in the age of remote working, holiday office parties are not what they used to be. That new reality lends an extra note of nostalgia to a story from 1948 entitled, “LIFE Goes to an Office Party: Employees and Bosses Loosen Up All Over the Place.”
The fashions in the story are pure 1940s, but the social dynamics on display will be familiar to anyone who has ever worked in an office.
“One night or another the lights burn late in many American business houses,” the story began. “The occasion is that great leveler, the office Christmas party, an antidote to the social formality which ranks between a few discreet cocktails and a free-for-all fight. Then all business barriers collapse; executives unbend; the office clown finds a sympathetic audience.”
For this story LIFE photographer Cornell Capa visited the offices of Schiff Terhune, a New York firm of insurance brokers. (The company, well established at the time, carried on until the 1980s, which it was acquired by larger corporation. A nice history of the firm is included in The New York Times obituary of Frank Schiff, the son of William Schiff, who appears in one of Capa’s photos).
Capa’s photos ran over two packed pages in the Dec. 27, 1948 issue, which featured on its cover a more sober seasonal story on Giotto’s paintings of Christ.
The Schiff Terhune office party appears to have been quite the frolic. People danced and wore funny hats. Santa led a conga line. They even had kissing under the mistletoe—a tradition that has all but disappeared as companies have become more aware on the topic of sexual harassment. Indeed, some of these pictures, showing male executives dancing with female underlings, could be used for a human resources slide show on behaviors that are frowned upon.
In general, office parties have been a wellspring of cautionary tales about regrettable behavior—the Seinfeld episode featuring Elaine’s dancing is one sitcom example— which is why around holiday season etiquette guides and advice pieces for how to manage the office parties abound online.
Still, it looks as if the employees of Schiff Terhune found their party a welcome respite. Wrote LIFE, “By the time a conga line and a frolicsome vice president were in action, even the most shrinking violet felt expansively aware of the brotherhood of man.”