Saturday, November 10, 2012

Under Cover: Setting Clermont's Christmas Table

Almost as soon as we can get our Halloween decorations put away, Clermont's staff begins our work decorating for Christmas.

I know, it's little early.  We'd like to join the major national retailer who pledges not to decorate for Christmas before Thanksgiving, but the fact is that it takes our small group of 2-3 part-time decorators at least two weeks (and sometimes three) to complete the process, and if we started the day after Thanksgiving, most years it would mean we weren't ready for our Open House.   So it is quite simply out of deference to the sanity of our beloved staff and volunteers that we start so soon.

That said, the mad rush to decorate has begun again. 

My job, as the Curator of Education and Interim Curator of Collections is to maneuver any collections into appropriate settings and locations.  The biggest part for me is setting the "cover" (or the silverware, plate, and glassware arrangement) on the table.

I once wrote a nice long blog entry about this process and another about the history of the cover.  Now I feel even more obligated to do my research when I set Clermont's table.  Yesterday I pulled on my curator's white gloves and headed down to the dining room, Alice's 1936 copy of Table Service and Decoration by Lillian M. Gunn firmly in hand, ready to just that.  After no less than three hours of work, here is what we wound up with the image at left.  Ta-da!

Of course, like I said, this is the result of three hours of debating about table clothes, interpreting historic instructions, and trying to pick out what would give us the most interesting result.  "Try and arrange all things conveniently and symmetrically," the manual advised, "a well balanced table may be had with a little thought."  Well, off we went.

The first debate was about a table cloth.  Modern style encourages the use of luxurious and colorful fabrics, often bright damasks.  We have a store of these but opted to go the more traditional route, as our book advised, "It is always good form to use a white table cloth," though the book did also permit either doilies or a runner. Our white table cloth and red velvet runner are a tribute to this way of thinking.  Sadly, my middling ironing skills could not get the crisp creases that were apparently still fashionable at the time.  For that you really need a linen press (see illustration above right, which is set for an informal family dinner, from Table Service and Decoration).

I also followed the little guide book's recommendation for silver: "It is considered better form to have only three pieces of silver on either side of the cover, unless the fourth is a very small one."  This is in contrast to earlier services, particularly in the Victorian era, that favored large numbers of forks, knives, and spoons (like this image at right, borrowed from a fun article in the White River Journal about Victorian food ways).  Nevertheless, belonging to the school of "more is more," I did decide to go right to the limit. 

Alice Livingston also apparently often selected silverware from a variety of sets at one time for her dining tables.  Since these sets had come from a variety of generations and family members, it gave her the opportunity to make good dinner conversation about her family history.  "Oh, those old spoons with the Livingston boat crest?  They belonged to my great, great grandfather, Chancellor Livingston--you know, drafter of the Declaration of Independence.  Delightful, eh?"  In fact, many of the dishes in her dining room could lead to impromptu history lessons for guests, a fact of which she was keenly aware and ready to take advantage. 

At any rate, this proved to be a fun little adventure as I went picking with my white-gloved fingers into little trays of historic silverware.  The tiny oyster or pickle fork at left is my favorite.


In my research, I also found that the silverware was pulled down towards the edge of the table, lining up very close to the edge.  This was pretty universal for at least a century of anal-retentive table setting.  This was also reinforced by my trusty instructional manual, "The plate, napkin, and silver should be equidistant from the edge of the table, from one half to one inch."  Well, I guess that explains what all those butlers on TV are doing with a ruler in their hands when they set the table.  In looking at this photo, I'm thinking I need to go back and straighten up a little bit.

The napkins were a point of contention.  Victorian imagery (from when Alice was growing up) shows elaborately-folded and puffed napkins, but the 20th century manual we were using showed them folded flat either on the plate or to the left of the silver.  We opted for the more eye-catching puff, tied with ribbon in Livingston plaid, which you see above the plate.

Wine glasses selected, Livingston crest plates added, and we are ready to go.  From the end with the red runner, it looks especially impressive.  (If you have questions about those gold chargers, I haven't yet found any early 20th century imagery to support them.  They do look fancy though, and our decorators aren't ready to give up on them just yet.)

So short story long, this is the kind of thought that goes into setting the table in an historic house--not much like my own house where I cast a few pieces of odd silverware on the table, fold a few paper napkins, and serve from a haphazardly-placed pot.  Modern households often don't have time to put this kind of preparation into any but the most special of holiday meals.  Lucky for me, I get to try my hand at work.  

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