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Coming to the Table: Historic Place Settings in America, 1850-1890

When we look at historic foodways, we should also consider HOW the food and tables were laid, presented, and served. It tells a lot about the changes in the American approach to dining. A place setting, often referred to as a “cover”, consists of the plates, glasses, silver, and napkin to be used by each person. The covers on opposite sides of the table should be directly opposite each other, not out of line. Lay the covers, allowing twenty-four to thirty inches from plate to plate for formal meals.

A table setting diagram below from Mrs. Beecher's Domestic Receipt Book, 1850.

She lists each place setting as having, "On the dinner table, at each plate, a knife, fork, napkin, and tumbler."

From her drawing, it implies that the fork is placed to the left of the plate, the knife above the plate (one assumes with the handle to the right), the napkin to the right of the plate, with the tumbler directly above the napkin, but pretty much beside the plate rather than above it to the upper right-hand corner as we are modernly used to.

Salt cellars with two spoons each, laid across each other are at each corner of the table, above the diners in those locations, which is similar to the placement of the two salt cellars in the Godey's layout. All of the other items on the table are lettered and a key provided.

In the same book Ms. Beecher provides for the proper place setting for a tea-table. Small sized plates are set around with only a knife. The position of the napkin and tumbler are the same in her dinner diagram above. The food items being served are placed symmetrically in the center of the table. On the waiter (tray) are placed the teacups and saucers; sugar bowl; slop bowl; cream cup; and two or three containers of tea, coffee, and water. Mrs. Beecher comments, “This drawing may aid some housekeepers in teaching a domestic how to set a tea-table, as the picture will assist the memory in some cases.”

Moving to an article from Godey's Lady's Book, March 1859, nearly a decade later than the dinner table example from Mrs. Beecher’s shown above, it's interesting how the location of items in place settings changes ever so slightly across so many publications of the time, year by year. Notice that while the fork and spoon are placed beside the plate, the knife is placed above the plate, and the napkin has moved from the right side to the left side. The fact that the napkins are shown in rings implies that this is a family meal, as napkin rings are only used to identify each individual’s napkin in domestic settings when they will be reused for more than one meal.

There is a noticeable lack of wine glasses in both the 1850 and 1859 table diagrams shown above. That doesn’t imply that wine was not being served. During this period wineglasses were brought to the table when each was appropriate rather than being a part of the pre-set cover.

In Mary Foote Henderson’s “Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving”, 1877 this table setting diagram appears, with a lengthy (and fairly florid description) quoted below-

“In serving a dinner a la Russe, the table is decorated by placing the dessert in a tasteful manner around a centre-piece of flowers. This furnishes a happy mode of gratifying other senses than taste; for while the appetite is being satisfied, the flowers exhale their fragrance, and give the eye what never fails to please the refined and cultivated guest.

“In this style the dishes are brought to the table already carved, and ready for serving, thus depriving the cook of the power to display his decorative art, and the host his skill at carving. Each dish is served as a separate course, only one vegetable being allowed for a course, unless merely sued for the purpose of garnishing.

“I will describe the "setting" or arranging of the table, which may be advantageously adopted. In the first place, a round table five feet in diameter is the best calculated to show off a dinner. If of this size, it may be decorated to great advantage, and conveniently used for six or eight persons, without enlargement.

“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. Do not put starch in the napkins, as it renders them stiff and disagreeable, and only a very little in the table-cloth. They should be thick enough, and, at the same time, of fine enough texture, to have firmness without starch. Too much cannot be said as to the pleasant effect of a dinner, when the table-linen is of spotless purity, and the dishes and silver are perfectly bright.

“Although many ornaments may be used in decorating the table, yet nothing is so pretty and so indicative of a refined taste as flowers. If you have no epergne for them, use a compotier or raised dish, with a plate upon the top, to hold cut flowers; or place flower -pots with blossoming plants on the table. A net -work of wire, painted green, or of wood or crochet work, may be used to conceal the roughness of the flowerpot. A still prettier arrangement is to set the pot in a jardinière vase.

"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.

“Place the dessert in two or four fancy dessert - dishes around the centre-piece, which, by-the-way, should not be high enough to obstruct the view of persons sitting at opposite sides of the table. The dessert will consist of fruits, fresh or candied, preserved ginger, or preserves of any kind, fancy cakes, candies, nuts, raisins, etc.

“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. Many prefer the latter arrangement, as they object to the appearance of so many knives, etc., by the sides of a plate. This is, of course, a matter of taste. I concede the preferable appearance of the latter plan, but confess a great liking for any arrangement which saves extra work and confusion.

“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 carafes are used. These are kept on the table all the time, well filled with water, one carafe 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.

“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 lemon verbena 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.

“Some place folded fruit -napkins under each finger-bowl; others have little fancy net -work mats, made of thread or crochet cotton, which are intended to protect handsome painted dessert-plates from scratches which the finger-bowls might possibly make.

(…more text about each of the course the dishes being served and how…)

“This is little enough every-day ceremony for families of the most moderate pretensions, and it is also enough for the finest dinner party, with the simple addition of more waiters, and distribution of the work among them. It is well that this simple ceremony should be daily observed.”

!!! DAILY !!!

In the same 1877 book, Mary Foot Henderson does also describe serving dinner a la Anglais, shown to the left.

Her description of serving a la Anglais, in much shorter and more dismissive terms, says,

"The English mode is to set the whole of each course, often containing many dishes, at once upon the table. Such dishes as require carving, after having been once placed on the dinner table, are removed to a side-table, and there carved by an expert servant. Serving several dishes at one time, of course, impairs the quality of many, on account of the impossibility of keeping them hot. This might, in fact, render some dishes quite worthless."

(We can obviously tell which service style Mrs. Henderson prefers...)

Mrs. Henderson makes outlines some other very pithy directions having to do with dinner service-

· Never overload or over supply a table. It is a vulgar hospitality.

· When you invite a person to a family dinner, do not attempt too much. It is really more elegant to have the dinner appear as if it were an everyday affair.

· Many Americans are deterred from entertaining, because they do not think they can have company without a vulgar abundance, which is an expensive and troublesome as it is coarse and unrefined.

· Care must be taken about when selecting company for a dinner party. Always put the question to yourself, “Why do I ask him or her?”. Unless the answer be satisfactory, leave him or her out.”

All of these statements come for the author who shows a strong preference for Service a la Russe., which requires a great deal more domestic staff.

In the 1888 book, Mrs. Corson’s Practical Cookery and Household Management, the image above appears.

It is a table set with dinner covers for multiple guests, and differs very little from Mary Foote Henderson’s table laid for service a la Anglais. She recommends the laying of multiple pieces of silverware, “as many wineglasses as are necessary”, the salt cellar and pepper stand/shaker at the corner, napkin folded at each place setting with a piece of bread/bread roll inside of it, and at least one carafe/decanter. She shows shades being used on the candles, to reduce the glare of their flames.

Mrs. Corson’s Practical Cookery and Household Management makes several different observations about laying the table. She notes that tablecloths should be laid without any creases or folds in it, that is has become fashionable to lay a strip of bright colored plush or satin down the middle of the table, or that a wide piece of very open lace with a definite. Pattern laid over a matching piece of satin, silk, or cambric is also appropriate.

She also states that large caster sets have gone out of favor, and are not even found on sideboard in usual circumstances, and that butter, when it is served, often has a small plate and special knife placed for use. “The disuse of butter is traced to countries where it is less plentiful than in America”, and that she hopes the current trend does not continue.

It’s noticeable that very little has changed between the 1915 and 1930 diagrams, and things continue to toward more informality and self-expression in the table settings of the 20th century, with the exception of the most formal of occasions.

This presentation has not attempted to discuss the wide variety of specialized place setting flatware that develops in the last half of the 19th century, with a bewildering number of different individual forks, knives, and spoons. That could easily be an entire separate paper. Here the basic changes in place settings have been highlighted to show change over time using extant period diagrams.

Incorporating place settings correct to the period you are interpreting aides in the discussion of social customs, and expands Foodways programs beyond food’s preparation to its presentation and how individuals were expected to eat in various formal and informal settings. It helps illustrate out complex relationship with food and dining, and helps spark good conversation about cultural change over time.

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