In one of my favorite movie scenes from long ago, Greer Garson as Mrs. Miniver is sitting at the breakfast table sipping tea when the butler brings in the mail on a small silver tray. While her husband, Walter Pidgeon, studies the London Times, she tells him of the invitations they have received. It’s the only part of that movie I remember, perhaps because it was my first introduction to gracious English living. I was 13 at the time, and enthralled.
Here at Thornhill Farm we can’t pick up our mail until l0 a.m., and the only butler we have is our Butler Post Office. And we certainly don’t receive as many invitations as Mr. and Mrs. Miniver did.
Many of the ones we do receive arrive via telephone, even e-mail. It may be easier and quicker but it certainly isn’t as much fun. A written invitation is the first exciting news of something special. And you can’t tuck a telephone call into a bedroom mirror frame.
Our invitations have always been homemade and handmade. Making your own may take more time, but it’s having fun even before the party starts. At Thornhill it was often a family affair. When our two daughters were younger, we sat around the kitchen table and cut out teacups from flowered paper, pasted them on a plain note card, and then on the inside invited guests for a birthday tea party, advising them to “wear your own hat.” Sometimes we’d glue a pretty fabric to the note card. Gingham was for picnics. Once we even printed invitations on the folds of inexpensive fans from the 5 & l0. I remember a 10-year-old Beth saying, “This is more fun than the party!”
The girls often thought of the invitation ideas. For a swimming party they wrapped small seashells collected the summer before in bright tissue paper. For a friend’s birthday party, it was balloons. We blew them up, wrote the invitations on them with magic markers, let the air out again, stuffed them in envelopes and sent them flying off into the mail.
Whenever I visit a museum I keep my eyes out for postcards I can use as invitations. And art supply shops are make-it-yourself treasure chests: luggage tags, doilies, gold seals, anything that helps celebrate a party and strengthen a theme.
Not all our birthday parties were for children. For my husband Tom’s 39th birthday I sent out a conventional birth announcement, filling in the empty spaces with all the information (well, almost all …) about the big birthday baby— born June l7, l9??, weight 175 pounds, 6 feet tall.
And for a bridge party I wrote the invitations on oversized playing cards I’d bought years earlier at a Paris flea market. Once our daughters came of age and were about to be married, they wrote their own wedding invitations in their own calligraphy. On top of Beth’s invitation were clasped hands, and Louise’s had a hand-drawn border of flowers.
Now that the girls have left the kitchen table, I’ve turned to the next generation for help— including our granddaughter Meriwether. When she was 7, she designed the invitation for a lunch we were giving before the Grand National steeplechase, just a walk away from Thornhill. She had been riding since she was about 3, and her horses racing across the page were childishly charming. She also added a purple and red stripe in one corner. “Our racing colors,” she explained with a big grin.
The late Harvey Ladew, creator of Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton, was especially accomplished in designing his own invitations. For one party, he drew a Toulouse-Lautrec-like dancer jumping rope. The message read: “Why not skip over to Pleasant Valley Farm and have a few drinks?” For another, it was a topiary martini glass and shaker. Harvey had them copied by a Baltimore printer, and then added some color to each invitation himself.
I have another friend who says the best invitation she could receive is the menu, so she could anticipate the tastes of things to come. Guests want to know what’s ahead— whether they admit it or not. Can they expect cocktails and light fare? A dinner buffet? Dessert and champagne?
Especially important is the matter of dress. I’ll never forget the evening at a private party in Harford County when Tom was the lone business suit in a field of tuxedos. Neither will he. Maybe we had lost the invitation. Maybe we were just country bumpkins. Help your guests avoid embarrassment by being clear about whether it’s black tie or business attire. Most savvy hostesses now advise against any version of the phrase “black tie optional.” Is it or isn’t it? The exception, says local stationer Hannah Rodewald, is the young bride who really wants a black tie wedding but wants to give cash-strapped friends a pass on tuxedo rentals. Rodewald, owner of Pleasure of Your Company, says “black tie preferred” is a stronger way to put it. Phrases such as “creative black tie” or “festive attire,” despite a host’s good intentions, often just intensify guests’ wardrobe angst.
As for informal affairs, the words “semi-formal” or “cocktail attire” ask your male guests to wear a suit and the women to choose a dressy short dress or suit with fancier jewelry. “Business attire” is less dressy. As for “casual,” it means different things to different people in different circumstances. “I remember one client who specified Yacht Club Attire, and everyone knew just what she meant,” notes Rodewald. “Just please never print Chic Attire on an invitation,” she adds. “Talk about putting pressure on your guests!”
The envelope should let guests know if a friend or an escort is included. And for children’s parties, let parents know if they’re invited to stay when they deliver their children.
Finally, offer specific directions. Our old Quaker house is high on a hill and difficult to find, and we often draw a map showing the route with local landmarks, such as: “John Brown store on the right, next Butler Store, hang a left onto Butler Road, and look for the telephone pole tied with a purple ribbon.”
It usually works. And once guests arrive, the door is always open.
Dee Hardie is a contributing editor of Style.