Sunday, October 21, 2012

Setting the Gilded Age Table

     Dinner Service of 1892, the Table-Linen, Etc...

Table-cloths 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.

Napkin rings are discarded by many who hold that a napkin should be used but once, and must be re-laundried before reappearing on the table. 

The table should first be covered with a mat of double-faced cotton flannel wide enough to fall six inches below the edge of the table, all around. This under mat greatly improves the appearance of the table-cloth, which can be laid much more smoothly over this soft foundation. Besides, the mat protects the table from too close contact with hot dishes. Small table mats for the purpose of protecting the cloth are not fashionable at present, though many careful housekeepers retain them rather than risk injury to fine table linen.

Carving-cloths are used when carving is done at the table, but are not needed when dinner is served à la Russe. Napkin rings are discarded by many who hold that a napkin should be used but once, and must be re-laundried before reappearing on the table. Practically, such a fastidious use of table linen would exhaust most linen supplies, and overcrowd the laundry. The neat use of a napkin renders this extreme nicety superfluous as a rule of home dining.        

Care should certainly be taken to remove all soiled table linen. Nothing is more disgusting than a dirty napkin, but the snowy linen that comes spotless through one using may, with propriety, be retained in the ring to be used several times. This, of course, refers to every-day dining at home. On formal occasions no napkin rings appear on the table; the napkins are always fresh, and used for that time only. At the close of the dinner they are left carelessly on the table; not rolled or folded in any orderly shape.
Small fringed napkins of different colors are used with a dessert of fruits. Fancy doylies of fine linen embroidered with silk are sometimes brought in with the finger-bowls; but these are not for utility, the dinner napkin doing service, while the embroidered “fancy” adds a dainty bit of effect to the table decoration.

China, Glassware, Cutlery, Silverware, etc...

Chinaware for the dinner service should be of good quality. Fashions in china decoration are not fixed; the fancy of the hour is constantly changing, but a matched set is eminently proper for the dinner table, leaving the "harlequin" china for luncheons and teas. In the latter style the aim is to have no two pieces alike in decoration, or at least, to permit an unlimited variety; a fashion that is very convenient when large quantities of dishes are liable to be needed. But for a dinner served in orderly sequence, the orderly correspondence of a handsome "set" seems more in keeping. But even with this, the harlequin idea may come in with the dessert; fruit plates, ice-cream sets, after-dinner coffees, etc., may display any number of fantasies in shape and coloring.

Artistic glassware is a very handsome feature of table furnishing. Carafes and goblets for water are always needed at dinner; wine glasses, possibly; and the serving of fruits and bon-bons gives opportunity to display the most brilliant cut-glass, or its comparatively inexpensive substitutes, which are scarcely less pretty in effect. Fine glass is infinitely more elegant than common plated-ware, and though more liable to breakage is less trouble to keep in order.

Rare, individual "Bird Knife and Fork" in the Chantilly pattern  sterling handles, with steel blade and tines. 

The best dinner-knife is of steel, of good quality, with handle of ivory, ebony, or silver. Silver-plated knives are much used; they do not discolor so readily as steel, and are easily kept polished. They answer the purpose for luncheon, but they rarely have edge enough to be really serviceable at dinner or breakfast. Many people who own solid silverware store it away in bank vaults and use its facsimile in quadruple plate, and thus escape the constant dread of a possible burglar. For the sense of security that it gives, one may value the finest quality of plated ware, but it should be inconspicuous in style and not too profuse in quantity, since its utility, rather than its commercial value, should be suggested. Any ostentation in the use of plated ware is vulgar. But one may take a pride and satisfaction in the possession of solid silver. Every ambitious housekeeper will devise ways of securing, little by little, if not all at once, a neat collection of solid spoons and forks. The simplest table takes on dignity when graced with these "sterling" accompaniments. 

The fancy for collecting “souvenir” spoons, one at a time, suggests a way to secure a valuable lot of spoons without feeling the burden of the expense. Yet, on the other hand, these spoons are much more expensive than equally good plain silver, the extra price being paid for the “idea;” but the expenditure is worth while to those who value historical associations. One may find in the silver-basket salient reminders of all important epochs in our national life, a sort of primer of United States history, to say nothing of the innumerable “souvenirs” of Europe. Its subtle testimony to the intelligent taste of its owner gives the souvenir collection its chief “touch of elegance.”

The towering “castor,” once the central glory of the dinner table, is out of style. The condiments are left on the sideboard and handed from there in case any dish requires them, the supposition being that, as a rule, the several dishes are properly seasoned before they are served. Individual salt-cellars are placed on the table, and may be accompanied with salt spoons; if these are omitted, it is understood that the salt-cellar is emptied and refilled each time that it is used. On the family dinner-table the condiment line is not so severely drawn; vinegar in cut-glass cruets, mustard in Satsuma pots, and individual "peppers" in silver, china, or glass, and of quaint designs--are convenient and allowable. A table covered with white damask, overlaid with sparkling china and cut-glass, and reflecting the white light of polished silver, is a pretty but lifeless sight. Add one magic touch--the centre-piece of flowers--and the crystallized beauty wakes to organic life.

In arranging the modern dinner-table, when the service is to be à la Russe, floral decorations are almost indispensable. Without something attractive for the eye to rest upon, the desert stretch of linen looks like the white ghost of famine mocking the feast.

For a square or extra wide table a large centre-piece, either round or oblong, is usually chosen, with endless varieties in its component arrangement 

The shape of the table, the available space, and the nature of the occasion decide the quantity and distribution of the flowers. It is a matter in which wide latitude is given to individual taste and ingenuity, original designs and odd conceits being always in order, subject only to the law of appropriateness. For a square or extra wide table a large centre-piece, either round or oblong, is usually chosen, with endless varieties in its component arrangement. It may be low and flat, like a floral mat, in the middle of the table, or it may be a lofty epergne, or an inter-lacing of delicate vine-wreathed arches, or a single basket of feathery maidenhair fern--in fact, anything that is pretty and which the inspiration of the moment may suggest. In early autumn, in country homes or in suburban villas, nothing is more effective than masses of golden-rod and purple asters, gathered by the hostess or her guests during their afternoon drive, and all the more satisfactory because of the pleasure taken in their impromptu arrangement. Wild flowers should be neatly trimmed and symmetrically grouped to avoid a ragged or weedy appearance.

Fortunately, even quite elaborate floral decorations need not be expensive. Nature has bestowed some of her choicest touches upon the lilies of the field, and an artistic eye discerns their possibilities. At the same time, art in floriculture has produced marvels, and those who can afford it may revel in mammoth roses and rare orchids, lilies of the valley in November, and red clovers in January, if it please them to pay the florist's bill for the same. For narrow "extension" tables, slender vases ranged at intervals may be the most convenient disposition of the flowers; or, if the ends of the table are not occupied, a broad, low basket may stand at each end, with a tall, slender vase in the middle of the table.

On choice occasions a handsome centre-piece may be, for example, a large bowl of La France roses, with small bundles of the same (groups of three are pretty), tied with ribbon of the same hue, laid by each plate. Any other single flower may be disposed similarly, or variety may rule, and no two floral "favors" be alike, in which case it is a delicate compliment to give to each guest a flower known to be a favorite, or one that seems especially appropriate--a lily to Lilian, a daisy to Marguerite, etc.

These little marks of thoughtfulness never fail to be appreciated, and add much to the grace of entertaining. An elaborate centre-piece may stand upon a rich velvet mat, or on a flat mirror provided for the purpose. The latter is a clever idea for a centre-piece of pond-lilies or other aquatic plants, simulating a miniature lake, its edges fringed with moss or ferns.

The Formal Arrangements at the Dinner Table

The mat is first adjusted upon the table, and the table-cloth smoothly and evenly laid over it. The cloth should fall about half-way to the floor all around.

The floral accessories are then put in place; and also the fruits and bon-bons, which may be commingled with the flowers in working out a decorative design, or they may be placed, in ornamental dishes, at the four corners of a wide table, to balance the flowers in the centre; or, they may be arranged along the middle of a long table. For fruit, silver-gilt baskets, or epergnes of glass are especially pretty. The fruit may later constitute a part of the dessert, or may be merely ornamental in its office. Carafes containing iced water are placed here and there on the table, at convenient points.

The next step is the laying of the covers; a cover signifying the place prepared for one person. For a dinner in courses a cover consists of a small plate (on which to set the oyster plate), two large knives, three large forks (for the roast, the game, and entrées), one small knife and fork (for the fish), one tablespoon (for the soup), one oyster-fork. The knives and forks are laid at the right and left of the plate, the oyster-fork and the spoon being conveniently to hand. 

A glass goblet for water is set at the right, about eight inches from the edge of the table; if wine is to be served the requisite glasses are grouped about the water goblet. The napkin is folded square, with one fold turned back to inclose a thick piece of bread; or, the napkin may be folded into a triangle that will stand upright, holding the bread within its folds. This is the only way in which bread is put on the dinner-table, though a plate of bread is on the sideboard to be handed to those who require a second piece. It is entirely proper to ask for it, when desired.

Butter is not usually placed on the dinner-table, but is handed from the sideboard if the menu includes dishes that require it; as, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, etc. Small butter-plates are included in the "cover" in such cases. The oysters, which form the initial course, are usually on the table before the guests take their places. A majolica plate, containing four or six of the bivalves with a bit of lemon in the midst, is placed at each cover; or, oyster cocktails may be served. The soup tureen and plates are brought in to the side table. All is now in readiness.

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia   


  1. I just watched "The Age of Innocence" 2 days ago, so this is fantastic! Will share with my sister.

  2. I love the information. Thanks for a great post.