A brief history of table setting….

Table setting

Chances are that today, if you walk into any two restaurants, their table setting styles will be different from one another.

This difference is also clearly visible if you walk into any household.

But this choice of cloth or paper napkin, tablecloth or rustic wooden table, the color palette of your table linens, and what centerpieces adorn the table stems didn’t start recently. It is from a long history of table setting.

Dining etiquette stretches back to centuries long past. Table settings at a time was an art form, and table manners were not to be taken lightly. In fact women took pride in themselves in seeing their daughters set an impressive table for dinner during family events with every item in their appropriate place.

Today, many of the behaviors that take place at the dinner table such as, standing to greet a guest, seating arrangement, fine china and cutlery among others, are deeply rooted in history.

Here’s a look at some of the traditions and their origins.

Medieval Period:

Medieval period table setting

At this period, tables were often a simple wooden board held up by supports. Table ornaments were not common at this time. So, the only ornament really used would be a salt cellar yet, this one ornament was important for distinguishing the societal importance of those dining at the table. Those who “sat above the salt” were considered the most honored members at the table, and those who sat farthest below the salt were considered the lowest class at the table.

Unlike today’s dining, there were no forks to eat with and spoons and knives were not provided. History shows that each individual would need to bring their own utensils to the gathering. The times also showed that there wasn’t etiquette to eating. However, tablecloths were in use in Medieval times at higher-class gatherings.


Renaissance period table setting

At this point some shifts began to happen. It began with the table cloth -instead of simply dressing the table, tablecloths became a communal napkin. Individuals restrained themselves from cleaning their mouths and hands on their clothing and instead would wipe their hands directly on the cloth.

Still, over time throughout the Renaissance period, the concept of the communal napkin shifted and shrunk in size. Thus, the communal napkin was no longer a full-size tablecloth but instead a smaller cloth that a servant would carry on their left arm.

Another item that had a change of use was the knives which were fairly sharp. At this point in time, the French dulled their knives to make them more suitable for table use. As knives became dull, forks became more popular to use, ultimately making dining less messy. As dining became less chaotic, the great need for the communal napkin faded.

The 1700s :

Table setting from the 1700s

As the renaissance age faded, individual cloth napkins saw a rise and table manners with how one uses the napkin became of value. As etiquette shifted, so did the way a table was set. Shiny table ornaments, such as silver baskets and mirrored trays, became popular and the upper class began hiring decorators to help them develop elaborate table settings.

The 1800s:

Table setting from the 19th century

At the turn of this century, dishes began to vary in height and heavy candelabras would often adorn tables. Flowers began to be expected as a part of table decoration, especially the heavy use of flowers at nice gatherings. Splashes of colour began to take hold at this time, with glasses and table runners changing from the standard white to reds and greens. Meanwhile, the home table setting started gaining value as well and we begin to see more creativity and difference between the way tables are adorned.

These styles have been carried on over the years and have seen some improvement thanks to civilization and exchange of cultures.

How to set a table?

Here’s quick recap on the basic principles in table setting.

Before the First Course:

The basics of table setting

Once you realize table setting is based on logic, things become less intimidating. For example, you begin eating a meal by using the flatware at the outside left and right, and then working your way in towards the plate as the meal proceeds. Forks are placed to the left of the plate, knives and spoons to the right. Stemware is set above and to the right of the dinner plate; bread-and-butter plates sit above the forks, to the left of the place setting.

Flatware should align with the bottom rim of the charger, a large plate, which will be removed after everyone spreads his napkin on his lap (napkin rings, often customary at family meals, may be used as a festive decoration). The water glass stands above the dinner knife, white wine to its right and red wine top center.

Also, remember to think ahead when setting the table—if there are going to be toasts, a champagne glass should be added, and be placed furthest to the right to enable guests to easily raise their glasses.

Setting the Table for Soup:

Setting the table for soup

Soup is served in a heated soup dish, atop a dinner plate, and eaten with the soup spoon, which is placed at the outer right. When every guest has finished and laid his spoon, bowl up, across the upper right hand corner of the plate, the plate, bowl, and spoon will be removed. The bread-and-butter plate and butter knife remain.

When soup is served with a plate, the resting place for the spoon is in the bowl.  The finished position is across the top of the plate, behind the bowl, between 11 and 2 (think the clock-face). When there is no plate, the resting and finished positions are the same, in the bowl. Once a utensil has touched food, it is never to touch the tablecloth again.

Also note, if the salad is served after the main course, the salad fork is placed to the right of the dinner. If the salad is served first, then the forks would be arranged (left to right) salad fork, fish fork, dinner fork.

Setting the Table for the Main Course:

A Thanksgiving main dish table setting

Course two has been cleared, leaving the table set for the main course. The large dinner plate may be brought in either bearing a portion of food or empty, if food is to be served at the table. In either case, the plate should be preheated unless the main course is served cold. Eat with the dinner fork and knife.

Setting the Table for Dessert:

Setting the table for desert

A small dessert plate arrives. Use the cake fork and the dessert spoon, which have been laid across the top of the setting before the meal began (note that the fork’s tines are set facing right and the spoon’s bowl facing left). The water glass is the only stemware still on the table. “While the other stemware is removed, a formal meal will often have a dessert wine or champagne toast as part of the final course.

Hope this tips help you set a proper table for the next family gathering.

We would like to hear of your table setting story. Please share with us in the comment section.

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