Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Etiquette of the Gilded Age Dinner and Service


Tablecloths of white damask, double or single, as fine as the owner's purse admits, are used for the dinner-table, with large square white napkins to correspond.



While preparations have been going on in the dining-room, the guests have been assembling in the drawing-room. It is proper to arrive from five to fifteen minutes before the hour mentioned in the invitation, allowing time to pay respects to the host and hostess, without haste of manner, before the dinner is announced.

A gentleman wears a dress suit at dinner. A lady wears a handsome gown, "dinner dress " being " full dress ;" differing, however, from the evening party or reception gown in the kind of fabrics used. The most filmy gauzes are suitable for a ball costume; while dinner dress—for any but very young ladies—is usually of more substantial materials—rich silk or velvet softened in effect with choice lace, or made brilliant with jet trimmings.

When the dinner party is strictly formal, and the company evenly matched in pairs, the following order is observed:

Each gentleman finds in the hall, as he enters, a card bearing his name and the name of the lady whom he is to take out; also, a small boutoinntere, which he pins on his coat. If the lady is a stranger, he asks to be presented to her, and establishes an easy conversation before moving toward the dining-room.


The Announcement Of Dinner

When dinner is ready the fact is made known to the hostess by the butler, or maid-servant, who comes to the door and quietly says " Dinner is served." A bell is never rung for dinner, nor for any other formal meal.

The host leads the way, taking out the lady who is given the place of first consideration ; the most distinguished woman, the greatest stranger, the most elderly—whatever the basis of distinction. Other couples follow in the order assigned to them, each gentleman seating the lady on his right. The hostess comes last, with the most distinguished male guest. If there is n footman, or more than one, the chairs are deftly placed for each guest; but if only a maid is in waiting, each gentleman arranges his own and his partner's chairs as quietly as possible.

As soon as the company are seated, each one removes the bread; and the napkin, partially unfolded, is laid across the lap. It is not tucked in at the neck or the vest front, or otherwise disposed as a feeding-bib. It is a towel, for wiping the lips and fingers in emergencies, but should be used unobtrusively—not flourished like a flag of truce.


The Serving Of The Dinner

When dinner is ready the fact is made known to the hostess by the butler, or maid-servant, who comes to the door and quietly says " Dinner is served." A bell is never rung for dinner, nor for any other formal meal.

The servant is ready to hand from the sideboard any condiments desired for the oysters, which are promptly disposed of. It may be remarked at the outset, that everything at table is handed at the left, except wine, which is offered at the right. Ladies are served first.

After the oyster-plates are removed, the soup is served from the side table—a half ladleful to each plate being considered the correct quantity. The rule regarding soup is double, you must, and you must not. You must accept it (whether you eat it it or merely pretend to), but you must not ask for 'h second helping, since to do so would prolong a course that is merely an "appetizer" preparatory to the substantials.

The soup-plates are removed, and the fish immediately appears, served on plates with mashed potatoes or salad, or sometimes both, in which case a separate dish is provided for the salad. The entrees follow the fish, hot plates being provided, as required. Dishes containing the entries should have a large spoon and fork laid upon them, and should be held low, so that the guest may help himself easily.

Again the dishes are removed. Here we may pause to remark that the prompt and orderly removal of the dishes after each successive course is a salient feature of skillful waiting. The accomplished waiter never betrays haste or nervousness, but his every movement " tells," and that, too, without clatter, or the dropping of small articles, or the dripping of sauces. The plates, etc., vanish from the table—whither, we observe not. The waiter in the dining-room must have the co-operation of the servant behind the scenes, to receive and convey the relays of dishes to the kitchen. However it is managed, and it must be managed, the nearer the operation can appear to be a " magic transformation," the better.

To return; the roast is the next course. The carving is done at the side table. Guests are consulted as to their preference for "rare" or "welldone;" and the meat, in thin slices, is served on hot plates, with vegetables at discretion on the same plate, separate vegetable dishes—except for salads— not being used on private dinner tables. Certain vegetables, as sweet corn on the cob, may be regarded as a course by themselves, being too clumsy to be disposed of conveniently on a plate with other things.

The game course is next in order (if it is included, as it generally is in an elaborate dinner). Celery is an appropriate accompaniment of the game course. The salad is sometimes served with the game; otherwise it follows as a course by itself.

The salad marks the end of the heavy courses. The crumb tray is brought, and the table-cloth is cleared of all stray fragments. A rolled napkin makes a quiet brush for this purpose, especially on a finely polished damask cloth.

The dessert is now in order. Finger-bowls and doylies are brought in on the dessert-plates. Each person at once removes the bowl and doyley to make ready for whatever is to be put on the plate.

Ices, sweets (pastry and confections), cheese, follow in course; and, finally, the fruits and bon-bons. Strong coffee is served last of all, in small cups. Fashion decrees cafe noir, and few lovers of cream care to rebel on so formal an occasion as a dinner; but when the formality is not too rigid, the little cream jug may be smuggled in for those who prefer cafe au lait.

Water is the staple drink of the American dinner table. A palatable table water, like Apollinaris, well iced, is an elegant substitute for wine when habit or conscience forbids the latter.

When wine is served with the different courses at dinner, the appropriate use is as follows: with soup, sherry ; with the fish, chablis, hock, or sauterne ; with the roast, claret and champagne; after the game course, Madeira and port; with the dessert, sherry, claret, or Burgundy. After dinner are served champagne and other sparkling wines, just off" the ice, and served without decanting, a napkin being wrapped around the wet bottle.

While wine may be accounted indispensable by many, the growing sentiment in favor of its total banishment from the dinner-table has this effect on the etiquette of the case, that the neglect to provide wine for even a very formal dinner is not now the breach of good form which it would have been held to be some years ago. Such neglect has been sanctioned by the example of acknowledged social leaders; and when it is the exponent of a temperance principle it has the respect of every diner-out, whatever his private choice in the matter. No gentleman will grumble at the absence of wine at his host's table. It is good form for a host to serve or not serve wine, as he chooses; it is very bad form for his guest to comment on his choice. When any one who is conscientiously opposed to wine-drinking, or for any reason abstains, is present at a dinner where wine is served, he declines it by simply laying his hand on the rim of his glass as the butler approaches. No words are necessary.  


Apollinaris will take the place of stronger waters, and no embarrassment follows to either host or guest. As to the moral involved, a silent example may be quite as influential as an aggressive exhibition of one's principles. Questions of manners and morals' are constantly elbowing one another, and it is a nice point to decide when and how far duty requires one to defy conventionality. It is safe to say that only in extreme eases is this ever necessary, or even permissible. The hostess who simply does not offer wine to any guest under any circumstances, is using her influence effectively and courteously, especially when she supplies the deficiency with delicious coffee and cocoa, fragrant tea, and, best and rarest of all, crystal clear, sparkling cold water. By pointing out a " more excellent way," she is adding to her faith virtue. –From "Etiquette: An Answer to the Riddle When? Where? How??," By Agnes H. Morton