The Dinner Table and its Accessories

by Mark Nye
Issue No. 201 - January 1990

Author's Note: The following article is taken from the December 1903 Holiday Issue of Crockery and Glass Journal published December 3, 1903. It had originally appeared in the New York Herald sometime prior to that date. While some of its contents are dated, much of the advice is timeless but regardless of this, it is interesting to read how preceding generations entertained.

Much depends on the dinner, sang Bryon, who knew a great deal about such things, and much always has depended upon the dinner. Questions of state, social crises, business schemes, intrigues of war, love, rivalry, failure and success are interwoven with dining. Whether she contemplates the giving of a dinner with the nervous apprehension of a tyro or with the assurance justified by experience, a hostess knows that much depends upon her attention to the details, and she looks well to the ordering and cooking of the dinner after it has been carefully planned and no less well to the serving of it.

With the cooking this article is not concerned, its province being to give some practical directions for the serving of dinners and timely information in regard to china and glassware.

Great wealth is not a necessity for a good cuisine. If but three courses constitute the family dinner, let the napery and glass be immaculate in its cleanliness -- a few flowers and leaves make the table pretty -- and an orderly method be observed in the serving, and the appetite will be stimulated a hundred fold. Fashion has decided in favor of dinners served a la Russe, when all the carving and serving are done in the pantry or at a side table, leaving the host and hostess free to entertain their guests. With family dinners, or when intimate friends are entertained informally, many hosts prefer to carve the joint themselves, or the hostess having especial skill in carving will perform that service for her guests. In an informal dinner of this sort the soup should be served from the tureen, placed before the hostess.

Round tables have been much in vogue during the last few years. Five feet across is the ordinary size for six persons. It is a usual thing to have several tops made to fit over the dining table for different dinners, according to the size of one's dining room and the number of covers to be laid. Heavy canton flannel having been first placed upon the table, the table cloth should be carefully put over it. Table linen should be as handsome as one's income will admit, for nothing adds more to the elegance of a table. In the matter of decoration individual taste and the kind of dinner to be given are important factors. Ornamental pieces of linen are used, either in circular pieces, squares, or in long scarfs, the length of the table. These may be embroidered, or made of satin, lace, or in the Mexican drawn linen work that is so much seen. If the table is a large one it often is desirable to have the entire center of the table massed with flowers of the color scheme of the dinner. If an embroidered linen centerpiece is used the flowers or ferns are placed upon it.

It is always better to have the centre ornamentation low, that the quests on the opposite side of the table may be seen. After the cloth is laid and the centre of the table arranged place the plates according to the number of quests at equal distances apart around the table, about an inch from the edge; if they're marked with a monogram that should go toward the centre. At the right of the plate is placed the dinner knife, soup spoon, fish knife and oyster fork. On the left of the plate place the forks according to the number of courses to be served before the sweets. The bowls of the forks and spoons should be right side up, the edges of the knives turned to the plate. In America there is often a question whether to use bread and butter plates for dinner. Unless the dinner is en famille they are rarely seen, and the butter is not used unless it is passed with biscuits, or oat cake, with the salad in the English style. The napkin, folded with monogram on top, is placed with a thick square of bread, or a long dinner roll, in it on the plate. At the right are grouped, about ten inches from the edge of the table, a goblet (it is better to have this filled with crushed ice and water before coming to the table) and the different wine glasses. Salt cellars and peppers are placed at intervals, about one to every two persons.

The candlesticks, or candelabra, fitted securely with candles and shade holders that will keep in their places, together with shades to harmonize with the color scheme of the dinner, should now be arranged. The small mica linings which come now for shades are desirable, as there is no danger of their catching fire if a sudden draught blows the flame the wrong way. Arrange dishes for bonbons, salted almonds and compotes for fruit in their places. Some of them cannot be filled until the last moment, but the dish can be placed. It is a pretty fashion to use any small antique bits of silver you may have to ornament the table. It is not necessary to restrict yourself to dishes of any one kind, but uniformity must be observed and the table properly balanced. With these points in view, make the decoration as individual and artistic as you can. Many persons draw a diagram of the table, arranging the seats of the guests and all the minutiae of the serving on paper, and place this in the butler's pantry for the convenience of the servants. In a small household this will be found a great help.

Everything to be used for the dinner should be ready beforehand, each set of plates being arranged for instant use. Small silver, extra bread, cracked ice, and the finger fowls placed upon a plate with a doily underneath, the water in them containing a thin slice of lemon, a geranium leaf or the petal of a flower used in the decoration, should be on the sideboard. It is a pretty custom to carry out the color scheme of the decorations through the dinner itself. Dinner cards are often a pretty souvenir of the occasion. The present fashion calls for the place card (which lies on the cloth directly above the plate) to be white, edged with gold, and the monogram or crest in gold, with the name of the guest written distinctly upon it. However, more elaborate ones are constantly seen, and the cards or souvenirs of a dinner depend entirely upon your purse. Many women have a gift for painting and can make exquisite little dinner cards themselves at small expense, which are more highly prized by their friends that those done by strangers.

All the service is from the left, and a waiter or waitress cannot conveniently serve more than six persons. A waitress' dress should be of black, with a white cap, collar, tie and apron. Service should be entirely noiseless and in giving a dinner it is well to consider the capabilities of the servants as well as the size of your range, for a small dinner daintily and perfectly served leaves a better impression than one in which more has been attempted than can be well carried out. A dinner is soup, fish, flesh and foul, supplemented by entrees to a greater or less degree and ending with a sweet. No cover should be ever left without a plate. The question is raised nowadays as to who should be served first. The usual thing is for the butler or maid to begin with the guest-of-honor at the right of the host and then continue directly around the table. With some fashionable folk, however, the old custom of serving the hostess first and the guest-of-honor prevails to a certain extent. As a relic of the Middle Ages, when it was customary to poison the honored guest, its revival seems rather absurd.

After the game and salad course, the table should be cleared of knives, spoons and forks and all the glasses except the goblet of water, the table cleared of crumbs and the dessert spoon and fork placed before each person. After the sweets, the table is again cleared and the finger bowls are placed before each guest, with a fruit knife or nut pick, or both, and if port is to finish the dinner or a cordial appropriate glasses are placed. It is customary for the women to leave the table at a signal from the hostess, leaving the men to smoke and finish their wine in the dining-room. Coffee should be served in the drawing-room, after which some sparkling mineral water is passed.

The order of luncheon does not differ from that of dinner, except that the bare table is used, with an elaborate centre-piece of linen and lace sometimes reaching the edge of the table instead of a tablecloth. When the centre-piece is smaller, plate doilies are used to match, and the asbestos mats covered with linen are useful in protecting a handsome polished table when hot courses are to be served. For a luncheon, instead of joints and roasts, lighter dishes and entries are served. A pretty fashion is to begin with a fruit salad, cantaloupe or whole strawberries in their season. An attractive manner of giving a luncheon is to have a number of small tables each holding four or six persons and serve from the butler's pantry. Each table can be made as decorative, in a miniature way, as a large table would be, and the effect is often prettier.

For breakfast, a large cloth is used and the table covered. An American breakfast is a hearty meal, but the fashion more and more prevails of having "a running breakfast." With hot dishes in blazers and coseys over the tea and coffee pots, it is a simple matter and much more comfortable for every on the house.

The English fashion of not demanding service for the first meal of the day gains ground in this country, and it is found to be rather a pleasant change to walk about and help yourself. A breakfast table never can be too dainty and fresh. With lighter decorations than for dinner, it should be quite as pretty. There are hundreds of delicious breakfast dishes to tempt the appetite, and the wife who falls into a rut and has the same dish for breakfast every second day is making a great mistake.

To be continued ...