Preparing the table for a formal dinner party in the Edwardian era
Text from The Housewife’s blue book, by the Parmelee Dohrmann Co (1905)
Beautiful flowers make the most appropriate decorations on the groundwork of immaculate linen and under the soft rays of the candelabra or banquet lamps; and all of these have an influence and significance.
There is an unspeakable purity in the linen’s whiteness, and glorious cheer in the mellow light, and a balm in the blossom’s fragrance.
The flowers may be arranged in a center group of beautiful vases, a cluster of roses or other flowers in a single vase, or growing ferns in fern stands may be used. For formal dinners, a single bud or boutonniere in a flower tube is placed at each service plate.
After the arrangement of the flower decorations comes the placing of the napkins, cutlery, silver and glass according to the courses and wines to be served.
The wines should be graded up from the mild to the better vintages as the dinner progresses, until the game and roast courses are reached, when the wines should be of the highest grade.
The following is a list of the indispensable and necessary pieces of china and glass for correct dinner service, together with those pieces solely employed for decorative effects. They are given in the order in which they are placed on the table during dinner:
Decorating the table for the formal dinner party
In considering the decoration of the table, there are hardly any separate articles which alone add such a wealth of brilliancy and comfort to the dinner as the artistic electric lamp, or the candelabra. Their soft light on china and linen combines with the floral pieces in adding luster to the occasion.
The flower vases, tubes and fern stands may be of various sizes and shapes in rich deep cuttings, simple chaste patterns, or plain crystal blown, as well as in rich gold effects of crystal or colored glass. It is well to select vases either low or very tall, so that they do not obstruct the view across the table.
The service or place plates are purely decorative, and should be in strong colors and rich gold effects. They often bear a distinct design.
Bread and butter
Since the Americans serve bread and butter at every meal, the bread and butter plates should not be omitted. People who think they are out of fashion are misinformed. On these plates, one has ample space for both bread and butter. Their convenience commends them to permanent use. In decoration, they may match the roast set, or be of a color harmonizing with all the china, preferably in white and gold.
MORE: Victorian etiquette: 72 simple rules for men while at the dinner table (1889)
Olives, radishes and celery are most palatable when served cold, consequently, the dish for each should be deep enough to hold sufficient cracked ice to bed them in.
The mistake of serving celery in high glass stands is sometimes made, but when served in this way it soon wilts and loses its flavor. It should properly be served in a tray for that purpose, which, being an odd piece, may be a decorative feature of the table.
Individual celery dips for salt are smaller than an ordinary salt, and especially adapted to individual use.
Dishes, cutlery and glassware for a formal dinner party
The silver, sterling always preferred, should be neatly designed. Unplated, steel blade knives, kept sharp, should be used for all meats and game. Those with pearl handles are durable and in good taste. A special fish knife and fork are made for the fish course. The carving knife should always have a keen edge if the good nature of the carver is to be preserved.
In carving poultry or game, a very practical addition to the carving set is the poultry shears, for severing joints, etc. They are made of the best nickel steel, nickel-plated, are shaped especially for the purpose, and their use prevents the dulling or nicking of the carving knife on the bones of the fowl.
The water goblets and wine glasses for the different courses, from oysters to dessert, should be placed on the table with the silver and the napkins.
Serving oysters and clams
The oyster course needs no lengthy comment by reason of its simplicity. Oysters and clams should always be served in their natural shells, otherwise much of the flavor is lost. There are new deep oyster plates in which to embed shell oysters in crushed ice. They are preferable to the plates heretofore made for the serving of oysters.
The proper wines to serve with the oyster course are white wines, either White Bordeaux, White Burgundies, Moselle, or Rhine Wines.
Following the oyster course at American dinners, although some famous diners and epicures hold that this order should be reversed, comes the soup course.
The kind of soup one should serve depends on the sumptuousness of the courses that follow it. When the dinner courses are light, a thick soup should be served in goodly portions; but in heavy course dinners, a clear soup is preferable and should be served in smaller portions.
The proper way to serve hot or cold bouillon or chicken broth is in a two-handled cup with saucer, the cup being about the size of an ordinary tea cup.
Soup plates of the old rim shape are proper for all kinds of soups, but some prefer a coupe shape (without the horizontal rim), and for cream soups two-handled, low-shaped bowls with plates are used. The Soup Tureen is an important piece, and may be highly decorated. Tureens are made in various shapes and sizes.
Cracker jars for the oyster or small biscuit are odd pieces, of different shapes with wide mouths. Where salted wafers are preferred, very handsome trays may be obtained for them.
Whichever dish is used should harmonize with the articles of the dinner china. With the soup course is served the Sherry or Madeira wines.
The fish course
The fish set, which next comes into use consists of a large fish dish, a sauce boat and individual plates, all usually elaborately decorated with scenes from fishdom deftly executed.
When scalloped oysters or fish are served, ramekins should be used. They are of fireproof china and the scallop may be baked in them. They are made with saucers to match, and are very practical and satisfactory. Choice Rhine Wines are properly served with the fish course, they being considered by wine authorities as essentially fish wines.
The entree and roast courses for a formal dinner party
The entree set consists of individual plates and a round dish suitable for serving breaded chops, fricassee of chicken, sweetbreads, calves’ brains or whatever else the entree may be. The individual plates should harmonize in color and design with the dish. Red Bordeaux wines may be properly served with this course.
Next follows the roast or heavy course, for which there is a special set consisting of a decorative platter, two covered vegetable dishes, a gravy tureen and plates to match. The roast course is the main feature of the dinner and the china for it should be more elaborately decorated than that used for the other courses.
Varying china patterns
A very effective dinner service is that in which the decorations of the china increase in color and design with the progress of the dinner from oysters to roast, the roast set being a fitting climax to the preceding sets in richness of design.
The appropriate wines for this course are dry Champagnes or rich Red wines, such as Bordeaux, sparkling Burgundies or Clarets, and the glasses used should be the most exquisite obtainable.
Game or fowl course
When game or fowl follows the roast, the colors of the service may be as strong as those of the roast set, but naturally of a different character.
The game dish and plates comprising this set are capable of the finest’ decorations on china. They usually bear paintings of birds or hunting scenes by high-class artists, no two pieces having the same picture.
When partridge, quail, chicken or turkey are served, Champagnes are proper, and rich Red wines should go with Canvas-backs, Mallard and Teal ducks, Wild Boar, or Roebuck.
Asparagus and salads
If cold asparagus is served before the salad, White Bordeaux wines may go with it. The set for asparagus consists of a platter with a drainer, a boat for dressing and individual compartment platter, all beautifully decorated in rich colors.
The salad should be served after the roast or game courses, but it may be served with roast or fowl when the asparagus is not made a separate course. It should be dressed at the table and never until guests are ready to be served, as the lettuce loses its brittleness and becomes less palatable if allowed to remain in the vinegar and oil.
The salad may be served from a cut glass bowl, or fine porcelain bowl modeled for the purpose. Besides the bowl, the set consists of individual salad plates, mayonnaise bowl, and vinegar and oil cruets of cut glass, and servers of ivory, silver or wood.
On occasions where there are to be toasts and speech-making, the Champagne is often served with the dessert instead of during the roast course.
The pudding course at a formal dinner party
For the pudding course, a special dish, sauce boat and individual plates are necessary. The pudding dish has been very much improved in recent years, and is now made with a separate fireproof lining in which the baking may be done, in consequence of which the dish itself may be beautifully decorated, and run no risk of being cracked or stained by the heat of the oven.
Ramekins, which are now to be had in the finest decorations with little plates to match, are often used for individual puddings as well as for scalloped oysters, sweetbreads, etc.
After this course, the china and glass are removed, leaving only champagne glasses, floral decorations and candelabra or lamp.
The ice cream
The ice cream set, consisting of a tray, individual plates and cake plates may show pleasing contrasts in gold and color.
Cake plates are very necessary adjuncts to the proper serving of ice cream. They should blend fittingly with the ice cream set.
A cheese course
The cheese course is served with a set consisting of a cheese dish, individual plates, and cabarets, the latter having three or four compartments for radishes, lettuce, celery, watercress or young onions.
Some kinds of cheese need to be kept moist and should be dispensed from a wedge-shaped or round glass stand with a cover, made for the purpose. Brie, Camembert, and other like cheese are served from a small plate.
The custom of serving with the cheese, lettuce, radishes, and other vegetables of the same family in cabarets, which is popular in England, might well be adopted in America, for the combinations of the flavors is quite palatable. Dessert knives with silver blades should be used with the course.
The fruit course
The proper service for the fruit course consists of footed fruit comports and footed dishes with plates to match, decorated in rich tones in flowers or fruit effects or embellished in encrusted gold. Silver dessert knives are to be used with the dessert course.
Coffee, tea and other beverages for a formal dinner party
The Cafe Noir course is served with a special set consisting of a coffee maker or coffee pot, cups, saucers, sugar bowl, and spoon tray. Cups of moderate size, admitting of fantastic decorations in high colors are most satisfactory. Cognac of fine flavor is frequently mixed in small portions with the coffee, after the French custom.
MORE: How & why everyone used calling cards in the early 1900s
The last course is usually a light indulgence in either liqueurs, cordials or Creme de Menthe. At weddings, banquets or state dinners, punch is dispensed.
After this, the ladies withdraw, leaving the gentlemen to enjoy their cigars. Candlesticks and ashtrays, the later of various shapes and decorations, should be placed before each smoker.