As with any society event, even today, proper dining etiquette is paramount to being received as a civilized person and not a ruffian or miscreant. I found this gem of historical aptitude researching the details of one such large dinner party held by one of many characters for the Woman's Club of Denver members running for office. She, of course, is running for WCD President and our lovely Bonnie is running for club Auditor.
Nothing preoccupied the mind of an Edwardian hostess so much as the planning of a dinner party. From matters of food and drink, table service, the guest list, and matters of precedence, every detail was of the utmost importance. A dinner of tepid or cold food, of dull guests, and of seating arrangements that did not take the rank and form of each guest into account could doom a lady’s social aspirations in one evening.
Since dinner giving was the most important of all social observances, gentlemen and their wives held them much more frequently than balls or other social occasions; a dinner was considered more intimate, and invitations were sent to those one was intimate with or with those the host and hostess hoped to become intimé. In the greater scheme of the inner workings of society, a dinner party was both a test of the hostess’s position and the direct road to obtaining a recognized place in society.
When issuing invitations to a large dinner party, it was customary for the hostess to give three weeks’ notice, though, by the 1910s, the notice was extended to four to six weeks in advance. This permitted sufficient time for the guests to bow out in case of an emergency–though the acceptance of the invitation was socially binding. Invitations could be purchased at stationary shops, and were blank save for lines where the hostess or her social secretary would fill in the names of the guests, the date, and the time of the dinner. These were sent in the name of both the host and hostess as following:
The dinner hour was approximately eight to nine, and guests were expected to appear at least fifteen minutes prior to the time listed on the invitation. The long, slow, and heavy meals of the mid-nineteenth century had disappeared by the Edwardian era: now hostesses preferred their dinner parties swift and filling (though this was taken to the extreme by Gilded Age hostess Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, who would hurry her guests through eight or nine courses in forty minutes), most likely to make time for evening entertainments.
On arrival, ladies and gentlemen would take off their cloaks in the cloakroom or leave them in the hall with the servant before entering the drawing-room, where the host and hostess awaited them. The vogue for pre-dinner cocktails was strictly an American custom until about 1910, and once the host and hostess greeted each guest, the ladies sat and the men stood, chatting lightly until the last guest had arrived. If any parties were unacquainted, the hostess would introduce the guests of the highest rank to one another. At very large dinner parties, however, the butler was stationed on the staircase and announced the guests as they arrived, and no introductions were required.
According to Arnold Palmer’s Moveable Feasts: Changes in English Eating Habits, the custom of pairing off to go in for dinner did not begin until early in the reign of William IV, and this was refined throughout the nineteenth century until it morphed into its usual form: The host would take the lady of the highest rank present in to the dinner, and the gentleman of the highest rank took in the hostess. This rule was absolute, unless the highest ranking male and female were related to the host or hostess, in which case his or her rank would be in abeyance, out of courtesy to the other guests.
Another don’t was for a husband and wife, father and daughter, or mother and son, to be sent in to dinner together. The hostess was advised to invite an equal number of men and women, though it was usual to invite two or more gentlemen than there were ladies, so that married ladies would not be obligated to go in to dinner with each others’ husbands only. Should the numbers be skewed, if there were more women than men, the ladies of highest rank would be taken into dinner by the gentlemen present, and the remaining ladies followed by themselves. In there were more men than women, the hostess would go in to dinner by herself, following the last couple. Prior to entering the dining room, the hostess would inform each gentleman whom he would take in to dinner.
The host remained standing until the guests had taken their seats, and he motioned to each couple where he wished them to sit. When the host did not indicate where the guests were to sit, precedence took over, and each lady and gentleman sat near the host or hostess according to their rank. The host and the lady he took in to dinner sat at the bottom of the table, she sitting at his right hand. The hostess sat at the top of the table, and the gentleman who brought her in to dinner sat at her left. According to precedence, the lady second in rank sat at the host’s left hand, and the other female guests sat at the right of the gentleman who took her in to dinner. Place cards with the names of each guest were used at large dinner parties, and in some instances, the name of each guest was printed on a menu and placed in front of each cover. The menus themselves were placed along the table, each viewable by one or two persons. These menus could be simple or elaborate, depending on the hostess’s tastes, and the dishes available in each course were written in French.
For table decoration, there were a number of variations available, though they were largely a matter of taste than of etiquette. The basic table setting was of a mixture of high and low center pieces, low specimen glasses placed the length of the table, and trails of creepers and flowers laid on the tablecloth. The fruit to be eaten for dessert was usually arranged down the center of the table, amidst the flowers and plate. Some dinner tables were decorated with a variety of French conceits (centerpieces), whilst others were sparse, save for the flowers and the plate. Lighting was an important feature, and though electric lights were in vogue when possible, it was not uncommon to dine by old-fashioned lamps and wax candles. Accompanying the decorations and lighting was the “cover,” which was the place laid at the table for each person, and consisted of a spoon for soup, a fish knife and fork, two knives, two large forks, and glasses for the wines being served.
Dinner-table etiquette was strict–an uneducated or uncouth person who appeared innocuous enough, would reveal his or her inexperience in a finer milieu by displaying such shocking customs as eating off a knife, or tucking a napkin into the collar of their shirt. When a lady took her seat at the dinner table, she removed her gloves at once, though were long gloves, they were usually made to allow the glove to be unbuttoned around the thumb and peeled back from the wrists. Both ladies and gentlemen would unfold their serviettes and place them in their laps.
Soups were, of course, eaten with a soup spoon, though one spooned away from themselves and never ever slurped. Fish was eaten with the fish knife and fork, and all made dishes (quenelles, rissoles, patties, etc) were eaten with a fork only. Poultry, game, etc were eaten with a knife and fork, as was asparagus and salads. Peas, the test of true breeding, were eaten with a fork. In eating game or poultry, the bone of either wing or leg was not touched with the fingers; the meat was cut from the bone with the knife. Jellies, blancmanges, ice puddings, and practically any substantial sweet, were eaten with a fork. Cheese was eaten daintily, with small morsels placed with the knife on small morsels of bread, and the two conveyed to the mouth with the thumb and finger. When eating grapes, cherries, or other pitted fruits, they were brought to the mouth, whereupon the pits and skins were spit discreetly into the hand to be placed on the side of the plate.
Dessert was served to the guests in the order in which dinner was served. When the guests had helped themselves to the wine and the servants had vacated the dining room, the host would hand the decanters around the table, starting with the gentleman nearest him, as ladies were not supposed to require a second glass of wine during dessert. If she required a second glass, the gentleman seated beside her would fill the glass–she would definitely not help herself to the wine. Ten minutes or so after the wine had been passed once around the table, the hostess gave a signal for the ladies to leave the dining room by bowing to the lady of the highest rank present. The gentlemen rose when the ladies did, and the women quit the dining room in the order of their rank, the hostess following last. The gentlemen were left to their port and claret, while the ladies retired to the drawing room for coffee. While the ladies drank their coffee, a servant took the coffee to the gentlemen, and after a few more rounds of wine and the cigarettes and cigars were smoked, they joined the ladies. This custom, however, shortened by 1910 or so, and at times, the practice of ladies and gentlemen separating after dinner was abandoned by smarter hostesses.
Dinner ended in town about half an hour after the gentlemen joined the ladies in the drawing room. In the country, it was common to begin games or play cards into the wee hours of the night. There was no etiquette for leave-taking, and after the host and hostess saw each guest into his or her or their carriages, their duties were done for the night.
Further Reading: Manners and Rules of Good Society by A Member of the Aristocracy Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John Sherwood Etiquette of Good Society by Lady Colin Campbell The Correct Thing in Good Society by Florence Howe Hall
The concept of polite society grew precisely out of that: politeness. The art of conversation was raised to a highest pitch amongst the aristocracy until it became a sort of shared language, or verbal code, to allow members to identify one another by the pitch and tone of one’s voice, and the words used to express one’s needs, wants, and desires. Young ladies of the aristocracy were trained to “keep their voices low and never to raise them in excitement, and to laugh in such a way that the ear was not offended.” The result of this training was “a soft clear silvery tone…[and] a lady was known by (among other things) the charm of her speaking voice.”
As late Victorian society gradually opened its doors to self-made millionaires, Americans, politicians, and artists, the art of conversation grew in importance. The quickest way to get doors slammed in your face was to be rude or a bore, and women striving to enter choice circles could find themselves cut by society matrons if their voice and manner were too pushy or too loud. Also, since the popular indoor amusements of Victorians and Edwardians were word games, recitations, and monologues, the tongue-tied were at an extreme disadvantage.
Mary Greer Conklin, in Conversation: What to Say & how to Say it, gives the following advice for conversation at a dinner party:
The best answer to the question, “What should guests at dinner talk about?” is, anything and everything, provided the talk is tinctured with tact, discretion, and discrimination. To one’s dinner-companion, if he happens to be a familiar acquaintance, one can even forget to taboo dress, disease, and domestics. One might likewise, with discretion, set at liberty the usually forbidden talk of “shop,” on condition that such intimate conversation is to one’s dinner-companion alone and is not dragged into the general flights of the table-talk.
While one talks to one’s dinner-companion in a low voice, however, it needs nice discrimination not to seem to talk under one’s breath, or to say anything to a left-hand neighbor which would not be appropriate for a right-hand neighbor to hear. When in general talk, the habit some supposedly well-bred persons have of glancing furtively at any one guest to interrogate telepathically another’s opinion of some remark is bad taste beyond the power of Censure or the possibility of forgiveness.
At large, formal dinners, on the order of banquets, it would be impossible for all guests to include a host or hostess in their conversational groups from any and every part of the table; only those guests seated near them can do this. But at small, informal dinners all guests should, whenever possible, consider it their duty to direct much of their conversation to their host and hostess.
I have seen guests at small dinners of no more than six or eight covers go through the various courses of a three hours’ dining, ignoring their host and hostess in the entire table-talk, while conversing volubly with others. There is something more due a host and hostess than mere greetings on entering and leave-takings on departing. If the dinner-party is so large that all guests cannot show them at the table the attention due them, the delinquent ones can at least seek an opportunity in the drawing-room, after guests have left the dining-room, to pay their host and hostess the proper courtesy. Hosts should never be made to feel that it is to their cook they owe their distinction, and to their table alone that guests pay visits.
To say that the dominant note in table-talk should be light and humorous is going too far; but conversation between dinner-companions should tend strongly to the humorous, to the light, to the small change of ideas. There should be an adroit intermixing of light and serious talk.
Thoughtful dinner-guests take pains not to monopolize the conversation. They bring others of the company into their talk, giving them opportunities of talking in their turn, and listening themselves while they do so: “You, Mr. Brown, will agree with me in this”; or, “Mr. Black, you have had more experience in such cases than I have; what is your opinion?” The perfection of this quality of conversational charm consists in that rare gift, the art of drawing others out, and is as valuable and graceful in guests as in hosts.
Dinner-companions, however, should be alert to others of the conversational group. A guest can as easily lead the talk into general paths as can a host or hostess. Indeed, it is gracious for him to do this, tho it is not his duty. The duty lies entirely with a host or hostess. At any time through the dinner a guest can help to make conversation general: If some one has just told in a low voice, to a right-hand or left-hand neighbor alone, some clever impersonal thing, or a good anecdote, or some interesting happening suitable to general table-talk, the guest can get the attention of all present by addressing some one at the furthest point of the table from him.
The dining-room is both an arena in which talkers fight with words upon a field of white damask, and a love-feast of discussion. If guests are neither hatefully disputatious, nor hypocritically humble, if they are generous, frank, natural, and wholly honest in word and mind, the impression they make cannot help being agreeable.