Victorian Dining Etiquette that is Still Alive Today
It’s easy to assume that traditions from the Victorian Era have all but disappeared. In actuality, however, many of our modern fine dining traditions have roots in this time period. Anyone who has attended a formal dinner knows that there are certain behaviors and expectations that are deeply engrained within our cultural consciousness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of these “proper” behaviors stem from the mid-19th century, when appearance and social status was of the utmost importance.
Proper Table Settings
At formal dinners in the 1800s, a thick, fabric table cloth was preferred for formal dining, as it decreased the unwanted clatter that plates and dishes made when placed upon a wooden table. It was customary to place two dinner forks to the left of the plate, while a dinner knife and soup spoon were set to the right of the plate. Water glasses and wine glasses were then carefully aligned to the right of the plate’s edge and were never poured more than ¾ full. Walk into any modern fine dining establishment or “white tablecloth” restaurant and you will certainly still find these same practices in place. Servers and hostesses are carefully trained to place flatware, silverware, and glassware in the exact same arrangement that was customary during the Victorian Era. The presence of a white table cloth alone is straight from Victorian times.
At Victorian dinners, servants served in scheduled courses. Soup and bread were always served at the beginning of the meal. This course was then followed by a main course that typically consisted of carved meats and various side dishes. After everyone at the table signified that they were finished eating, the plates were cleared, and a dessert course was then served. The dessert course would also sometimes be accompanied by sweet liquors or other alcoholic beverages. Today, many restaurants still separate their menu into these same designated courses. Bread and a lighter course like soup or salad are still served at the beginning of a meal, while desserts and after-dinner beverages (like coffee or liqueur) are always served after the main course has concluded.
Table Manners & Etiquette
When it came to table manners, Victorians were always concerned about following proper rules of Victorian dining etiquette. Because of this, they came up with strict rules so that everyone knew the “correct” way to act at a dinner table. When one was seated at a dinner table in Victorian times, everyone was expected to drape a cloth napkin loosely over their lap before any food was eaten. Also, people were expected to sit upright and ensure that their forearms and elbows were never carelessly placed on the dinner table. When it came to food and beverage service, women were almost always served first before men as a sign of respect. You can find these same “proper” Victorian dining etiquette rules followed by nearly anyone who dines at a modern, upscale fine dining restaurant. Cloth napkins are still expected to be draped in one’s lap, women are often served before men, and everyone is expected to refrain from leaning on the table. Although many people do not give these actions a second thought, these rules were first set into place during the Victorian Era, when people were deeply conscious about how they acted and how they were perceived by others.