The Table Setting Demystified

Place Setting

With the holidays upon us, it's a good time to think about bringing out all of those family heirlooms from the cupboard that we use so infrequently. Today It's hard for most of us to remember a time when the whole family, immediate and extended, would gather for regular meals around a set table and have real conversations. However, before television and the internet, that's what we did. And it was and still is an art form that deserves to be taught to the next generation. There's no better way to do that than enlisting children and grandchildren to help, teaching them about the proper way to set a table, and educating them about all of those interesting table top items that are used so rarely today. After all, what's not to love about a toast rack or a biscuit barrel?

Growing up in Rural Tennessee, I remember at an early age helping my grandmother and great grandmother and great aunts as they prepared for Holiday dinners. Often, the day before we'd pull out the silver and give it a good polish. That opened the door for a curious kid to ask what a particular item was used for. I also remember being taught from an early age the right position to place the utensils on the table. These are skills often lost on today's youth, with meals always being on the run. I'm often asked by older people how do we make our children and grandchildren want these beautiful old things. That's relatively simple. First, make it comfortable to use the china, silver and stemware. If they are concerned that they have to be too careful when using something, it becomes an unattractive thing. Second, teach them the history behind things, and they will appreciate them more.

The manner in which a table is set has a lot of history behind it. We've all heard the phrase "Right Hand Man." In earlier times and even today, the place of honor for a guest is to the right of the host. As tableware evolved from basic sharpened sticks and shells to a plate, knife fork and spoon, their placement on the table today is reflected by their historical importance.

The knife is always placed on the right with the blade facing the plate. Early on, before there was such a thing as a table knife, a man used a double edged knife to hunt, kill and portion meat for his family. The same knives used for hunting migrated to the table, and our ancestors used them to spear food and lift the food to the mouth on the edge of the blade. During those warring times, the leader of the household was always apt to be supplanted. How easy would it be for a rival to push a sharp blade into someone's face while they were using it to eat. It wasn't long before the double sided knife gave way to a single edged knife for exactly this reason. The placement of the single edge knife on the table with the blade facing inward indicated that the host trusted his dining companions. If during the course of the meal, the host were to turn the sharp edge away from his plate, that would indicate someone at the table was not so trusted and that the host was ready to grab the knife to lash out with the out-turned blade. Today we always place the blade inward. Also, what about those blunt dinner knives? This heralds back to 17th century France when Cardinal Richelieu, who was the arbiter of taste at the French court, was so offended by the practice of dinners picking their teeth at the table with the point of their knives that he had all knives in the French court ground down. He thus made his point, and the rest of the world followed.

The spoon was the second implement to arrive at the table, as a less noisy way to eat soft foods and stews rather than slurping from a bowl. The earliest spoons were merely shells attached to sticks. It's place at the table is just outside the knife on the right.

The fork was the last implement to arrive at the table and is placed on the left of the plate. It had been known since Roman times, but it's use outside of Italy was limited as a serving utensil or as a small version to eat sticky sweets. However, the use of the fork became common when Catherine de Medici of Italy married King Henry II of France. She is given credit for bringing the fork to France and the rest of the world. The reason the fork developed first in Italy is specifically because of pasta, which is slippery and can't be eaten easily with a knife or spoon. 

Of course there are all of those other specialty items that arrived during the Victorian era: seafood forks, terrapin forks, citrus spoons, asparagus tongs etc. But if you find yourself at a table with some of those implements, take a cue from Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, just use them from the outside inward as the courses progress.  

With regard to porcelain, it originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, and its formula was a carefully guarded secret. Porcelain objects were first brought back to Europe by tea and spice traders. These wares were so coveted by Europeans that porcelain was called White Gold simply because ounce for ounce it was more valuable than gold. It’s hard to believe today with porcelain being so affordable. Europeans tried for centuries to make porcelain without success until the formula was discovered in the early 18th century in Germany. Even then it was costly, and it's secret closely guarded. The 1790s is considered the Golden Age of Porcelain, as most of the major large Royal porcelain dinner services were created during that time. This was due in large part to the patronage of Catherine the Great of Russia who was an enthusiastic collector of porcelain. There are many examples of her collection on exhibit at Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Washington, DC.

Glass occurs in nature when tremendous heat fuses grains of sand together as a result of volcanic activity or lightning. However, man-made glass first occurred about 3,500 years ago in Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. It was a luxury item until Roman times, when it was widely accessible although still expensive. The height of glass artistry occurred during the 14th century on the Venetian island of Murano. By the middle of the 19th century, glass was commercially produced and exceedingly affordable, so much so that extensive table services were widely available to the middle class.

So share some of these historical facts with your family as they are helping to set the table. They will appreciate the history, and it will make those family heirlooms even more important to them.

SVP/Director, DC/Mid-Atlantic Regional Office
General Furniture & Decorative Arts
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