Columnist Susan Wozniak: Whatever happened to folks just dropping by?


Published: 05-25-2023 3:50 PM

During my kidhood, our family spent evenings in front of the television. One sponsor urged people to “keep on hand” its packaged foods for times “when friends drop by.”

In those days, friends and relatives often dropped by, a custom that has since disappeared, perhaps as well as friendship itself has, according to several recent, well-researched stories.

Dropping by brings to mind the upper-class women of Victorian novels who set aside a day for visiting. If the mistress of the house was out, the visitor left a calling card. The cards vanished, but the custom of the unannounced visit was still with us in the 1950s.

Perhaps the ability to host unannounced guests had its roots in the post-WWII housing boom. My parents were married four days after Victory in Europe day, and, like many blue-collar newlyweds, moved into the small house owned by my maternal grandparents, a house saved by the New Deal. The construction of tract housing for returning veterans enabled young couples to have the space and the privacy to welcome their friends.

What changed? What ended unannounced visits? Technology, from the telephone to the computer. An altered distribution of wealth. New foods. Restructured families.

Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone during the Gilded Age, in 1876. The installation of lines and switchboards began immediately. In under five years, 49,000 phones were in service to a population of 50,189,209. Twenty years later, there were 600,000. By 1910, there were 5.8 million phones.

But the phone meant a would-be visitor could call ahead to learn if the family would be home. Some unanswered phone calls and a few, “I’m sorry, but we’ll be out,” answers may have dampened the enthusiasm for a visit.

Beyond the more convenient communication the phone fostered was the distribution of wealth that the private home symbolized. The wealthy always led the way. My parents moved to a duplex in February 1948. They bought a television the next year and a car the year after that. In 1951, they bought a tiny house built for the new families of returning G.I.s, which consisted of four rooms on the first floor and an unfinished second story.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Graduating amid signs of protest: 6,800 UMass students receive diplomas at ceremony briefly interrupted by walk out
Fire at Rainbow Motel in Whately leaves 17 without a home
Scott Brown: Road to ruin for Northampton schools
Track & field: Holyoke girls 4x100 relay team wins WMass title, eyes historic trip to Nationals
Amherst’s Moriah Luetjen, Logan Alfandari each win 2 titles, Northampton girls dominate en route to team title at Western Mass. Division 1 Track & Field Championships (PHOTOS)
Summer on Strong kicks off Wednesday in Northampton

It surprised my 10-year-old granddaughter that my mother only learned to drive in her 30s. As my grandparents did not own a car, my mother could not practice. Nor did my grandparents need one. They lived just off one of Detroit’s main north-south streets on which trollies ran constantly. Doctors made house calls.

More than individual poverty was the sustained effect of the Depression and WWII. Peace freed labor — now possessing new skills — to build cars and houses. Helping to complete the task was the end of rationing of steel, cement and rubber. President Eisenhower, formerly the supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces during the war, wanted the Interstate Highway System to provide a means of escape for civilians in the event of an attack.

What he built was a nationwide playground. Those shiny new cars allowed the laboring class to do what the rich had done for the past 50 years: to take to the miles of roads that were now paved. The adventure of the open road was more inviting than sitting in Aunt Ida’s parlor.

My parents and those of my classmates did not host dinner parties. However, we knew about them from films and television programs. We also knew about the cocktail party, where women in black dresses and high heels chatted with men in jackets and ties, standing with glasses in their hands.

Although the first edition of “The Joy of Cooking” was published in 1931, its timing was perfect. In the face of the Great Depression, well-to-do families released their hired help, including cooks. The book and its successors led women from the Depression and wartime rationing into the hippie era, when college women learned to bake bread. As wives in the food co-ops of the ’70s, they constantly chatted about “Joy.”

As revolutionary as “The Joy of Cooking” was, another cookbook appeared that would bring back the dinner party. It was 1960’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and, of course, Julia Child.

Gourmet clubs appeared, to which couples came dressed in their Sunday best to meet the neighbors and the friends of the rotating hosts.

What remains unspoken is that entertaining became a plan. Couples were invited to dinners and cocktail parties. No one dropped by, not even the closest of friends. Everything was organized.


Computers became household appliances. We make friends online that we will never meet. What an annual income of $30,000 bought in the late 1980s is out of reach for someone making $50,000. Parents spend more time with their children. “Play dates” are agreed upon by parents. Various services bring entertainments that were once reserved for paid venues into the home. Despite our chattiness at our keyboards, we want privacy.

Susan Wozniak has been a case worker, a college professor and journalist. She is a mother and grandmother.]]>