus” mentioned somewhere in it, raise your hand! Okay, you win. From humor writer and university professor Mary Kay Fleming of Crescent Springs, Kentucky, near Cincinnati, we give you “Ghosts of Journalists Past,” inspired by Mary Kay’s conviction that back in the old days, she never would have held up to the scrutiny of the old-fashioned newspaper society pages.

I’m what you’d call a casual housekeeper. Our house looks lived in and, on its worst day, resembles the aftermath of a search warrant executed by burly officers in a big hurry.

Professor Mary Kay Fleming.

Every now and then, we throw a dinner party just to force ourselves to remove the flotsam and jetsam from the downstairs rooms. I like to cook, and enjoy menu planning for these soirées, but I don’t fuss with china, fancy silverware, or cloth napkins. Even tablecloths are borderline fru-fru by our standards.

Most of my friends are equally casual, so I’ve never felt too inadequate until I happened upon the society column from a 100-year-old newspaper. A friend of mine, researching her ancestry, sent articles mentioning her family.

The old papers described elaborate engagement parties with “valentine motif with red hearts, red tulips and carnations, softly lit by lovely tapered candles.” The nuptial announcement was revealed by concealing “photographs of the hostess and her fiancé in the heart pockets of luncheon cloths.” The lengthy article left little to the imagination except who showed up with hat hair or ate too much cake.

Another secret engagement was revealed by hiding tiny bride and groom dolls in an elaborate miniature house. “As guests spied the attractive little house, the lovely young hostess radiated joy and happiness with every expression of her pretty countenance, and was showered with felicitations.”

Oh my.

A newspaper newsroom in the early 1900s.

Learning about this intimate, in-depth news reporting of the 1920s gave me pause. How would my minimalist approach to entertaining have fared under such scrutiny?

The hostess secreted cartons of books and papers in the trunk of her car just before guests arrived. She radiated exhaustion but offered felicitations, excusing her attire of sweatpants and slippers as “the best she could do.”

A lived-in atmosphere greeted each guest, with dusty unlit candles about the rooms and the harsh glow of low-end LED lights emanating from ceiling fixtures. A singular party decoration—a large vacuum cleaner abandoned in the entryway—stood sentinel to receive the visitors. A ribbon across the stairwell prohibited guests from ascending to second-floor bedchambers, which the hostess explained were “not on the tour.”

Buffet guests served themselves on mismatched paper plates from various Christmases and children’s birthday parties long past. Paper napkins of all sizes and colors advertised local businesses including Dunkin’ Donuts, Marco’s Pizza, and Arby’s Roast Beef. Early visitors seated themselves haphazardly on folding chairs and couches scattered about the rooms. Later arrivals balanced sagging plates and drinks like unpaid movie extras, while the family’s golden retrievers eagerly awaited the inevitable.

As a comfortable baby boomer, I always knew I would not have survived wagon trains and dysentery and the long westward-ho of centuries past. But until now I didn’t realize how poorly I would have fared under the bright lights of last century’s society page. I am grateful to have been spared. That is, as long as I don’t consider the withering scrutiny of social media.


  1. At my house when company shows up, the dust bunnies don’t run and hide behind the nearest “vaaase” anymore. They just lounge around on the dirty paper plate, left on a TV tray.

  2. Mary Kay- loved this! I have used my trunk to store books and papers too…you really know how to entertain!!

  3. OMG, I often have a vacuum cleaner motif at my house parties too! So funny. I love to entertain and really used to go in for all the fancy china and themes and decor–but I’m really slowing down in m yold age. Nothing wrong with a few yellow Wendy’s napkins to brighten up the generic one-ply Walmart whites!

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