clock menu more-arrow no yes

This 1936 advice manual on living alone is smart, witty, and still helpful today

Live Alone and Like It
Live Alone and Like It
5 Spot

The greatest advice book ever published was written by Marjorie Hillis, the editor of Vogue circa 1936. It’s called Live Alone and Like It, and it’s addressed to what was then a new social category, emerging in the aftermath of the Great Depression: bachelor ladies, or “the liver-aloners” — women who live on their own, without husbands or parents (but maybe don’t like it).

Sternly dismissing any attempts at self-pity — “Anyone who pities herself for more than a month on end is a weak sister and likely to become a public nuisance besides” — Hillis guides her readers through how to cope with life on their own. And while some of her advice is specific to the '30s (the topics she covers include bed jackets and boarding houses), a lot of it holds true today.

Below, I’ve collected my favorite pearls of Hillis’s wisdom. Some of it’s very 1936, some of it’s very 2017, but all of it sounds like what your favorite glamorous, well-traveled, hard-drinking aunt would tell you to do.

1) Retain a healthy spirit of defiance

You’re living alone because you’ll show them, you’ll show them all, yes? Especially your enemies? You are glamorous enough to have enemies, aren’t you?

When you start to live alone, defiance is not a bad quality to have handy. There will be moments when you’ll need it, especially if you’ve been somebody’s petted darling in the past. But you will soon find that independence, more truthfully than virtue, is its own reward. It gives you a grand feeling. Standing on your own feet is extraordinarily exhilarating, and being able to do very well (when it’s necessary) without your friends, relatives, and beaux, not mention your enemies, makes you feel surprisingly benign towards all of them.

2) Bolster your defiance through schadenfreude

As illustrated in two cases. First, the case of Miss MacD.:

For several years, she lived in an inexpensive boarding-house in Detroit, slipping in and out unobtrusively and growing more and more convinced that life was a very lonely business. Then through a series of coincidences she discovered that several girls in the firm where she worked earned even less than she did and got around no more. This cheered Miss MacD. immensely, just as it would cheer you.

Secure in the knowledge that she is not the saddest person she knows, Miss MacD. gets her own apartment, invites everyone she pities to dinner, and develops a crowd of friends.

Then there’s the case of Miss P., who pours all her money into her beautiful apartment and has none left for entertaining. Faced with an old frenemy who's in town for a visit, Miss P. wisely diagnoses herself with a noncontagious illness, takes to her bed, and invites her frenemy over for tea:

When the guest arrived, she was ushered into Miss P.’s bedroom, in which the late afternoon sun filtered through white Venetian blinds and fell upon a bowl of roses on a low mirrored table. Miss P. herself, perfectly groomed, was propped against pillows, wearing an opalescent white satin nightgown with Alençon lace and a shell-pink velvet bed-jacket. The blanket cover on her bed was shell-pink, too, with strips of lace. … When the guest left, practically wilted with envy, Miss P. reflected that the total expenditure had been two dollars for the maid, one dollar for the roses, and a very little extra for the tea.

Hillis knows the secret to life, and it is playing elaborate mind games to make sure that other people envy you as much as possible.

3) Make it your business to know something about everything

How else will you convince the world that you are a fascinating person?

You will probably have to muffle both door-bell and telephone if you can put yourself over as a gay, interesting, and up-to-date person. Anyone can, if she has sufficient determination. You can’t sit at home and wait for these qualities to descend upon you like a light from Heaven, but you can acquire them by means of a little serious concentration on friends, hobbies, parties, books, and almost anything else that keeps you interested. … But you’ve got to have variety. … Every woman should have a smattering of knowledge about practically everything.

4) Seriously, get a hobby

Even a charitable hobby, gauche as it may be.

Be a Communist, a stamp collector, or a Ladies’ Aid worker if you must, but for heaven’s sake, be something.

And preferably you should have two:

You should have at least one that keeps you busy at home and another that takes you out. Just dabbling in them isn’t enough, either. They will not be really efficacious until you’re the kind of enthusiast who will stay home to follow the first type in spite of a grand invitation, or go out and follow the second in spite of wind, sleet, or rain.

5) It’s better to make your relatives think you’re a bitch than to make them think you’re sad and lonely

If they think you're lonely, how will you show them, show them all?

You can build up quite a coterie if you take enough trouble, mix your friends intelligently, and show a little shrewdness as to when to invite them, and what for. Include as few relatives as possible in one group, on the principle that it’s infinitely better for a Lone Female to offend her relatives by not inviting them enough, then to bore her relatives by inviting them too often. In other words, it’s better to be a snob than a hanger-on.

6) Pajamas come in varying levels of formality

BRB, off to buy hostess pajamas.

There are … sleeping pajamas, beach pajamas, lounging pajamas, and hostess pajamas. The first two are not designed to wear when receiving anybody, masculine or feminine. The last type is correct for wear when your most conservative beau calls, even though he belongs to the old school and winces when a lady smokes. The third variety comes in all sorts of shadings, from an almost-sleeping type to a practically hostess pajama. Those with a leaning towards the bed are suitable only for feminine guests, while the others would not shock Bishop Manning.

(If you’re wondering, my best guess as to whom Hillis refers to as Bishop Manning is William T. Manning, the Episcopalian bishop, philanthropist, and noted hater of dancing. His views on pajamas are unrecorded.)

7) You do not own enough bed jackets

Have you ever seen a bed jacket? It’s basically a bathrobe with the bottom part cut off. It’s the dowdiest piece of clothing you’ll ever see. Hillis loves them.

Don’t think that four bed-jackets are too many. … A warm comfortable one for every-day use and a warm grand one for special occasions. A sheer cool one for summer mornings, and a lacy affair to dress up in.

8) Follow the gospel of Marie Kondo

Hillis was on top of the "purge all your stuff" school of thought way before it was trendy.

The Great Temptation — well, anyway, one of them — to most people living alone is to have too much furniture and too many what-nots. We’ve been in lots of feminine establishments from which you might have taken half the furnishings and given them to the nearest Thrift Shop — and achieved as much as if you’d called in a decorator.

9) That noise in the next room is probably not a robber

Trust Hillis. She knows.

When you wake up in the night convinced that you hear a man moving about in the next room, do not get up and investigate. Still more important, do not telephone the janitor, or a friend’s husband across the street, or your brother in New Jersey. Almost certainly, there is no man in the next room, and, if there were, he would be gone by the time anyone got there.

10) Don’t look for a bargain until you can recognize one

Good advice for everything.

Bargains in liquor, like bargains in clothes, are only for Those Who Know. While you are still learning, never buy anything but the best. (This is not a bad rule to stick to through life.)

11) If your apartment doesn’t have a kitchen, don’t worry, you can still keep booze in the house

You just have to pick the right booze! Like Miss C.:

As Miss C. cannot go in for cocktails, without ice, she has made a specialty of sherry, hunting up the best and keeping several variations on hand. The glüg, a delicious Swedish drink, hot and powerful, she keeps for guests who look upon sherry as effeminate.

There are no instructions on what to do about preparing food without a kitchen.

12) Always have breakfast in bed

Hillis informs us that “[i]t is probably true that most people have more fun in bed than anywhere else, and we are not being vulgar.” So obviously bed is the best place to eat.

Very well, then, have your orange-juice and black coffee and toast. … Our plea is merely for plenty of orange-juice, coffee, and toast; really good orange-juice, coffee, and toast; and orange-juice, coffee, and toast attractively served. Of course, the civilized place for any woman to have breakfast is in bed.

13) Spending your own money is just as good as alcohol

Hillis preferred whisky.

We are not advising you to save [money] for any good and moral reason, but merely because, as time goes on, spending your own money has a kick in it, like whisky, while having other people’s money spent on you has, at best, the tame pleasure of a glass of lemonade.

14) Above all else, have an elegant time

Consider the example set by Mrs. de W., the widowed workaholic who spent her retirement focusing all her Type A energies on rejuvenating her body:

She has her breakfast in bed, late, leisurely, and comfortably. She lets nothing crowd out her regular weekly appointments for a shampoo, a scalp treatment, a wave, a facial, and a manicure. Two mornings a week, she spends in a health salon. … And on nights when she is very tired she has a masseuse come and give her a long, soothing massage. … At a tea recently, she entertained the guests by standing on her head. Mrs. de W. is having an elegant time.