Saturday, December 28, 2013

Tidbits on Dinner Etiquette

This holiday season was quite busy in our household, as I'm sure it was in many of yours as well. This year we had carpet installed in our living room and two days later began a period of eight days with 5 dinner parties. Yes, it was great fun but also exhausting. Thankfully, we had a break for a couple days before our family Christmas activities began.

All of that is to say that my topic for today's post will include tidbits of 19th Century Social graces regarding dinner parties. Please note: most of the writings were not a part of our dinner parties. My husband and I prefer a more informal dinner and party atmosphere. However, it is fun to see what our 19th century characters might be facing with regard to dinner etiquette.

Knife, fork, and spoon may be abused. It is needless, perhaps, to hint that the knife must never be carried to the mouth. Cheese must be eaten with a fork, as also peas, and most vegetables. Only puddings of a very soft kind, and liquids, require a spoon.
Bread is not to be bitten, but broken, never cut. Never dip a'piece of bread into the gravy or preserves upon your plate, and then bite it; but if you wish to eat them together, break the bread into small pieces, and carry these to your mouth with your fork.
Mustard, salt, &C., should be put at the side of the plate, and one vegetable should never be heaped on the top of the other. Always remember that a wine-glass is to be held by the stem and not the bowl, and that the plate must not be tilted on any occasion. In eating, one should not bend the head voraciously over the plate, extend the elbows, or rattle the knife and fork; but transact all the business of the table quietly and gently. Use always the salt-spoon, sugartongs, and butter-knife; to use your own knife, spoon, or fingers, evinces a shocking want of good breeding.
Never put bones, or the seeds of fruit, upon the table-cloth. Put them upon the edge of your plate.
Resource: Good Manners: A Manual of Etiquette in Good Society ©1870

The dining-room must be, of course, carpeted even in the heat of summer, to deaden the noise of the servants' feet. The chairs should be easy, with tall slanting backs, but without arms. As they should not be much higher than drawing-room chairs, the table must be lowered in proportion. Each person should be provided with a footstool.
Light is positively necessary to digestion, and no party can be cheerful without it. It is difficult to have too much light, but profusion is less desirable than arrangement, while a mere glare becomes painful. Gas and candles should both be avoided on that and other accounts, and the best media for lighting are carcelle, or moderator-lamps, covered with open pink muslin, or tarlatane, which, without diminishing, softens the light. The principal object is to throw as much of it as possible on the table, with sufficient on the faces of the guests. Lighting from the walls is apt to throw the latter into shade, and a chandelier in the middle must be hung very low to do justice to the former. Lamps on the table itself are simply unpardonable, and must on no account be admitted. The best plan is to have four chandeliers, containing each one large lamp, and hung over the places when)
the four corners of the table would come if it were a par.allelogram instead of an oval. The rest of the room, however, must not be left in darkness, and lamps may be placed on the side-board and side-tables. The latter must be very neat, and both should be ornamented richly with flowers rather than with that pompous display of plate which is too commonly seen.
Resource: Habits of Good Society ©1863

Books of etiquette sometimes elaborately tell people how to use a napkin and how to hold a. fork. But it seems incredible that in the nineteenth century anybody can be ignorant of these simple customs. If there is such a person, let. him know that it is not etiquette to pin a napkin up to his coat, or to spread it over his breast. It should be across his knees, convenient to his hand. The fork should always be held in the right hand for eating oysters, peas, or anything that is to be conveyed to the mouth, and only transferred to the left hand when meat is to be out, and it is needed to steady the morsel.

Dinner cards have come in, in great variety, on which the visitor’s name can be written. These, painted, etched, engraved and ornamented with flowm's, feathers and Japanese figures, are in tremendous variety at all stationers and jewelers. These are the prettiest which are done by the young people of the house or the lady herself, with quotations from Shakespeare or‘ the poets. They show a personal thought, which is always complimentary.
Resource: Eitquette. the American Code of Manners ©1884

Lynn A. Coleman is an award winning & best-selling author who makes her home in Keystone Heights, Florida, with her husband of 39 years. Check out her 19th Century Historical Tidbits Blog if you like exploring different tidbits of history. Lynn's latest novel is Courting Holly


  1. Etiquette guides also existed earlier than this, even back to the Medieval times. Contrary to what some movies make out they didn't just go about throwing bones over their shoulders, or letting dogs lick the hands they ate with. Medieval folk actually seem to have been quote strict on table manners.

  2. Loved this post on etiquette! I always put my catsup all over the top of my hamburger and would probably be evicted from the dinner table. I always put my mom's napkin tucked in the top of her blouse as she spills all over it & she would also be evicted. We were taught good manners in our home and I recognize some of these correct behaviors! Thanks for the post! sharon, wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  3. Thanks for commenting, Sharon. I too put ketchup on my burgers as well as a few other things.