March 24, 2010

How to Set a 19th Century Dinner Table for a Dinner Party

Civil War DinnerI have been thinking of hosting a Victorian dinner party. It's just a notion in my head right now, but I thought I should at least look into the proper way to entertain. I love the cartoon on the left, it was printed in Harper's Weekly in 1861. The large hoop skirts were condemned by many publications but still remained "all the rage" during the war. It also shows the alternating male and female seat situation, proper for the time. Not only were men and women integrated but couples were also split up in an attempt to make conversation more lively. Not sitting next to the person you came with forces everyone to be social and get to know each other. :D I think a fun dress-up dinner by candle and lamp light with some Strauss playing quietly in the background would be appreciated. Although, I would feel bad as I have never been a hostess before and know absolutely nothing about wine and would prefer not to serve it.     

I have been reading up on entertaining in Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving By Mary Foote Henderson, published in 1876 (excerpts on setting the table below:)
    Civil War reenacting Table Setting
  • "Put a thick baize under the table-cloth. This is quite indispensable. It prevents noise, and the finest and handsomest table - linen looks comparatively thin and sleazy on a bare table."
  • "At a dinner party, place a little bouquet by the side of the plate of each lady, in a small glass or silver bouquet - holder. At the gentlemen's plates put a little bunch of three or four flowers, called a boutonniere, in the folds of the napkin. As soon as the gentlemen are seated at table, they may attach them to the left lapel of the coat."
  • "Put as many knives, forks, and spoons by the side of the plate of each person as will be necessary to use in all the different courses. Place the knives and spoons on the right side, and the forks on the left side, of the plates. This saves the trouble of replacing a knife and fork or spoon as each course is brought on."
  •  "Place the napkin, neatly folded, on the plate, with a piece of bread an inch thick, and three inches long, or a small cold bread roll, in the folds or on the top of the napkin."
  • "Put a glass for water, and as many wine-glasses as are necessary at each plate. Fill the water-glass just before the dinner is announced, unless caraffes are used. These are kept on the table all the time, well filled with water, one caraffe being sufficient for two or three persons. All the wine intended to be served decanted should be placed on the table, conveniently arranged at different points." Caraffes were used at all of the restaurants in Ireland to hold water. They looked very picturesque on the tables and were helpful as you didn't have to ask for water.   
  • "At opposite sides of the table place salt and pepper stands, together with the different fancy spoons, crossed by their side, which may be necessary at private dinners, for serving dishes."
  • Select as many plates as will be necessary for all the different courses. Those intended for cold dishes, such as salad, dessert, etc., place on the sideboard, or at any convenient place. Have those plates intended for dessert already prepared, with a finger-bowl on each plate. The finger-glasses should be half filled with water, with a slice of lemon in each, or a geranium leaf and one flower, or a little boutonniere: a sprig of lemonverbena is pretty, and leaves a pleasant odor on the fingers after pressing it in the bowl. In Paris, the water is generally warm, and scented with peppermint. 
  • "The warm dishes—not hot dishes—keep in a tin closet or on the top shelf of the range until the moment of serving. A plate of bread should also be on the sideboard.
  • Place the soup-tureen (with soup that has been brought to the boiling-point just before serving) and the soup-plates before the seat of the hostess." This is to keep the dishes warm. 
  • "Dinner being now ready, it should be announced by the butler or dining-room maid. Never ring a bell for a meal. Bells do very well for country inns and steamboats, but in private houses the menage should be conducted with as little noise as possible."
  • "Each dish is served as a separate course. The butler first places the pile of plates necessary for the course before the host or hostess. He next sets the dish to be served before the host or hostess, just beyond the pile of plates. The soup, salad, and dessert should be placed invariably before the hostess, and every other dish before the host. As each plate is ready, the host puts it upon the small salver held by the butler, who then with his own hand places this and the other plates in a similar manner on the table before each of the guests. If a second dish is served in the course, the butler, putting in it a spoon, presents it on the left side of each person, allowing him to help himself. As soon as any one has finished with his plate, the butler should remove it immediately, without waiting for others to finish. This would take too much time. When all the plates are removed, the butler should bring on the next course. It is not necessary to use the crumb-scraper to clean the cloth until just before the dessert is served. He should proceed in the same manner to distribute and take off the plates until the dessert is served, when he can leave the room."
  • "If one has nothing for dinner but soup, hash, and lettuce, put them on the table in style: serve them in three courses, and one will imagine it a much better dinner than if carelessly served."
This will be fun if I can convince someone to be my "butler" for a night. :D Unlikely. It sounds fun planning the whole thing from the menu items to the guests and the entertainments. There are a lot of war scenarios for the men to enjoy, I think dragging those men to a fancy dinner party would be a delight to all of the ladies who can never take part in the military aspects of reenacting. I'm still debating on whether to host this at night at a reenactment or at my house, perhaps for my birthday. I'm excited at the idea nonetheless.    


  1. I wonder at the purpose of the 1" by 3" piece of bread in the napkin. . .

    I love the tidbit about not "carelessly" serving food, so true! Good luck in your endeavors, sounds fun!

  2. Thank you for commenting. I have no idea about the purpose of the bread, especially since the size was so specific. I agree that food should be served in style.

  3. I think the size of the bread had to do with being able to break off small bite-sized pieces at a time, rather than biting into a huge hunk and creating a lot of mess. Do you know that butlers had little brooms and pans for catching bread crumbs? I've seen them in antique shops.

  4. Neat, that's a good possibility. I like the little broom here's a link to a photo of one:

  5. I like this entry... something about knowing and practicing the dinner-party-hosting ways of an earlier time makes me very happy. I found it interesting that tables without a baize underneath the linen were considered "sleazy". I can only imagine what they would consider this current day and age to be.

    I hope you do hold a Victorian dinner party - I would love to hear your summary of how things go.


  6. Hi Kim, Thanks for your comment. I did like the word choice for that. :D Thanks for the encouragement.


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