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Published

4 June 2024

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A well-dressed table seems the very epitome of good taste and tradition; a crisp and crease-free linen cloth, sparkling crystal, silverware and flowers. While all these elements appear timeless and tested, many of our so-called dining ‘traditions’ have much shorter lineages than you might imagine, and some things that we consider to be ‘wrong’ have perfectly valid historical explanations. Yes, manners and etiquette are a minefield!

The impromptu table

Let’s begin with the table itself. Surely the dining table has always been with us? Well, no. Or, at least, not as a permanent fixture. The concept of a dining room – a separate space in which you ate – only emerged in the more settled and prosperous 18th century. Prior to that most meals were eaten privately in bedrooms (or a nursery for children), and only large family occasions or celebrations would afford something more akin to how we dine today. 

So, without a dining table, what did people eat off? Well, if you were poor, very little. Even the richest in the land made do with trestle tables, made up of a pair of triangular stands onto which boards would be laid. These impromptu, multipurpose tables could be stored easily and used ad hoc.

On more festive occasions they would be laid out in the largest room (often the great hall) in a pattern of a top table with two wings. This layout is still seen at many Oxbridge colleges and at traditional weddings.

The use of trestles and boards is also the reason that, even today, hotels often advertise their food offer as ‘half board’ or ‘full board’ – the ‘board’ being the table top from which your food was once severed.

A historic dining table

Creases and cloths

The top table would be the only thing to receive a cloth, which were great status symbols. While a host of today would never dress a table with a creased cloth, our forebears had little choice before irons were invented. Instead, they made a show of the creases by elaborately folding the cloth before placing it (still wet) into a linen press. After drying naturally, the deep and regular creases drew the eye away from the smaller creases.

Setting the table

Once laid with a cloth, today we would then place cutlery and glasses on the table top, but even the positioning of these stalwarts of the table has changed. 

Until the middle of the 19th century, most meals were eaten ‘à la Français’ whereby a multitude of food was laid on the table at once, not dissimilar to a modern buffet. Each place was set with a knife, fork and spoon, but these were all positioned to the right-hand side of the place setting. The diner then took whatever cutlery they needed, in whatever hand they chose. 

This seemingly casual approach to cutlery was perfectly normal, and the reason why in American dining switching the fork between the right and left hand is customary – it was a habit that the Europeans took across the Atlantic. 

Wine glasses were smaller, fewer and kept on a sideboard, and only brought to the diner as required. Even at the tables of Royalty, glasses were rinsed in between use and drunk from by more than one person.

Course by course changes

In fact, many of our most cherished table traditions only date back to the 1860s–1870s, and the widespread introduction of the modern course-style dining of ‘service à la Russe’. 

With the decline of the buffet-style ‘service à la Français’, tables were devoid of food. Flowers began to fill the gaps and, likewise, individual sets of glasses began to appear on the table. Moreover, the widespread change to ‘service à la Russe’ saw place settings as we know them today. The cutlery switched from the right-hand side to the more familiar and strict course-by-course positioning of cutlery on either side of a place setting. 

So, when you next see someone pick up a fork in their dominant hand and eat with it, perhaps they are just dining ‘a la Français’?

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