Manners and social usages,

CHAPTER XXX.THE MODERN DINNER-TABLE.


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The appointments of the modern dinner-table strikingly indicate that growth of luxury of which the immediate past has been so fruitful. Up to twenty years ago a dinner, even in the house of a merchant prince, was a plain affair. There was a white tablecloth of double damask; there were large, handsome napkins; there was a rich service of solid silver, and perhaps some good china. Flowers, if used at all, were not in profusion; and as for glasses, only a few of plain white, or perhaps a green or a red one for claret or hock, were placed at the side of the plate.

Of course there were variations and exceptions to this rule, but they were few and far between. One man, or often one maid-servant, waited at the table; and, as a protection for the table-cloth, mats were used, implying the fear that the dish brought from the top of the kitchen-range, if set down, would leave a spot or stain. All was on a simple or economical plan. The grand dinners were served by caterers, who sent their men to wait at them, which led to the remark, often laughed at as showing English stupidity, made by the Marquis of Hartington when he visited New York at the time of our war. As he looked at old Peter Van Dyck and his colored assistants,

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whom he had seen at every house at which he had dined, he remarked, “How much all your servants resemble each other in America!” It was really an unintentional sarcasm, but it might well have suggested to our nouveaux riches the propriety of having their own trained servants to do the work of their houses instead of these outside men. A degree of elegance which we have not as a nation even yet attained is that of having a well- trained corps of domestic servants.

A mistress of a house should be capable of teaching her servants the method of laying a table and attending it, if she has to take, as we commonly must, the uneducated Irishman from his native bogs as a house-servant. If she employs the accomplished and well-recommended foreign servant, he is too apt to disarrange her establishment by disparaging the scale on which it is conducted, and to engender a spirit of discontent in her household. Servants of a very high class, who can assume the entire management of affairs, are only possible to people of great wealth, and they become tyrants, and wholly detestable to the master and mistress after a short slavery. One New York butler lately refused to wash dishes, telling his mistress that it would ruin his finger-nails. But this man was a consummate servant, who laid the table and attended it, with an ease and grace that gave his mistress that pleasant feeling of certainty that all would go well, which is the most comfortable of all feelings to a hostess, and without which dinner-giving is annoyance beyond all words.

The arrangement of a dinner-table and the waiting

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upon it are the most important of all the duties of a servant or servants, and any betrayal of ignorance, any nervousness or noise, any accident, are to be deplored, showing as they do want of experience and lack of training.

No one wishes to invite his friends to be uncomfortable. Those dreadful dinners which Thackeray describes, at which people with small incomes tried to rival those of large means, will forever remain in the minds of his readers as among the most painful of all revelations of sham. We should be real first, and ornamental afterwards.

In a wealthy family a butler and two footmen are employed, and it is their duty to work together in harmony, the butler having control. The two footmen lay the table, the butler looking on to see that it is properly done. The butler takes care of the wine, and stands behind his mistress’s chair. Where only one man is employed, the whole duty devolves upon him, and he has generally the assistance of the parlor-maid. Where there is only a maid-servant, the mistress of the house must see that all necessary arrangements are made.

The introduction of the extension-table into our long, narrow dining-rooms has led to the expulsion of the pretty round-table, which is of all others the most cheerful. The extension-table, however, is almost inevitable, and one of the ordinary size, with two leaves added, wilt seat twelve people. The public caterers say that every additional leaf gives room for four more people, but the hostess, in order to avoid crowding, would be wise if she tested this with her

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dining-room chairs. New York dinner-parties are often crowded sixteen being sometimes asked when the table will only accommodate fourteen. This is a mistake, as heat and crowding should be avoided. In country houses, or in Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, and other cities where the dining-rooms are ordinarily larger than those in a New York house, the danger of crowding, of heat, and want of ventilation, is more easily avoided; but in a gas-lighted, furnace-heated room in New York the sufferings of the diners-out are sometimes terrible.

The arrangements for the dinner, whether the party be ten or twenty, should be the same. Much has been said about the number to be invited, and there is an old saw that one should not invite “fewer than the Graces nor more than the Muses.” This partiality to uneven numbers refers to the difficulty of seating a party of eight, in which case, if the host and hostess take the head and foot of the table, two gentlemen and two ladies will come together. But the number of the Graces being three, no worse number than that could be selected for a dinner-party; and nine would be equally uncomfortable at an extension-table, as it would be necessary to seat three on one side and four on the other. Ten is a good number for a small dinner, and easy to manage. One servant can wait on ten people, and do it well, if well-trained. Twenty-four people often sit down at a modern dinner-table, and are well served by a butler and two men, though some luxurious dinner-givers have a man behind each chair. This, however, is ostentation.

A lady, if she issue invitations for a dinner of ten

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or twenty, should do so a fortnight in advance, and should have her cards engraved thus:

Mr. and Mrs. James Norman
request the pleasure of
Mr. and Mrs. John Brown’s company at dinner
on Thursday, February eighth,
at seven o’clock.

These engraved forms, on note-paper, filled up with the necessary time and date, are very convenient and elegant, and should be answered by the fortunate recipient immediately, in the most formal manner, and the engagement should be scrupulously kept if accepted. If the subsequent illness or death of relatives, or any other cause, renders this impossible, the hostess should be immediately notified.

A gentleman is never invited without his wife, nor a lady without her husband, unless great intimacy exists between the parties, and the sudden need of another guest makes the request imperative.

The usual hour for dinner-parties in America is seven o’clock; but whatever the hour, the guests should take care to be punctual to the minute. In the hall the gentleman should find a card with his name, and that of the lady whom he is to take in, written on it, and also a small boutonnière, which he places in his button-hole. On entering the drawing-room the lady goes first, not taking her husband’s arm. If the gentleman is not acquainted with the lady whom he is to take in to dinner, he asks his hostess to present him to her, and he endeavors to place himself on an agreeeble footing with her before they enter the dining-room.

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When the last guest has arrived, dinner is ready, and the butler makes his announcement. The host leads the way, with the lady to whom the dinner is given, and the hostess follows last, with the gentleman whom she wishes to honor.

The people who enter a modern dining-room find a picture before them, which is the result of painstaking thought, taste, and experience, and, like all works of art, worthy of study.

The first thought of the observer is, “What a splendid bit of color!” The open-work, white tablecloth lies on a red ground, and above it rests a mat of red velvet, embroidered with peacock’s feathers and gold lace. Above this stands a large silver salver or oblong tray, lined with reflecting glass, on which Dresden swan and silver lilies seem floating in a veritable lake. In the middle of this long tray stands a lofty vase of silver or crystal, with flowers and fruit cunningly disposed in it, and around it are placed tropical vines. At each of the four corners of the table stand four ruby glass flagons set in gold, standards of beautiful and rare designs. Cups or silver-gilt vases, with centres of cut glass, hold the bonbons and smaller fruits. Four candelabra hold up red wax-candles with reel shades, and flat, glass troughs, filled with flowers, stand opposite each place, grouped in a floral pattern.

At each place, as the servant draws back the chair, the guest sees a bewildering number of glass goblets, wine and champagne glasses, several forks, knives, and spoons, and a majolica plate holding oysters on the half shell, with a bit of lemon in the centre of

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the plate. The napkin, deftly folded, holds a dinner-roll, which the guest immediately removes. The servants then, seeing all the guests seated, pass red and black pepper, in silver pepper-pots, on a silver tray. A small, peculiarly-shaped fork is laid by each plate, at the right hand, for the oysters. Although some ladies now have all their forks laid on the left hand of the plate, this, however, is not usual. After the oysters are eaten, the plates are removed, and two kinds of soup are passed–a white and a brown soup.

During this part of the dinner the guest has time to look at the beautiful Queen Anne silver, the handsome lamps, if lamps are used (we may mention the fact that about twenty-six candles will well light a dinner of sixteen persons), and the various colors of lamp and candle shades. Then the beauty of the flowers, and, as the dinner goes on, the variety of the modern Dresden china, the Sèvres, the Royal Worcester, and the old blue can be discussed and admired.

The service is à la Russe; that is, everything is handed by the servants. Nothing is seen on the table except the wines (and only a few of these), the bonbons, and the fruit. No greasy dishes are allowed. Each lady has a bouquet, possibly a painted reticule of silk filled with sugar-plums, and sometimes a pretty fan or ribbon with her name or monogram painted on it.

At his right hand each guest finds a goblet of elegantly-engraved glass for water, two of the broad, flat, flaring shape of the modern champagne glass (although some people are using the long vase-like

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glass of the past for champagne), a beautiful Bohemian green glass, apparently set with gems, for the hock, a ruby-red glass for the claret, two other large white claret or Burgundy glasses, and three wine-glasses of cut or engraved glass. Harlequin glasses, which give to the table the effect of a bed of tulips, are in fashion for those who delight in color and variety.

The hostess may prefer the modern napery, so exquisitely embroidered in gold thread, which affords an opportunity to show the family coat of arms, or the heraldic animals–the lion and the two-headed eagle and the griffin–intertwined in graceful shapes around the whole edge of the table and on the napkins.

As the dinner goes on the guest revels in unexpected surprises in the beauty of the plates, some of which look as if made of solid gold; and when the Roman punch is served it comes in the heart of a red, red rose, or in the bosom of a swan, or the cup of a lily, or the “right little, tight little” life-saying boat. Faience, china, glass, and ice are all pressed into the service of the Roman punch, and sometimes the prettiest dish of all is hewn out of ice.

We will try to see how all this picture is made, beginning at the laying of the table, the process of which we will explain in detail in the next chapter.

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