The office party predates the modern office, a product of the paternalistic corporate culture of the Progressive era, when a job at Shredded Wheat came with access to the company skating rink, the bowling alley, the baseball league, and a calendar of company-sponsored events. The idea was to foster not productivity but rather loyalty, the sense that “the company is your family, this is your home, these are your people,” suggests historian Allison Marsh.
The skating rinks did not last, but the holiday party did. “The occasion is that great leveler,” enthused Life magazine of the bacchanalian 1948 Christmas festivities at the otherwise-dignified New York insurance firm Schiff, Terhune. After a cocktail, the story explained, “the barriers collapse; executives unbend; the office clown finds a sympathetic audience. This is the only time when the pretty file clerk gets kissed in public and the homely one gets kissed at all.” Less than a decade later, Life seemed less sure: “We sometimes think the cocktail party has grown out of date and is a nuisance,” mused the editorial board in 1955, concluding that perhaps it just needed “redesigning by some expert in the fresh approach.”
By 1964, the future of the truly debauched office bash was in danger, and according to a bereft Helen Gurley Brown, the culprit was obvious. “Wives killed them,” she writes in Sex and the Office. “Wives and the local police department, who complained that husbands were driving home intoxicated. They were driving home, weren’t they? Doesn’t anybody ever give anybody credit?”
The theoretical merits of the office party are also exactly the problems with it. Let loose! (But not too loose.) Have fun! (It’s required.) It is meant simultaneously as a reward for a year of hard work and a bribe never to leave (at least not of your own volition). It is entertainment, it is camaraderie, it is more time spent at work. No alcohol is puritanical; too much is a liability.
After a few years of muted parties post-9/11, this magazine announced in 2004 that the “lavish, loony corporate holiday party” was back, with 20-piece bands, flamenco dancers, and, in the case of one big bank, $12,000 worth of “French hedges and little trees scissored into animal shapes.” Those same Wall Street parties atrophied again post-2008 — just because you can hire aerialists with your government bailouts doesn’t mean you should — but if the golden age of big corporate spending never quite recovered, the parties also never stopped. Me Too caused a mass rethinking of certain norms, but by 2019, company parties had returned to normal levels. COVID-19 could have killed them, but it was much worse than that: Some bleak evening in December, countless workers mixed a cocktail, put on their headphones, and sat down to Zoom.