Bringing Zest to the Viands: Dinner Giving Advice & Etiquette from 1902

The Victorians had their love of family and chivalry and formal presentation. The Edwardians had their love of nature and get-togethers and burgeoning athleticism. Combine the best elements of those two eras for a dinner party and you get a cacophony of advice on how to throw (and attend) the most enjoyable evening of the year as deemed perfect in 1902.

It’s Thanksgiving week and kitchens are busy across the country as we cook and eat and celebrate the holiday with friends and family. Here in the Vintage Kitchen, we thought it would be fun to pull out the do’s and dont’s list of what was considered proper partying in the first few years of the 20th century to see just how many elements we have retained over the course of 115 years. It’s cliche to say that good manners never go out of style, but do they evolve to fit our modern lives or are we still putting our best Victorian/Edwardian foot forward when it comes to entertaining? In this post, we’ll discover how our ancestors prepared to feed a crowd, how they decorated their tables to reflect a festive atmosphere and how etiquette guided eaters through the event. Is it all that different from what we do today? You might be surprised by the list below. Let’s dive in and see…

Preparing turkey in a kitchen from long ago…

How to Throw A Successful Dinner Party circa 1902…

  1. Send your dinner party invitations by mail or personal messenger at least 10 days in advance. Sending via messenger is more ideal in order to ensure accurate delivery.
  2. Study your guest list. Seat opposites together…  talkers with listeners, strong opinionators with yielding dispositions, etc.
  3. Select a color scheme and harmonize everything on the table within that palette.
  4. Dishes with a background of white appeal to the eyes of all.
  5. Never starch your napkins.
  6. Each table setting requires four forks (placed on the left) and three knives (placed on the right) between each plate. Oyster forks begin the fork parade on the outside. Among the grouping of the three knives, steel knives for meat rest closest to the plate.  Napkins are placed directly in front of each guest and soup spoons lie next to each napkin.
  7. Individual salt, pepper and butter dishes should accompany each place setting.
  8. Ideal flower centerpieces include roses, lilies, carnations, lilacs, ferns and smilax which should be arranged in a low, flat edged cut glass bowl. If you are using roses in your bouquet scatter petals artistically around the table.
  9. Battenburg lace table clothes are the most ideal cloth covering but if you cant afford one- a simple doily style is recommended.
  10. Hang satin ribbons, bows and smilax from your chandelier for a visual effect of fresh, dainty beauty.
  11. Autumn leaves threaded on a string make an eye-catching border when tacked around the perimeter of the entire table.
  12. Any natural bit of vine found in season produces a wonderful opportunity to make a crown for every single guest. Autumn offers the chance to incorporate pumpkin vines in such a manner.
  13. Lighting should be kept to subdued shades. Use of colorful gas lamps and transparent globes produce a dreamland in the dining room.
  14. For a snowy table scene, dip evergreen fir branches in a weak solution of glue and roll in coarsely crushed alum to create an enchanting winter wonderland.
  15. If your dining room is not carpeted, use large rugs to deaden the sound of footsteps.
  16. Dinnertime is most commonly observed at 7:00pm.
  17. Dinner is announced just after the last guest arrives.
  18. It is recommended to have at least one servant available to attend to the needs of every six guests.
  19. Sideboards should be neatly stacked with all the pieces (dishes, cups, glasses, and flatware) needed for the entire meal so that when the servant staff (or hosts) are clearing dishes from a finished course they can easily access the appropriate dishes for the next course without causing undue chaos and uneccsary noise.
  20. Menu guidelines for a  traditional 11-course dinner party are as follows … FIRST COURSE: Contains oysters or littleneck clams. Oysters are only served in the months when the letter “R” occurs. SECOND COURSE: Contains soup along with crackers, bread or celery. Clear soups are most preferred. THIRD COURSE: Contains fish that is either boiled or fried and served alongside small boiled potatoes or radishes. FOURTH COURSE: Contains fancy main entrees that do not require carving. This course is served with bread and small garnishes like olives and nuts. FIFTH COURSE:  Features a roast of beef, veal, lamb, venison, turkey, goose or other wild game and is served alongside two vegetables. SIXTH COURSE: Contains punch or sherbert. SEVENTH COURSE: Features poultry such as chicken or pigeon. EIGHTH COURSE: Contains salad and cheese wafers. NINTH COURSE: Features dessert served either hot or cold like ice cream, pudding, cake etc. TENTH COURSE: Features fresh fruit and bonbons. ELEVENTH COURSE: Wraps the entire dinner up with coffee.

Roast Turkey from Woman’s Favorite Cook Book published in 1902

How to Master Good Manners at Table circa 1902 –

(As A Guest)

  1. Ladies always take their seats first.
  2. Do not overload your dinner plate.
  3. Never rise from your chair to reach anything, request what you need and then wait for it to be passed.
  4. Never eat anything with a spoon that can be eaten with a fork.
  5. Do not hesitate to take the last piece.
  6. Never overload your fork or spoon.
  7. In the case of restaurant or hotel dining, a lady always rises to greet another lady who has stopped to visit at the table, even though the visitor will not be eating with them.
  8. At the start of the meal, napkins should always be unfolded below the table.
  9. A gentleman folds his napkin in half and places it on his left knee.
  10. Never touch any part of your face with your napkin except your lips.
  11. If food is being carved at the table do not wait to begin eating until all the food is served.
  12. Spread soft cheese on a cracker with a knife. Eat hard cheese with your fingers.
  13. Do not break crackers or bread into your bowl of soup.
  14. If strawberries are served with stems intact, eat them with your fingers.
  15. Never touch potatoes with a knife except to butter them. Forks should be the only utensil involved when eating potatoes of any kind.
  16. Immediately pass anything that is requested (salt, butter, cream, etc) to your fellow tablemates.
  17. Do not refold your dinner napkin when you are through eating.
  18. Never talk with your mouth full and never leave the table with food in your mouth.
  19. Do not spread your elbows when cutting meat, keep them securely tucked at your side.
  20. Do not reach after a knife, fork or spoon that has dropped, instead, ask for another.
  21. When asked what cut of meat you would like answer promptly and confidently. Never leave it up to the host to consider your preference for you.
  22. Do not continue eating after passing a plate for a tablemate until that plate has been filled and returned back to the guest.
  23. Do not twist your feet around the legs of your chair.
  24. Never touch your face or head at the table.
  25. Never take a larger mouthful than will permit you to speak with ease.
  26. Never loll back in your chair or press forward against the table but sit upright to aid digestion and present yourself with controlled decorum.
  27. Never lift a glass by the rim. Goblets should be held by the stem and tumblers near the base.
  28. When addressing anyone at the table or asking for anything to be passed, mention the guest’s name to whom you speak.
  29. Do not leave the table until everyone has finished eating.
  30. When invited to a formal dinner party in which you have worn an evening dress and gloves, do not take your gloves off until you have been seated at the table.
  31. Guests who bring simple, homemade, monogrammed gifts are far more admired by hosts and hostesses than gifts that are expensive, elaborate or store-bought.

This is an Edwardian dinner party photograph from the early 1900s. Even though this is a Halloween photo you can see that they carried the theme in their decorations with a witch hanging from the chandelier, a hanging garland of fall leaves and a low floral centerpiece on the table.

(As a Host)

  1. First and foremost, as host, it is your job to ensure that every guest is well cared for and attended to at all points of the evening.
  2. After dinner has been announced at the start of the evening, the host leads the way to the table with the lady guest he wishes to honor. The hostess comes last with the gentleman guest she wishes to honor.
  3. Dinner plates should be arranged attractively. Any part of the meal that includes vinegar should be placed in its own separate bowl or plate. Bread should also be served on its own separate plate but beware of having too many plates on the table. Then it becomes cluttered and takes on the appearance of a boarding house-style meal.
  4.  The task of carving meat at the table is always conducted by the host. If no male host is present, then the hostess may carve the meat herself or select a gentleman guest to do so on her behalf.
  5. Ladies are always served before men.
  6. Do not ask anyone at the table whether they would like “more roast or more salad (or more of anything).”  Instead, ask them if they would like “some roast or some salad, etc” so as not to imply that they are eating too much or that excess effort is being put forth to serve them.
  7.  Never make introductions after the guests are seated. This should have already been done as each guest arrived for the evening before everyone proceeded to the dining room.
  8. Gentlemen who are remaining at the table for cigars following the meal should stand when the ladies rise and stay standing until they have all left the room.
  9. If all dinner guests are leaving the table at once, then ladies should group together and exit the dining room first.

We were surprised to see that so many commonsense manners from the list are still very much in play in regards to today’s table etiquette (is there even such a universal thing as this these days?!),  like serving women before men, not talking with your mouth full, and sitting up straight at the table. But some things seemed foreign like keeping your elbows tucked in when cutting meat, never using knives to cut a potato, tucking into your meal while food was still being carved and not being hesitant to take the last piece. And then there were the more curious bits like selecting guests to honor and escort into dinner and the situation with the ladies and their gloves.  Where did the gloves go once they were removed them at the table? In your lap? Under your chair? In your evening bag? Perhaps we need to re-watch a few episodes of Downton Abbey to see where Mary stored hers!

On the table decorating front it was also interesting to see how white-centered dishes are still popular as well as the notion of incorporating elements from nature into table centerpiece displays. But head garlands and chandelier decorating and extensive place settings are a less common sight these days. So many houses don’t even have dining rooms or chandeliers anymore. Head garlands are fun though – I could imagine that a table full of guests wearing beautiful wreaths of autumn leaves or pumpkin vines would lend a wonderfully theatrical sense of whimsy to the party.

I think having good manners is lovely. I also think in our busy modern lifestyle with so much interrupting us while we eat, it is easier to forget or fall out of the habit of eating deliberating with the company we are keeping. Good table manner etiquette hasn’t really changed all that much in one hundred years but our awareness of it has.

Sometimes, now it seems we pull out our best manners only on the holidays or when eating at a super expensive restaurant or a wedding reception or only when we are trying to impress someone. This is not to say that the majority of Americans now eat like animals at home, but its the fact that there is not as many people looking over our shoulders reminding us to tuck our elbows in or keep our napkins in our lap or to serve the ladies first.  In the Victorian and Edwardian days they had hours to enjoy a meal and socializing was treated like a cultural event that could be extended for days. Now we are not as indulgent with our time and focus more on quick preparations and easy recipes so that we can eat fast in order to get onto the next event or activity filling up our busy schedules.

In 2018 one of our goals in the Vintage Kitchen is to slow down dinner time (at least a few nights a week), so that we can sit down and have a conversation with our dinner mates free of phones and screens and television and outside distractions. Perhaps that will help us practice and keep good manners so that mealtime will feel a bit more decadent in the leisure department and more fulfilling on the socialization front. What do you think dear readers about this topic of manners? Do you employ them at home? Were you surprised by this list? Do you think there is still a place for them in our modern landscape? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

In the meantime, hope your kitchen is full of good food and good friends in the days leading up to Thanksgiving! Cheers to all you, ladies and gentlemen!