A somewhat foreign concept to Americans today, with our paper plates and tendency to opt for disposable table settings whenever possible, setting a proper dinner table was of the upmost importance during the Victorian era. Contrary to the fast-paced dinner rush most Americans experience, Victorian dinners had an air of pageantry. Dinner time would grant families and close friends time to get together and discuss current events and happenings in their daily lives.
Today there are so many new modes of communication that it often seems as though we neglect one of the simplest ones – talking to each other. The Victorian table settings represent so much more than utensils used to eat; they remind us of a time before modern technology when the dinning room was where meaningful conversations were had.
The importance of the dinning experience was significant during the Victorian Era, and while not all families could afford to create elaborate table settings, many could. As historians we are very fortunate to have ample evidence of just what a Victorian table setting looked like. Many had pieces made from beautiful materials such as: silver, ivory, porcelain, and pearl. Both water and wine glasses could be glass or crystal, some even boasted beautiful frosted etchings. Many families owned china sets that featured over one hundred pieces.
Along with the beautiful utensils and plates there were numerous ways to add extra decorations to one’s dinner table. For example, place cards or fancy tablecloths may adorn the table during a special gathering. It was also common for table napkins to be folded. The Victorians even had instruction manuals with intricate diagrams illustrating up to 25 different ways to fold one!
When you visit the Tinker Swiss Cottage, you will find the dining room set for a traditional Victorian dinner party. The Tinkers’ silver flatware sets had handles made of both ivory and mother of pearl. Victorian flatware was set up so the utensils used first were the furthest from the plate, and then one would work inwards during the different courses. There would be at least 5 pieces of flatware surrounding each plate. Once the table was set, they would place name cards on the guest’s plates along with menus so that guest’s may choose which courses they would eat and which they would pass on; after all, with multiple courses it was not uncommon for Victorians to pass on one or two.
The Tinkers’ dining room also dons a Waterford crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling, which features a painting of Mary’s favorite table cloth.
In the dining room the Tinkers also had portraits of Benjamin Franklin, Peter Paul Ruben, and William Gladstone painted on the wall. These were placed there to encourage conversations of philosophy, art, and politics – things all well-to-do Victorians were particularly invested in. During the Victorian Era men would start the conversations and women could only join in afterwards.
Victorian dining became somewhat of a pageant, with beautiful pieces on display followed by multiple courses of extravagant food, ending with the gentlemen retiring to the smoking room and the ladies to the parlor for music and socializing. Every aspect of a dinner party was meticulously planned and served as a way to assert wealth, status, and power.
Next time you’re visiting the Cottage, be sure to stop and check out the beautiful details adorning the Tinker’s dining room. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find!
— Stephanie —