Today, casual dining is the accepted norm. Paper napkins and disposable dishes are common even at festive occasions, but things were very different in the early 1890’s. Although meals were not eaten exclusively in the dining room, when they were, certain rules and procedures were followed. Breakfast in the kitchen or a picnic lunch outside on a rough table or blanket would, of course, be informal and relaxed, but meals in the dining room had to adhere to an established protocol. This formality applied to both country homes and permanent residences.
The evening meal began with a formal announcement. The August, 1892 edition of The Ladies’ World declared that the popularity of the dinner bell was on the decline but the call to dine remained a necessity. The etiquette editor noted that it was popular to have meals announced by the butler or by neat-aproned and capped maids. Verbal invitations were occasionally sung by the hostess or servers. When Asian art and artifacts gained popularity in the late 19th century, the brass or silver dinner gong replaced the dinner bell; however crystal bells remained popular to call in guests for special occasions.
Chairs around the long rectangular dining table remained the seating arrangement of choice; however multiple table formations were occasionally used for large gatherings. Hostesses were advised to use care when arranging guests. Ladies’ World suggested using a triangular, three table formation for parties, with the hostess at the center of the triangle’s base, the gentlemen of honor on either side, and the host at the point. It was best to arrange the other guests, being careful to promote conversation and avoid possible confrontations caused by personality differences. A proper hostess would put her energy into promoting harmony by making careful plans before the guests arrived.
Fine china and silver demonstrated the good taste and intelligence of the hostess and were often a major investment, but some domestic brands were more affordable. American made china began to challenge European tableware as an acceptable choice in 1892. Women were advised to choose simple patterns with delicate design work or gold edges for their formal place settings. The publication ‘Art Amateur’ suggested ornate painted tea sets were fashionable for tea time and afternoon entertaining. Colorful and decorative pottery and platters were also acceptable as serving dishes which complimented the plainer dinnerware.
It was not unusual for households to spend more on their china and silver then their dining room furniture since the table settings became a personal expression of the host and hostess. For example sets of Coalport china lined entirely with matt gold, the outside being tinted either in Venetian red, royal blue, rich yellow, or old pink cost sixty-five dollars per dozen and a Coalport tea set was listed at $150. A set of Doulton dinnerware ranged from thirteen dollars to one hundred and fifty dollars. When you consider that a loaf of bread was about five cents, even thirteen dollars was a great deal of money. Silverware and linen table cloths and napkins were also required for proper entertaining. Fresh flowers, candles, and/or dried floral arrangements completed the table. These niceties demonstrated refinement and were expected in the finer homes.