History of table setting, and how to do it the proper way

Table setting today has become such an art it has sprawled a new name “Tablescaping”. Elaborate decorative elements are incorporated into formal settings that reflect the theme of the occasion and the type of food. It is a practice that has been developing for more than a thousand years — the history of table setting goes back before the medieval era.

The Saltcellar.

Before there were Place settings, flower arrangements and  candelabras, there was the saltcellar — the small container that held the salt for the meal. So important was the salt that the placement of the saltcellar on the table determined seating arrangements. Sitting “above the salt” was to seat in the place of honor. And while guests mostly ate with their hands and threw bones and scraps to the floor, how clean the tablecloth, or “Nappe”, was extremely important.

The Utensils

Forks were introduced in the XVII century and helped contribute to the development of the table settings by encouraging a standard arrangement of the items needed for a meal. Elaborate napkin folding became popular and metalworkers began creating a variety of plates, platters and bowls for use on the table. As silversmiths and woodworkers honed their crafts, table setting became extremely elaborate, especially for royalty and the rich.

Service Styles

The XVIIII century saw the arrival of dining according to rigid rules of “service”. French service was an impractical process of serving each dish as a separate course. English service was more practical, with all the similar food belongings to course placed on the table at the same time for the host to serve. Service in the Russian style soon became popular, emphasis on presentation both food and the table setting. Guests arrived at the table before the food was served, and found place cards to indicate their setting arrangement. A printed menu was often provided, and each person’s place was laid out with dishes, plates, glasses and utensils needed. So many rules were developed for the large variety of flatware, glasses and plates; the first etiquette books began to appear.

The Victorian table

Color, mirrors, figurines and flowers adorned the Victorian table. Especially popular were colored wine glasses. Maids were trained in the placements of the items, with such exacting standards as knives needed to be 1/2 inch from the edge of the table. The Edwardian table eliminated some of the Victorian decor, ushering in the era of candelabras. The Russian style of service also brought with it the idea of wines for each course, meant to enhance the flavor. This increased the number and kind of wine glasses needed at each place.

Table settings today

Today we can find the formal setting in any number of etiquette or home entertaining books. The art of “tablescaping” now lets you choose designs ranging from the elaborate to the minimalistic.

I found this picture that displays the setting for people that never sure which fork is for what and how to set the table without being embarrassed 🙂


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