A Few Notes on Presiding over the Punch Bowl


Our Daily Correspondent


William Hogarth, A Midnight Modern Conversation, 1730

March 21st was my maternal grandparents’ wedding anniversary; they were married in 1946 in Silver Spring, Maryland, my grandmother’s hometown. As a child I loved to pore over the Silver Spring Standard wedding notice in her scrapbook, which contained lines like, “The church was massed with spring blossoms, a fitting setting for the exquisite beauty of the bride herself, in her ethereal white marquisette gown and flowing lace.” (“TERRIBLE write-up,” my grandmother had written in the margins.)

What struck me lately, as I reread the notice yet again, was the range of tasks assigned to the wedding guests. The maid of honor and best man were duly accounted for, but there was also this: “Mrs. Elizabeth McLean presided at the coffee urn and Miss Mary Roberts at the punch bowl.”

A cursory Internet search shows that this was indeed a thing: if you google “presided over punch bowl” or “presided over coffee urn,” you’ll come across a raft of vintage wedding and party notices, all of which describe the dispensing of beverages. What I really wanted to know is, was this duty—which sounds dull, potentially messy, and interminable—considered an honor, or was it a sort of booby prize for extra relatives? “Presides” has a regal ring, but the task itself sounds akin to light drudgery.

One also wonders whether the punch-bowl president was supposed to be a sort of killjoy: one recollection of a Savannah New Year’s party mentions that, as a rule, “One of the hostess’ best friends, dressed in a hoop-skirted gown, presided over the punch bowl, guarding it carefully in case a jokester decided to drop in a bit of bourbon.” Another write-up references “the three married women who presided over the punch bowl,” suggesting that this was no job for an untried virgin.

The most recent iteration of Emily Post, in her section on receiving lines, has only this to say: “When the receiving line is held at the reception site, have a waiter offer a variety of drinks—juice, punch, sparking or still water, Champagne—to those waiting in line. Be sure to have a small table where guests can place their drinks before going through the line.” Clearly, this is not a position that enjoys the respect it was once due, at least in some places. But think about it: who else “presides” at a wedding? The officiant, that’s who. The punch-bowl and coffee-urn women are, in their way, second in importance only to the law and God.

Here is the most unlikely thing I found, from a 2001 edition of New Jersey’s Amityville Record:

On Sunday, December 10, the Amityville Historical Society held its annual Christmas Party featuring Santa for the children, Alan Lush entertaining at the keyboard in the front parlor, and Joe and Theresa Guidice performing on harp and flute in the back room where Chairwoman Barbara Guidice presided over the punch bowl and the hors d’oeuvres.

And that really just confuses everything.