Solid Advice on Living Alone from a 1936 Guide for Single Women

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More Americans are living alone now than ever before. Between the 1920 and 2013, the share of single adults in the U.S. rose from 5 percent to 27 percent. Living alone, especially as a woman, has become much more normal since the 20th century, but back in the 1930s, single ladies seemed to be remaking society. “New York has witnessed, during the past 36 years the mustering of an entirely new kind of army,” the journalist Frank Crowninshield wrote in 1936, “a host composed of a quarter million capable and courageous young women, who are not only successfully facing, and solving, their economic problems, but managing all the while to remain preternaturally patient, personable, and polite about it.”

That’s from his introduction to Live Alone and Like It, a chipper self-help guide designed for “the extra woman” (which we spotted over on Vox) by Vogue editor Marjorie Hillis. If anything, in the intervening decades, Hillis's advice has become even more applicable to a wide swath of the population, and not just women. Here are nine pieces of advice on living the single life that still ring true today:

1. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.

“You have got to decide what kind of a life you want and then make it for yourself. You may think that you must do that anyway, but husbands and families modify the need considerably,” Hillis explains. But singles have the opportunity (and burden) of doing exactly what they want, without considering someone else.

“When you live alone, practically nobody arranges practically anything for you.” She hammers this point home again later in the book: “Never, never, never let yourself feel that anybody ought to do anything for you.” Go out and buy that toolbox and step ladder now. You'll need it.

2. BAN FOMO.

Hillis may have lived before the age of social media, but that doesn’t mean she was a stranger to Fear of Missing Out. She recommends suppressing those feelings, and remembering that everyone else is out living their lives, too. “Another good rule for any liver-alone is not to feel hurt when Mary Jones doesn’t ask you to her dinner-party, or when Cousin Joe fails to drop in to see you,” she writes. “It probably wasn’t convenient for either of them … everybody, these days, is busy—or thinks she (or he) is.” Still a true observation in the 21st century.

3. CULTIVATE A WIDE SOCIAL CIRCLE.

But while you may let go any resentment over not getting invited to one party, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to get yourself invited to another one. “As we have already suggested, one of the great secrets of living alone successfully is not to live alone too constantly,” Hillis quips. “A reasonably large circle of friends and enemies whom you can see when you want to, and will often see when you don’t want to, is an important asset.”

4. HOST PARTIES ...

In the ‘30s, social mores dictated that if you got invited out, you needed to return the invitation, or people would stop hosting you. While we no longer practice precise tit-for-tat party hosting, it’s true that the easiest way to get yourself to a party is to throw one. Hillis, as always, was all about being proactive: “In your own solitary mélange, parties won’t happen unless you plan them, and there won’t be many guests unless you invite them. Moreover, you won’t be a guest yourself unless you are also a hostess,” she writes.

5. ... EVEN IF YOUR PLACE ISN'T IMPRESSIVE.

Don’t think “My place is so small!” is a good excuse for never volunteering to host a game night, potluck, or dance party. “You can still feel like a grande dame if you entertain a lady living in a single bedroom with no kitchen whatsover,” she claimed—especially with canned goods! “In fact, with ingenuity and the things that now come out of cans, you can give her a Park Avenue dinner.” Just think of what Majorie Hillis could have done with Seamless.

6. GET A HOBBY.

If you want a more active social life, go out and get a hobby. “The first rule is to have several passionate interests,” Hillis declares. “Be a Communist, a stamp collector, or a Ladies’ Aid worker if you must, but for heaven’s sake, be something.”

There are, however, hobbies that might make you more popular than others, and a stamp collector is not one of them. “The hobbies your friends will appreciate most are astrology, numerology, palmistry, reading handwriting, and fortune-telling by cards (or anything else),” she writes. “In practicing any of these, you have to give your exclusive attention to the other person, which invariably fascinates him.”

7. MAKE YOUR BED LUXURIOUS.

Hillis was a big fan of the “treat yourself” lifestyle, encouraging women to buy fashionable clothes (even if no one was home to see), fresh flowers, and stylish furniture, even if most of it came from the thrift store. And she was a really, really big fan of getting all dolled up and going straight back to bed.

“It is probably true that most people have more fun in bed than anywhere else, and we are not being vulgar,” she says in the opening of one chapter. She instructed women staying in for the night to “look upon the evening as a party. Even if you’ve never liked staying in bed—we’ve heard that there are people like this—persuade yourself that it’s fun and keep at it till it actually is. Plan what you’re going to do in advance, and have all the requisites at hand—a good book, or some new magazines, or the things you need for writing letters.” But she didn’t think of it as an excuse to hang around in pajamas—unless they were really nice pajamas: “And make yourself very, very comfortable, as well as as handsome as you know how.”

8. THINK OF HOW MUCH EVERYONE ELSE SUCKS.

Living alone can be lonely and a little arduous (no one to split the bills with, no one else around to cook dinner for you occasionally) but there are always upsides, as Hillis well knew. “If all this sounds a little dreary, think of the things that you, all alone, don’t have to do,” she advises. “You don’t have to turn out your light when you want to read, because somebody else wants to sleep. You don’t have to have the light on when you want to sleep, because somebody else wants to read … From dusk until dawn, you can do exactly as you please, which, after all, is a pretty good allotment in this world where a lot of conforming is expected of everyone.”

9. EAT WELL.

“There is no denying that it is hard to make meals for one only seem worth the effort,” Hillis acknowledged, before chastising readers for scrimping on their dinner dates with themselves, writing that “solitary meals ... are a comfortably inconspicuous place to economize. But this is the wrong place, my children; you can’t be great strong girls without plenty of nourishment. And there is seldom the right sort of nourishment in a meal ‘out of the ice-box.’”

Considering that Hillis was living in the early days of home refrigerators (an estimated 48 percent of American families lived without a fridge in the ’30s), modern readers certainly don’t have any excuse for making tepid dinners for one.

Highway Fidelity: When Cars Came With Record Players

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

In the winter of 1956, Chrysler unveiled a series of improvements to their lineup of automobiles. There was LifeGuard, a latch that prevented doors from flinging open in the event of an accident. New windshield wipers promised to clean 10 percent more of the glass surface than the previous year’s model. And for those consumers willing to spend an extra $200—the equivalent of about $1700 today—there was the Highway Hi-Fi, a factory-installed record player mounted under the car's dashboard.

Using an “elastic three-point suspension,” the unit played “non-breakable” 7-inch records. In advertising copy, Chrysler touted that the discs would never skip, not even during sharp turns or while crossing railroad tracks. “It’s almost impossible to jar the arm off the record,” the company promised, anticipating the dubious looks of dealers and buyers alike.

As it turned out, attempting to spin a record while in a moving vehicle was every bit as problematic as it might sound. But before 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, and satellite radio, the Highway Hi-Fi represented the first opportunity for drivers to have some control over what they were listening to. They had autonomy—freedom to deviate from radio programmers, invasive ads, and boring talk shows.

Naturally, radio stations hated the idea.

A Chrysler car record player mounted under the dashboard
Courtesy FCA US

This bizarre automotive alteration was the result of an engineering genius who wanted to get his kid to shut up. Peter Goldmark was head of CBS Labs, a position which afforded him the resources to pursue other innovations. (He’s widely credited with ushering in the modern system of broadcasting color television.) He was the inventor of long-play (LP) records, which played vinyl at 33 and one-third revolutions per minute (RPM) instead of 78. Introduced in 1948, LPs revolutionized the music industry, packing more information onto the 12-inch discs by etching microgrooves into the vinyl and allowing producers to place up to 60 minutes of music on a side.

In the 1950s, Goldmark’s son observed that drivers had no influence over what was being broadcast via the transistor radios that had become standard in vehicles. While you could switch stations, you were still at the mercy of programming directors and their tastes in music.

As inventors tend to do, Goldmark identified the problem and then sought out a way to remedy it. His own creation, the LP, was far too big to have any practical application in a vehicle: The turntable would hang over a passenger’s knees. The 45 RPM record was much smaller but could only hold about five minutes of music on each side. Forcing someone to try and change records with such frequency while driving would likely result in accidents.

Goldmark devised a new option. Using a 7-inch record, he created a surface with ultra-microgrooves that played at 16 and two-thirds RPM. Each side could hold 45 minutes of music, a far more practical solution for people who couldn’t tend to the turntable easily. It also fit snugly under the dash, projecting out at the push of a button so the user could load a record and set the needle before pushing it back underneath and out of the way.

Goldmark made other adjustments. The vinyl records were thicker than standard LPs so they would be more heat-resistant during the summer months. He also developed a spring enclosure to absorb shocks and a counterweighted needle arm to make sure it wouldn’t leap off the record while traveling over bumps.

Goldmark tested it in a CBS executive’s Thunderbird. It worked flawlessly. He loved it.

CBS CEO William Paley hated it.

Paley equated the innovation to a form of self-sabotage. CBS had radio affiliates all around the country beaming their signals into millions of cars; those stations sold advertising spots to generate revenue. If drivers began listening to their own records instead of the radio, they were effectively diluting their own audiences. Paley thought sponsors would have a tantrum. He dismissed the idea entirely.

Perhaps feeling slightly petulant, Goldmark instead went directly to his potential customer: a car manufacturer. Visiting with Chrysler executive Lynn Townsend, Goldmark sold the company on the dashboard record player as a factory option. He rode along during a test drive, with Chrysler employees driving over bumps, railroad tracks, and other obstacles to see if the record skipped. It didn’t. The company ordered 18,000 Highway Hi-Fi units, a sizable investment that Paley couldn’t ignore.

CBS Labs mass-produced the devices, and Chrysler began instructing their dealers to pitch the add-on to prospective buyers. Each unit would come with six records, with the option to buy more through CBS-Columbia, a record label that manufactured the unique discs. Owing to Paley’s influence—he detested rock music—the choices were extremely placid. Car owners got the soundtrack to the Pajama Game Broadway musical, some Tchaikovsky, a jazz record, a dramatic reading of a George Bernard Shaw play, and songs from Disney’s Davy Crockett television series. (The latter was advertised to “help keep [kids] quiet.”) The catalog offered spoken-word reenactments of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Owing to their smaller grooves, the records couldn’t be played on conventional turntables. Given the selection, that was probably a blessing.

A print ad for a Chrysler car record player
Courtesy FCA US

The limited selection was one problem. The functionality of the Highway Hi-Fi was another. Goldmark had tested the device in a Thunderbird and in high-end Chrysler vehicles, but the company offered the machine in their economical Dodge and Plymouth models, which both had modest shock absorption. The records could and did skip, and the models were the source of several claims against the car’s warranty coverage. Local mechanics weren’t audiophiles and didn’t have the knowledge to make simple repairs. As word spread, Chrysler went from selling 3685 Hi-Fi units in 1956 to just 675 in 1957.

The option was discontinued shortly thereafter, but that wasn’t quite the end for car-mounted records. In 1960, RCA thought they had resolved some of the outstanding issues with their Victrola, which played 45s and overcame the short running time problem by constructing a 14-disc changer. When one record was finished, the unit would automatically drop another in its place. Similar to a jukebox, the needle was upside down and the record lowered on top of it to reduce skipping. Records slid into a slot in a manner similar to the CD players that were decades away.

The Victrola was picked up by Chrysler. It performed better than the Highway Hi-Fi, was cheaper ($51.75), and didn’t force users to limit themselves to the paltry selection of CBS’s custom discs. But it didn’t last long either; it was discontinued in 1961. (Another option, the UK’s Auto-Mignon, played 45s with manual switching: Each of the four Beatles was said to own one.) Before anyone could think to improve upon it further, 8-tracks arrived and soon became the portable car sound source of choice. CBS never followed through on plans to equip taxis, airplanes, buses, and other forms of transportation with their devices. In the evolution of on-demand music and auto transportation products, the Highway Hi-Fi was one step best skipped.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

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Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

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