Dining Room Etiquette

Dressing for the Occasion

Imitating the wealth and adopting the social patterns of the English were fashionable among the comfortably off middle class in the closing years of the 19th century. Formal dress was expected for any occasion after 6 p.m. Ladies wore low-necked, short sleeved gowns (and gloves - until they were seated at the table). At larger dinners, matrons appeared in satin, silk or spangles or embroidered laces. Young ladies chose daintier sheer muslins or chiffon. Etiquette books advised gentlemen to wear dark broadcloth and "fine linen."

Dinner Escorts

As soon as he arrived, the male guest was told by his hostess, or by a card on the hall table, whom he would escort into the dinning room. After stilted preliminary conversation, the host led his guests into the dinning room with his companion "on his left arm." According to custom, this honor went to the oldest or most distinguished lady, a stranger in the community, a recent bride, or the wife of the most prominent guest. The hostess entered the dining room last on the arm of the husband of her husband's partner.

The Lavish Dining Room

The Victorian dinning room was a large and heavily decorated room. The Social Mirror, stated that it "should be furnished with a view to convenience, richness and comfort." It suggested walls of bronze, maroon, or black. Propeian red or deep olive, with designs, dado and frieze in old gold, olive or moss-green, and wainscoting on the walls and ceiling. Prompeian red and soft olive were recommended for draperies. Dark woods should be used. A buffet may stand in a corner for the display of ceramics, or decorated china. The sideboard should be of high, massive style with selves and racks for glassware and china. A cage of stuffed birds, a few large pots of tropical plants and a fernery are in keeping. A folding screen should not be forgotten. But it was the lavishly appointed table that riveted attention.


The Well Dressed Table

The number of articles that appeared on a properly set Victorian dinner table seems staggering today. For the dinner hostess of the late 1800s, every piece of table silver, china and stemware had its appointed place. It was not unusual for some 24 pieces of silver to be at each place setting. As many as eight forks might be expected, from a fish fork and dinner fork to an ice cream fork. Knives could add up to eight: for butter, cheese, game, roast, and fruit, all accompanied by individual knife rests. A complete formal setting also included a butter pick and individual game shears. All the stemware that would be needed through the meal was placed on the table beforehand. It was arranged in two rows: top row. from left to right: water glass, glass for chambertin, glass for latour, champagne glass; bottom row, from left to right: green glass for sauterne, sherry glass, and a red glass for Rhine wine. A thin, unbuttered slice of bread rested on a napkin to the left of the plate with an individual salt close by. It was suggested that the dining table allow a foot of space for each guest! In the center of the table stood an elaborate floral centerpiece. At either side of the centerpiece was a stand filled with fresh fruits, and a compotier of assorted little cakes stood beside each fruit stand. Dishes of celery, olives or radishes filled the remaining space on the table. These additional items were also found on many Victorian tables:

Other Table Sets

The Dinner Menu

Victorian Dinners, in particular are quite well know for the endless procession of soups, meats, salads, pudding, ices, and meringues or pastries. It was not unusual for a Victorian Dinner menu to be nine courses, with plenty of time allowed between each course to permit each guest to fully enjoy the variety of courses. The following is a sample menu of a six course Victorian Dinner Party based on one designed in 1887 by Maria Parloa, founder of a cooking school. Miss Parola's original dinner recipes would have required a pound of butter, almost a dozen eggs and two quarts of cream.

Dinner Menu

Retiring from the Table

Finger bowls with a sliver of lemon in the water signaled the end of the meal. The bowls were dainty glass affairs set on linen or lace doilies nestled onto small plates. When the hostess was sure her guests were ready to retire form the table, she "looks significantly" at the lady seated to the host's right. She then rose and the gentleman seated most conveniently (or a servant) opened the door for the departing women. The ladies retired to the drawing room while the men lingered in the dining room or retired to the library for cigars and port.


Calling Etiquette

Proper Victorian etiquette required that a call should be made upon the hostess within a week . . . by all who have been honored by an invitation, whether accepted or not. Gentlemen whose time is much absorbed in business . . . may send their cards by their wives or lady relatives.





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