The dinner party; a minefield of social etiquette and proper behaviour for both the host and the guests. For the host – the pressure of who to invite, where to sit them, what to serve them? Having the right invitation cards, the right food, the right dishes. For the guests – the importance of appearance, polite conversation, correct eating habits. All in all, a maze of social convention with the potential for disaster lying around every corner.
As archaeologists we don’t get to see the social etiquette and behaviour associated with dining directly. Whilst we might uncover the remnants of a first course meal, with the likes of a soup plate and a dessert spoon, we don’t know if the soup was drunk from the side of the spoon (not the tip!) without any audible noise or slurping, as was the polite way to do so. Instead, we have to make inferences based on the assemblage we have from the archaeological record and what we know from the social history to determine the social behaviour of the people we are studying.
Today on the blog we are going to explore Victorian dining customs and some of the etiquette surrounding them, along with how this relates to what we find in the archaeological record. Before we do that, it is worthwhile defining what meal we actually mean by ‘dinner’. Dinner is the main meal of the day. In medieval times, dinner took place at midday, with a basic breakfast served in the morning, and a light supper in the evening just before bed. The urbanisation and industrialisation which took place in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to the wealthy and social elite having dinner at a later hour, as late as 9pm by the 1840s. The pushing back of dinner time led to the establishment of a ladies’ luncheon at midday, and afternoon tea between 4pm and 5pm. For working-class people dinner remained at midday, if they were able to leave work for it, or changed to the evening if they lived away from work. In nineteenth century New Zealand dinner was normally served at midday, with evening dinner developing in urban areas in the early twentieth century.
What was served for dinner and how it was served depended on a person’s wealth and status. At the elite end of the scale was the dinner party, where guests were invited for a dinner consisting of five or more courses. An 1879 article in the Southland times describes what should be served for each course. The first course was a soup course, with a vegetable and a white soup normally offered (although one should avoid the white soup with its high levels of cream unless they had ‘exceptionally powerful digestion’). This was followed by a fish course, with at least two fish served. Entrees came next along with mains, which should include roast meat and accompaniments. Dessert finished the meal before the women retired to the parlour for tea and the men discussed business.
From the mid-nineteenth century dinner began to be served à la Russe, where courses were served separately and in succession of each other. Prior to this, dishes from all the courses were served on the table at once in service à la Française. In service à la Russe, the only dishes on the table were plates and drinks glasses. Dishes were offered to the guests by servants on large platters, and the guests served themselves. The plates were then cleared away and replaced for the next course which was served in a similar fashion.
The wealthier a household was, the more elaborate their meals were. For the middle class three courses was likely standard, with a maid to help serve the meal if possible. Meals with more courses would have been reserved for dinner parties, which would have been an opportunity for the hosts to show off. For the working classes three course meals were possible, but there would not have been a servant to help serve them.
The number of courses needing to be served, along with the manner of service, dictated the table ware set a household required. An important component of a successful dinner party was the service the dinner was served on. All of the dishes should be matching, and each item of food should be served on the appropriate dish. The rise of the middle-class led to a growth in demand for ceramic table sets, with the Staffordshire potteries responding with a variety of new vessel forms intended for wealthy customers including asparagus plates, herring dishes, chestnut baskets, and fish trowels (Barker 2010: 15).
As archaeologists we can use the ceramic assemblage recovered from a household to infer that household’s status and dining habits. When we get an assemblage with elaborate vessel forms in matching patterns and multiple vessels we can infer that the household was wealthy and likely hosting elaborate dinner parties. By the same vein, when we get an assemblage with plain ceramics and simple forms it is likely the household was poorer, and not spending their money on keeping up-to-date with the latest ceramic fashions to impress fancy dinner guests. Of course, it is never as simple as that. As the story of the Wellington dinner party shows, people made do with what they had, and whilst the hostess of the party might not have had enough forks for a multi-course dinner party, she hosted one anyway!
Inspired by this blog to host your own dinner party? Here are our favourite tips (more here) on dinner party etiquette to avoid complete and utter social embarrassment!
-never encourage a dog or cat to play with you at the table.
-never hesitate to take the last piece of bread or the last cake; there are probably more.
-never allow butter, soup or other food to remain on your whiskers. Use the napkin frequently.
-never wear gloves at the table, unless the hands for some special reason are unfit to be seen.
-never eat so much of one article so as to attract attention, as some people do who eat large quantities of butter, sweet cake, cheese or other articles.
-never allow the conversation at the table to drift into anything but chit-chat; the consideration of deep and abstruse principles will impair digestion.
Barker, D. 2010. Producing for the Table: A View From the Staffordshire Potteries. In Symonds, J. (Ed). Table Settings: The Material Culture and Social Context of Dining AD 1700-1900. Oxbow Books, Oxford.
Free Lance [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.