Find out how to set a formal dinner table the proper old-fashioned way with these tips from 100 years ago.
How to set a formal dinner table: General directions for laying the table (1916)
From the antique book “Table Service,” by Lucy Grace Allen, co-founder of the Boston School of Cookery
A “cover” consists of the plates, glasses, silver, and napkin to be used by each person. The covers on opposite sides of the table should be directly opposite each other, not out of line.
Mark the position of the covers by laying the service or place plates, which should be not less than ten inches in diameter. Lay the covers, allowing twenty-four to thirty inches from plate to plate.
In laying a bare table, the covers are marked by the plate doilies. A service plate is laid for each person, one inch from the edge of the table; this plate remains upon the table until it is necessary to replace it with a hot plate.
How to set a formal dinner table: Dinner cover diagram detail
Next, lay the silver, which should always be placed in the order in which it is to be used, beginning at the outside and using toward the plate.
Silver for the dessert course is never put on with the silver required for the other courses, except for the dinner which is served without a maid, when everything should be done to avoid the necessity of leaving the table. Neither is the table set with more than three forks. If more are required, they are placed with their respective courses.
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Either bring the salad or dessert silver in on the plate, or place it from a napkin or tray at the right, from the right, after the plate is placed.
Some persons object to the first-named method, on account of the possible noise. The knife or knives are to be placed at the right of the plate, half an inch from the edge of the table, with the cutting edge toward the plate.
Place spoons, with the bowls facing up, at the right of the knife; and forks, with the tines turned upward, at the left of the plate.
The spoon for fruit or the small fork for oysters or hors-d’oeuvres is placed at the extreme right or on the plate containing this course.
This statement does not include the serving of oysters or clams on the shell; then the fork is always found at the right.
How to set a formal dinner table: Diagram of table laid for home dinner without service of a maid
Place the napkin, preferably flat and squarely folded, at the left of the forks.
The hem and selvage of the napkin should be parallel with the forks and the edge of the table, this position bringing the embroidered letter, if there be one, in the right place. Napkins are sometimes given additional folds to save space.
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Place the water glass at the point of the knife; the bread-and-butter plate above the service plate, a little to the left; and the butter spreader across the upper, right-hand side of the bread-and-butter plate, with the blade turned toward the center of the plate.
At first-class hotels, the butter spreader is often found at the right with the other knives, but this is not consistent with home table service.
How to set a formal lunch table: Luncheon cover in detail
Place all the silver, china, and glass required for one cover as close together as possible, without having the pieces touch or appear crowded.
The whole table and the cover itself has a much neater appearance if the cover is compact, not loosely spread.
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Salt and pepper sets are to be placed between each two covers. If an open salt cellar is used, place the salt spoon across the top or on the cloth beside it.
When the table is being laid for a supper or a spread where no knife is required, place the fork at the right, as it is to be used in the right hand and there is sufficient space for it there. A teaspoon, if called for, would be at the right of the fork.
How to set a formal breakfast table: Diagram of breakfast table