A Short History of the Dining Room

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Edward Tongue / Creative Commons


As more people found a place at the table, the concern became that of finding a place for the table


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By Dr. Christine Baumgarthuber
Doctorate in English Literature, Brown University
The Austerity Kitchen

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PART 1

Illustrations from Silver for the Dining Room (1912)

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For the first time in my adult life, I have a something approaching a dining room. Accustomed to eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner on a breakfast bar, coffee table, or some other makeshift means of support, I find myself strangely delighted by the idea of sitting down each evening at a table that seats four in a space reserved only for eating. For one, meal time is easier. (There’s no better way to test your coordination and patience than carving a turkey that’s perched atop a folding table.) I’d say having a dining room makes me a fully fledged grown-up, were it not for the fact that I still rent. Precarity is Neverland.

Yet even in centuries past dining rooms were something of a novelty. Only the wealthy had them. The bulk of humanity, meanwhile, spent most of history wriggling, with varying success, toward the same distinction.

“In itself and in its consequences the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilised men’s eyes.” –Thorstein Veblen

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The Greeks were among the first to recognize that eating in secluded comfort reinforced status and class cohesion. Elite men of the most powerful poleis gathered on fragrant evenings in rooms especially designed for feasting. These rooms accommodated no more than eleven couches of stone or wood, each of which in turn accommodated no more than two men. Youths sat on the ground. Young and old alike quaffed diluted wine and munched honey cakes and chestnuts — all fuel for ribald and learned discussions of matters philosophical and romantic.

“‘A clean table cloth and a smiling countenance.’ The former may be commanded; but there are dinners over which the mistress of the house cannot smile; they are too bad for dissimulation: the dinner is eaten in confusion of face by all parties.” –From Practical Housekeeper (1853)

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Ancient Romans similarly took their meals in a special room called a triclinium, whose couches had evolved to accommodate women as well as men. Whim and the season determined their location. In the stifling Mediterranean summers they were chosen for their ability to catch breezes; in winter, to block drafts. Some of them might offer a view of the sea; others, vast plains. The Romans sometimes even set up their dining rooms outdoors in order to enjoy al fresco their swallow’s tongues and other delicacies. The most luxurious dining spaces bred ease and amazement in equal measure. Triclinia in Pompeii featured fountains from which water splashed and streamed from each table. Guests of one Loreius Tiburtinus plucked tidbits from large basins in rooms bearing brightly painted images of mythological figures.

“‘Now bring me a splendid dinner,’ he ordered. ‘We have a proper table service, let us have something good to eat.’ He sat down upon a chair; it turned to gold. His clothes had already become of gold, so stiff that he could hardly move in them. Dinner was brought in. His chair was too heavy to move, so he had another placed at the table and sat down. That seat also became gold in a moment. He took up a piece of bread; before he could break it, a change had taken place, and it was hard gold. He laid his hand on a bunch of grapes; they were so heavy that he dropped them with a clatter of gold upon the golden dish.” –Charles Dannelly Shaw, Stories of the Ancient Greeks (1903)

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Such vivid appointments obscured a dark reality. A well-to-do Roman household could include as many as 400 slaves, who did everything from choosing menus to arranging and presenting parting gifts to guests. In all activities grace was the watchword. The slightest faux pas invited brutal punishment.  If, writes historian Roy Strong, “game was underdone or the fish poorly seasoned the cook (who actually ranked fairly high in the slave hierarchy) would be stripped and beaten.” Strong relates an instance during a dinner given by a friend of the Emperor Augustus. A cupbearer broke a crystal goblet. For this offense he had his hands cut off and hung from his neck. He was then forced to parade among the diners, and thereafter thrown alive in a fish pond as food for lampreys.

“Para was invited to a Roman banquet, which had been prepared with all the pomp and sensuality of the east: the hall resounded with cheerful music, and the company was already heated with wine; when the count retired for an instant, drew his sword, and gave the signal of the murder.” –Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89)

“As for the tarts, I didn’t eat a mouthful of them, but I just smeared myself up with the honey, I can tell you! At the same time, there were peas and nuts, and apples for each of us. I carried off two of these last, and I have them here in my napkin. Just look, for if I shouldn’t carry away home something for my pet slave, I should get a blowing up.” –Petronius Arbiter, “Trimalchio’s Dinner” (late 1st century AD)

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A bit kinder than their Roman forebears, medieval men and women presided over meals altogether less violent.  Yet what they gained in civility they lost in comfort. Even the most powerful lords, though they might surround themselves with lush tapestries and lovingly crafted pastries packed with everything from magpies to midgets, ate in drafty, smoke-filled halls. “Magnificence there was, with some rude attempt at taste,” notes Sir Walter Scott of this era: “but of comfort there was little, and, being unknown, it was unmissed.”

“The main meal of the noble was at noon or soon after. There was one lighter meal in the morning and another rather late in the evening. The dining table consisted of several boards, removable as soon as the meal was over … There were spoons and some knives, but forks were unknown. Cakes of barley or wheat were served, game, bacon, pork, fish, or possible, although not probably, ‘the roast beef of old England’ might be part of the rather limited menu.” –Roscoe Lewis Ashley, Medieval Civilization: A Textbook for Secondary Schools (1916)

When mead ran free and blood hot, however, there was no telling what might happen.

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Comfort grew with increased trade, and with it changed notions of home and hearth. Parlors, “dining chambers,” and other spaces amenable to dining began appearing in architecture plans. Each nation seemed to have its own idea as to what constituted a proper dining room. The great Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti wrote that it “should be entered off the bosom of the house,” advising further that, “[a]s use demands, there should be [a dining room] for summer, one for winter, and one for middling seasons.” Some two centuries later Englishman William Sanderson would recommend that a “Dyning-Roome” be hung with pictures of kings and queens.

“Comfort is the only thing our civilization can give us.” –Oscar Wilde

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For all the talk of appointments fit for royalty, perfection of the dining room came only with the rise of a middle class. Between 1350 and 1560 people began to eat and live better, thanks in part to greater availability of meat and dairy products in the wake of the Black Death, and to the development of a market economy. Where meat and milk abounded labor was scarce. Pay went up as a result. In some parts of England, for example, laborers saw their wages grow four or fivefold in just a few years. The workers of Cuxham Manor in Oxfordshire went from earning two shillings a week in 1347 to more than 10 shillings a week three years later.

“Every recession solves a certain number of problems, removes pressures, and benefits the survivors. It is pretty drastic, but none the less a remedy. Only good land continued to be cultivated (less work for greater yield). The standard of living and real earnings of the survivors rose. Thus in Languedoc between 1350 and 1450, the peasant and his patriarchal family were masters of an abandoned countryside.” –Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life (1979)

“The fact that political ideologies are tangible realities is not a proof of their vitally necessary character. The bubonic plague was an extraordinarily powerful social reality, but no one would have regarded it as vitally necessary.” –Wilhelm Reich

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With higher wages came increased consumption of goods, among them furniture and cooking utensils. In time there developed a culture peculiar to the newly affluent. One of this culture’s hallmarks, the dining room offered a place where family members could discretely enjoy each others’ company. As such, it reflected what Italian theorist Mario Praz calls Stimmung, a German word that denotes the sense of intimacy and personal character evoked by a room’s arrangement and decor.

“When the lamp of antiquity flickered out in the Dark Ages, it was the middle class that led mankind forward to the new day. It was the middle-class Protestant who brought the conscience of the world to bear again upon the life of the spirit. When England set its constitution above its King, when the American colonies established the people as the origin of all justice, when France built up the foremost European republic, it was always the middle class in whom the movement began — and ended. The institutions of civil liberty are the creation, not of the proletariat nor yet of capitalists, but of those who are neither rich nor poor.” –John Corbin, The Return of the Middle Class (1922)

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Victorians would take Stimmung to an often unbelievably cluttered extreme. They spent lavishly on their dining rooms, outfitting them with upholstered chairs, mahogany sideboards, pewter jugs, bone china, linen napkins and tablecloths, and silver cutlery. They read architectural guides and kitchen utensil catalogs as thick as phonebooks. Mealtime for them was an event, and they staged the satisfaction of their appetites in surroundings as comfortable as they could afford. Why they did so is the subject of the second part of this history.

Recipe for “Soup au Bourgeois” from The London Art of Cookery (1804): ‘Take twelve heads of endive, and four or five bunches of celery; wash them very clean, cut them into small bits, let them be well drained from the water, put them into a large pan, and pour upon them a gallon of boiling water. Set on three quarts of beef gravy, made for soup, in a large saucepan: strain the herbs from the water very dry; when the gravy boils, put them in. Cut off the crusts of two French rolls, break them and put into the rest. When the herbs are tender, the soup is enough. A broiled fowl may be put into the middle, but it is very good without. If a white soup be liked better, it must be veal gravy.”

PART 2

The turn of the last century saw the dining room go from a haven in a heartless world to a fueling station for factory work

Illustrations from A Collection of Designs for Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1808)

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One summer day in 1894 Walter Post took out a line of credit.

The Northern Pacific railroad clerk wanted to spruce up the six-room house he shared with his young wife, Ulilla (neé Carl and known fondly as “Lillie”). To Schuneman and Evans, the department store extending him the loan, he pledged repayment in 60 days’ time.

While at the job he might any day lose (“The Northern Pacific is in a bad fix,” he noted in a letter to his father) he daydreamed of furnishings. The home’s dining room especially seemed to occupy his thoughts. A sheet of company stationery bearing a rough schematic offers a sense of the careful attention he paid to that room’s decor. A large, inexpertly drawn square represents the solid-oak dining table whose purchase claimed most of Post’s borrowed sum; two or three smaller squares, a retinue of sideboards and china cabinets. Three X’s appearing in the corners indicate spare chairs on hand to add to the ambiance and seating capacity on nights the couple entertained. Another X appearing at the head of the table is labeled “My Place”; yet another off to one side, “Lillie’s.” These hand drawings, suggestive of the rich appointments essential to orderly home life, could only flow from the pencil of a man who believed himself newly affluent.

“Is it progress if a cannibal uses knife and fork?” –Stanislaw Lec

“Come on, little lady, / Lady, let’s eat at home. / Come on, little lady, / Lady, let’s eat at home. / Eat at home, eat at home.” –Paul McCartney, “Eat at Home” (1971)

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No incautious striver, Post simply wanted a stylish and comfortable place to enjoy his meals. This desire he shared with many of his fellow Americans who, aided by lower food prices and new wealth following advances in transportation (rail, sea) and industry (finance, oil), made eating at home an art. Housewives hurried to market to purchase large, well-marbled joints, along with pineapples, oranges, and other then-exotic fruit. Like Walter and Lillie, they spent lavishly on their dining rooms, outfitting them with upholstered chairs, mahogany sideboards, pewter jugs, bone china, linen napkins and tablecloths, and silver cutlery. They read architectural guides and kitchen utensil catalogs as thick as phone books. Deviating from the precedent set by their stalwart colonial ancestors, who took their meals when and how they could get them, 19th-century Americans treated mealtime as an event, staging the satisfaction of their appetites in surroundings as comfortable as they could afford.

“There was a good dinner enough, to be sure; but it was not a dinner to ask a man to.” –James Boswell

“The whole countryside came together, Catholic as well as Protestant, the Christian and the pagan and even the hermit … A very old part of the program of religion is eating together. It is much older than preaching, and I claim that if we cannot have preaching in our country church program, we must keep in it the common table.” —Wisconsin Country Life Conference, Vol. 2 (1912)

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Americans weren’t alone in their newfound love of creature comforts. A revolution in dining was happening the western world over. Across the Atlantic, the British found in the cozy rituals of dinner a way to act out national ambitions. Architects and domestic experts wrote vast tomes on how the home could influence character. And what shaped character shaped also the family and the nation. The dinner is “the symbol of people’s civilization,” wrote Robert Laird Collier in his 1886 domestic manual English Home Life. “A coarse and meanly cooked and raggedly served dinner expresses the thought and perhaps the spiritual perception of a nation or family.”

No self-respecting middle-class family wanted to seem mean or ragged, especially in a time when being mean and ragged was only a lay-off away. With guidance from Collier’s domestic manual and others like it, British housewives filled their homes with the necessary domestic equipment for the purpose of turning them into veritable incubators of a moral and productive citizenry. The dining room became the main site of this incubation. By the second quarter of the 19th century, many townhomes featured two rooms for eating, one close to the kitchen for informal family meals and another for formal, public events. This second, more elegant room displayed the family’s fashionable decor: gas chandeliers, heavy tapestries, and tables and chairs of black walnut or some other expensive wood. Elaborate sideboards displayed dozens of china, silver, and glass objects. Hulking centerpieces of silver and glass rose from an enormous table draped in damask. Masses of ferns hung from the ceiling and palms occupied gilded planters. Complicated flower arrangements sat in strategic spots throughout the room, and lamps or silver candelabra equipped with wax candles and colored shades lit the whole scene.

“We serve food attractively. We remember that smell and sight are taste’s silent partners and we try in every way to meet their requirements as well as those of taste. A banquet, a luncheon, a camping supper, a ‘club feed,’ are only incidentally nourishing. It is the social element and the festive and artistic element that give them their charm. We share the deep-rooted instinct of the ancient peoples, to whom eating together was the highest form of companionship.” –Marion Florence Lansing, Food and Life (1920)

“It seems strange at first sight that eating together, even of common food, should be one of the best means of bringing people together. The reason is not in the food itself, not in a mere sensual act, but lies in the fact that eating together is the easiest means of acquaintance.” —Select Notes: A Commentary on the International Lessons (1911)

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People living today would likely find the dining rooms of yesteryear to be about as roomy and airy as a rabbit warren. But to the Victorian middle class the home offered a “haven in a heartless world,” as writer and social commentator Christopher Lasch would put it, and its clutter symbolized certainty in a society grown increasingly uncertain. Toward the end of the 19th century, London and other cities had become crowded, inscrutable places. The poor roamed the streets in quick, ever-morphing masses. Victorian sociologist Charles Booth wrote that this “huge population” was found to be “poorer ring by ring” as you neared the city’s center. At its heart there “exists a very impenetrable mass of poverty.” In many districts, these people were “always on the move, drifting from one part of it to another like ‘fish in a river.’” The specter of this immense, milling crowd haunted the minds of respectable shopkeepers, schoolteachers, and sociologists. It seemed that only an expensive sideboard or china closet kept them from joining the ranks of beggars and underemployed workingmen and prostitutes — the inhabitants of “a dark continent that is within easy walking distance of the General Post Office,” as George Robert Sims wrote in his bestselling 1881 exposé on London’s poor.

“Ever eat a cold lunch on a chill winter day? Then you can understand the lack of energy felt by the worker who eats his mid-day meal from an uninviting dinner pail. But give him hot food — freshly cooked in his own cafeteria — then note the difference. He goes at his work with new vigor — increases his output because he has been supplied with the fuel that builds man power. Plants everywhere have learned by actual experience that warm meals overcome the depressing effect of winter’s chill — their workers have been more efficient since cold dinner pails and unhealthy neighborhood lunch counters were supplanted by Van Range Factory Lunch Rooms.” –From an advertisement in Factory, the Magazine of Management, Vol. 28 (1922)

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Things were much the same in the United States. Walter Post likely risked his credit because he wanted to distinguish himself from his less affluent neighbors in St. Paul, Minnesota. “Social and economic heterogeneity was the hallmark of the age,” writes Stephanie Coontz. “Most areas of the big city were a jumble of occupations, classes, shops, homes, immigrants, and native Americans.” A clerk with ambitions of respectable middle-class life might find himself living a few houses down from foreigners and factory workers. Even if he didn’t, the possibility was enough to make him stuff his home with the furniture and bric-à-brac he believed symbolic of his superiority.

Yet furnishings weren’t enough to distance the middle class from its inferiors. The respectable bourgeois had to cultivate good manners as well. “A man may pass muster by dressing well; and may sustain himself tolerably well in conversation, but if he be not perfectly ‘au fait,’ dinner will betray him,” said an author of one of the many etiquette guides that appeared during this period. Meals became formal events with decorous protocols of their own. The proper meal hour, the etiquette for serving and eating various courses, the appropriate attire, the dining room’s furnishings, the seating arrangement, the fit subjects of conversation, even the food itself — these innumerable punctilios came to form a sort of rubric governing mealtime conduct. It didn’t help that this rubric changed often. In the 1850s, etiquette dictated that fish be eaten with just a fork and a crust of bread. Not 30 years later this practice was deemed barbaric.

“‘We had a dinner party here in this flat about a week ago, and we haven’t gotten over it yet,’” said our genial host, as he adroitly raised the gay Mexican blanket that draped the couch, and reached around under that useful piece of furniture with a long cavalry saber.’” –Jean Urquhart, “A ‘Flat’ Dinner Party” (1904)

“On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners.” –George Mikes

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Nonetheless, the importance of being earnest in learning and adapting to the dinner hour’s mutable rules itself remained pretty much constant. Notions of civility depended on it. “Show me the way people dine and I will tell you their rank among civilized beings,” wrote Charles Darwin. Parents saw to it that their children’s civilizing began early in life. Wayward youngsters often found themselves sent from the dining room to await a scolding or confinement. Indeed, the highchair, that fixture of every home housing tots, owes its existence to Victorians, who invented it as a means of keeping tantrums from spoiling the prandial ritual.

“What would you have done with this mother’s problem? The problem was a little girl, seven years old, and her table manners, or rather, we should say, her lack of table manners. For she had none, except very bad ones. She was growing very fast and was always ravenous at meal times and if she was not served before everyone else she was very ugly and impatient about it. When she did get her food, she would not stop to cut her meat, usually taking it up in her fingers, as she did much of her food … The description is not exaggerated. The child reminded us of the pictures and accounts of the meals of cannibals, of cavemen and even of animals. We are not, perhaps, descended from cannibals or from animals, but there is no doubt about our being from cavemen, who knew nothing about such refinements as table manners.” –from The P.T.A. Magazine (1919)

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Yet the Victorians later found that work got in the way of proper dining. The latter half of the 19th century saw working- and, to a lesser extent, professional-class households obliged to adapt their lives to the ringing of the factory bell. This took some getting used to. In earlier decades, wives and mothers had welcomed their families to dinner between noon and one. Children rushed home from school, fathers from field, office, or workshop. The working day’s hiatus, the dinner hour was a time to relax and chat about recent events. By the late 19th century this tradition had largely vanished. “The family dinner at midday,” lamented one urbanite in 1875, “and the evening tea of inland towns, at which parents and children gather about the tables and learn to know one another through the interests and feelings of everyday are almost unknown in the same grade of social city life.” Families in the city postponed their main meal to the evening hours. Those working in factories did so as well; but often the paterfamilias was kept late, and the bread he won he could only break with his family on Sunday.

“Q. How do you employ yourselves on Sundays? Give a general description of the life of factory people on Sunday. A. Some different from others, of course; I generally lie in bed until about seven o’clock Sundays. Then we both get up and get the children ready for Sunday-school and send them to school, and then it takes wife and me about all the time to wash, clean and scrub up the house, and cook the extra dinner for Sunday, so we can have a comfortable meal. We have warm dinners on Sunday. In the afternoon we sometimes take a nap. Then I get supper and take a walk round and get myself ready for Monday morning again. Q. You describe the common factory life on Sunday? A. So far as I am concerned, it is about so. Q. Why do you not attend church on Sunday? A. I really have no time, because if I went to church, my woman would have all the work to do, and it would take her all the day Sunday, and that would be seven days’ work, and I would be resting and she working, so I stay at home and help her, and we get through just in time for dinner, and then we take a nap and take a walk in the afternoon.” –From Factory Children (1875)

“Are the work-people or children ever allowed to leave the factory during working hours? — No; except they give warning to go off sick. What time are they allowed every day to quit the factory to get their dinner? — They are allowed no time, only one day in the week to get their dinner.” –From “Reasons in Favour of Sir Robert Peel’s Bill, for Ameliorating the Condition of Children Employed in Cotton Factories” (1819)

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The arrival of the 20th century saw the kitchen replace the dining room as the main room for eating; because work trumped leisure, eating meals in the kitchen offered greater convenience. The change in venue reflected the fact that many families of the time concerned themselves more with individual health and productivity than musty Victorian morals and manners. “The Progressive ideal of efficiency and the newly energized middle-class and elite commitment to the preservation of health and fitness helped alter the older ideology and the look and function of the home,” writes historian Harvey Green. “The kitchen and bathroom became focal points for advice and criticism, superseding the previous era’s concentration on the parlor and dining room.”

Early 20th-century home kitchens served as laboratories for testing the latest popular dietetic advice. They were clean, well-lit places outfitted for efficient meal preparation and distribution. The meals that issued from them were airier yet more nutritious than the puddings and fatty joints of yesteryear, and they were eaten in more a spartan than epicurean spirit. Families nibbled on breakfasts of citrus fruit and dried cereal or eggs and toast. Their lunch consisted of sandwiches, soup, or salad; their dinner, modest meat-starch-vegetable trios and light desserts. (This pattern endures as the one most Americans observe.) A dieter might refuse the plate before him without offending, for eating had achieved an instrumental importance on par with its biological. How and what one ate could whittle waistlines, shape temperaments, or otherwise effect changes necessary for staying light on his feet in the rat race. “Good health is magnetism,” read a 1924 ad for the California Fruit Growers’ Association’s Sunkist Oranges. “It wins people to you, makes it easier for you to influence others, whether you are a salesman, department head, manager, or chief executive.”

“For the man who works with his brain, a very different diet is essential to that of the man who works with his hands. The brain worker should not begin the day with a heavy breakfast. A light breakfast beginning with a cereal — Grape-Nuts for instance, because I believe that this particular cereal contains the largest amount of nutrition with the least tax upon the digestive organs — with cream and sugar, fruit, a couple of poached eggs and toast, is amply sufficient food until the luncheon hour, when another light meal — a hot roast beef sandwich and a cup of tea or milk — will tide the brain worker over until evening when the principal meal of the day should be eaten.” –From “Causes of Indigestion,” American Housekeeper, Volume 25 (1911)

“Brain workers need proper brain food. Certain foods stupefy brain action. Other foods are full of brain building material. With good health the greatest single asset to business achievement, executives should choose foods producing brain power, vitality and longevity.” –From “Keeping Fit for the Business Battle,” The Magazine of Business, Volume 32 (1917)

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Many Americans today continue to eat for work’s sake. And it seems some of them would like to do away the act of eating itself — chairs, plates, forks, knives, and all. The meal substitute Soylent, for example, promises to “free your body” from the apparently inefficient rigmarole of meals. Yet what this frees you for is anyone’s guess. (“More work” is the likely answer.) Our Victorian ancestors made eating as stylized as possible not only to display what power and wealth they managed to gain, but also to distinguish what happened in the home from what happened on the job. Their Jazz Age counterparts were the first to transform the home into an extension of work; the working day began at the breakfast table. Now, in Soylent and various other “life hacks,” the inefficiency of work’s having to wait until you finish your toast and eggs has found its killer app.

Recipe for Family Soup from Breakfast, Dinner and Supper, or What to Eat and How to Prepare It (1897): “Time, 6 hours; 3 or 4 quarts of the liquor in which mutton or salt beef has been boiled. Any bones from dressed meat, trimmings of poultry, scraps of meat or 1 pound gravy beef, 2 large onions, 1 turnip, 2 carrots, a little celery seed tied in a piece of muslin, bunch savory herbs, 1 sprig parsley, 5 cloves, 2 blades mace, a few pepper-corns, pepper and salt to taste. Put all your meat trimmings, meat bones, etc., into stew-pan. Stick onions with cloves, add them with other vegetables to meat; pour over all the pot liquor; set over slow fire and let simmer gently, removing all scum as it rises. Strain through fine hair sieve.”

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