Traditional Hospitality

I like to watch the historical videos by James John Townsend. He is easygoing and always informative. The channel’s focus is on early America. Many of the videos are about food, but he also talks about how people lived. Some of my favorites are when he references the accounts described in travel journals.

In one video I just watched (the first below), Townsend talks about backwoods hospitality. It was expected that travelers would be welcome at almost any house or cabin, for food and shelter. An extra setting might be placed at the dinner table, just in case someone stopped by. Visits were common, whether from strangers or neighbors, friends, and family. Townsend mentions that a large part of their lives was filled with socializing. And it didn’t matter how poor the household. Almost anyone would be made to feel welcome, sometimes including local or traveling Native Americans.

Some of this custom may even have been learned or modeled after the lifestyle of Native Americans who were in the habit of coming and going as they pleased. There was often an open door policy on the frontier, a detail I’ve come across in reading history books. Even as villages formed, this friendly attitude was maintained. It was expected that what happened in your home was of relevance to the entire community. This nosiness could even be rather imposing, sometimes to the point of being oppressive. Neighbors might come right in, if they thought you were having affair. A bit too ‘friendly’ at times.

The idea of a home as a place of utmost privacy is a rather recent invention, as are locks on doors (when I was a kid, my family never locked the door except when we went on vacations). What is interesting is that some of the commenters point out that their own grandparents used to maintain similar practices of hospitality. For example, keeping a candle in the window was a way of signalling that visitors were welcome. Something similar was done with lamps to signal refuge for Jews escaping the Nazis. Likewise, candles and lamps were used as a signal on the Underground Railroad. In some parts of the world, especially in rural areas, welcoming strangers and those in need remains a living tradition.

That exemplifies how much the modern world has changed in industrialized societies. The kind of hospitality that would have existed for millennia, would have been the norm under most circumstances, that has faded from living memory for most of us Westerners. Something has been lost, a sense of community and common humanity, of interdependence and basic kindness, and we don’t usually even think about what has been lost, if we ever notice it’s missing.

This isn’t to romanticize the past, as Townsend also points out that the frontier was a dangerous place where not everyone was friendly. Still, it was a far friendlier place than the world we live in today. People had to be open and welcome in relation to others because survival depended upon it. Isolation wasn’t a choice. Yet the daily lived experience of community doesn’t exist for many people at this point, much less the attitude of hospitality toward strangers. We go about our lives as if we don’t really need anyone else.

I’ve known family members complain when others in the family stopped by unannounced. On the other hand, my mother remembers her family getting in the car on a weekly basis to make random visits to friends and family, and they were always welcome, often with a massive meal being prepared on the spot with no advanced notice. That was probably a carryover from my mother’s family having lived in what was the frontier not many generations before.

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