Saturday, August 1, 2009

Do You Know How to Set a Table Correctly?

"Do you know how to set a table correctly?
Are you familiar with the right linen and silver to use for every occassion?"

These are the rather dictatorial questions printed on the cover of Table Service and Decoration, a 1935 entertaining manual I found in Alice's library. My 21st century brain reacted first with derision (the right linens and silver?) and then with a kind of anxiety (is there a right way? Am I doing it wrong?).


Clermont's table changes seasonally, and Alice's little book has been very handy to me over the past few years as I have dressed her dining table for Christmas, Halloween, and regular day-to-day operations. The hard-and-fast rules presented in this book always boggle me, whether I wind up following them or not, because the way Americans view table decorations and settings has changed so dramatically over the past century. Let's be honest here, I barely learned which side the napkin goes on, let alone the red wine, white wine, and water glass. A glimpse of the knife diagram on page 36 made me actually jump a little.


But for centuries in Western culture, dining properly has been a mark refinement and "good breeding." In the 18th century, it became the aspiration of many families to more than just fill their table with food, but also to aquire sets of matching tablewares and to learn to use them properly. Adopting practices such as using napkins to wipe their mouths or setting aside spoons or knives for the use of forks helped enable people to move with dignity through elite social circles.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the industrial revolution made goods cheaper and put this goal within reach of a broad spectrum of Americans. The market was flooded with relatively cheap sets of matching pressed glass. Setting the table correctly became every housewife's responsiblity.
Alice was born in 1873, and grew up at the tail end of the Victorian era. Rules for the use and placement of these objects had become rigid and as elabrate as the glittering dishes themselves. How-tos could be found in any number of household manuals, or even came in Godey's Lady's Book magazine, as shown below.


And if every middle-class housewife in the country had access to the tools to set an attractive table, you can be sure that the upper class were not permitting themselves to be outdone.


Written in 1935, Alice's little book of Table Service and Decoration postdates much of this epicurian one-upmanship. Nevertheless, the rigidity of ettiquette had still not entirely released its hold over the American public. A diagram on page 103 details how to properly hold glasses, pitchers, and tea cups. Beverage service is detailed thus:

"When pouring the beverage, the cup and saucer, should be placed between the hostess' cover and the pot, with the handles of the cup at the right hand of the hostess. The sugar is placed on the left of the handle of the cup..." and so on.

The idea of detailed instructions being required just serve a friend tea might seem daunting, but the concept of a right and wrong way to dine came from centuries of people trying distinguish themselves from the rabble. Knowing how to eat properly, set a table "correctly," and chose "the right linen and silver for every occassion" was a way of marking oneself as worthy and refined.
"Do you know how to set a table correctly?
Are you familiar with the right linen and silver to use for every occassion?"

To be sure, we of the 21st century have not totally abandoned table ettiquett. Just a look around you at a nice restaurant will remind you what we still hold dear: people with their napkins in their laps, eating with silverware balanced neatly in their hands, and not stealing food off each other's plates (at least not without getting an indignant "hey!" from the victim of the theft). Have you ever found yourself thinking, "I can't believe they just did that at a restaurant"?
But in general the formal theatrics of American dining have relaxed over the past few generations. Things that would have appalled our fellow diners in the 1870s are now commonplace. While none of us are likely to wipe our mouths on the tableclothes (as people had to learn not to do in the 18th century), we are not ashamed to hold our wineglass incorrectly. And while I don't use my poinsettia tablecloth in June, I also don't writhe with anxiety about chosing the right one for April.
This little book of Alice's was written in a tricky time that straddled the period over which those changes took place, and I'm glad to have it at my side when I am interpretting her dining room--even if I am a little aghast at the idea of being shamed by not following some of its rules.

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