TWO world wars wrought havoc on dinner-party etiquette in middle-class, middle-aged Britain. By the Fifties, new electrical appliances were beginning to replace domestic servants. But the conscientious and frequent hostess still had a problem: how could she serve a hot dinner and still be on hand to entertain her guests?
The LG Hawkins Company had introduced its heated sideboard in 1931, but it was not until 22 years later that one of its designers, Polish-born Eddy Maciejewski, thought of making it mobile. The new plug-in heated sideboard on wheels, all metal plate and tubular steel, was like a hospital trolley. It was named the Hostess and launched in 1953. For more than a decade it brought dinner party culture to the new, burgeoning middle class. Now, a steaming main course of meat and two vegetables could be secreted in the top and left to stew gently while its creator sipped Martini with her guests. When the time came to eat, the hostess opened up the top and presto] Not only the hot main course, but in the cupboard beneath, heated plates and rhubarb crumble for later.
But the Hostess trolley had drawbacks. As a cheap substitute for real servants, its social acceptability was questionable. Its unseemly modernity also made it look incongruous among the dining room furniture, and the manufacturers set about disguising it. Today the Hostess's camouflages range from the basic Console (like an office filing cabinet covered in wood-effect Fablon) for around pounds 175, to a version in antique pine with round pine doorknobs and what looks like an oak or curl mahogany commode with concealed castors for more than pounds 1,000.
The Hostess is a relic of the old order struggling to adapt to the new. But in its embodiment of home entertaining as an institution primarily for meeting rather than eating, it is as British as the napkin ring. And although it is unacceptable among the new generation of foodies, last year Philips (which took over the company two decades ago) celebrated the sale of its millionth trolley. It seems our reputation for grey and soggy vegetables isn't dead yet.
The top price of a Hostess trolley is pounds 700, not over pounds 1,000 as stated last week.