Etiquette of the Dinner Table for Ladies

{From Routledge's Manual of Etiquette.]

To be acquainted with every detail of the etiquette pertaining to this subject is of the highest importance to every gentlewoman. Ease, savoir faire, and good breeding are nowhere more indispensable than at the dinner-table, and the absence of them is nowhere more apparent.  How to eat soup and what to do with a cherry-stone are weighty considerations when taken as the index of social status; and it is not too much to say, that a young woman who elected to take claret with her fish, or ate peas with her knife, would justly risk the punishment of being banished from good society. As this subject is one of the most important of which we have to treat, we may be pardoned for introducing an appropriate anecdote related by the French poet Delille:--

Delille and Marmontel were dining together in the month of April, 1786, and the conversation happened to turn upon dinner-table customs.  Marmontel observed how many little things a well-bred man was obliged to know, if he would avoid being ridiculous at the tables of his friends.

“They are, indeed, innumerable,” said Delille; “and the most annoying fact of all is, that not all the wit and good sense in the world can help one to divine them untaught. A little while ago, for instance, the Abbe Cosson, who is Professor of Literature at the College Mazarin, was describing to me a grand dinner to which he had been invited at Versailles, and to which he had sat down in the company of peers, princes, and marshals of France.

“’I’ll wager now,’ said I, ‘that you committed a hundred blunders in the etiquette of the table!’

“’How so?’ replied the Abbe, somewhat nettled. ‘What blunders could I make? It seems to me that I did precisely as others did.’

“’And I, on the contrary, would stake my life that you did nothing as others did. But let us begin at the beginning, and see which is right.  In the first place there was your table napkin—what did you do with that when you sat down at table?’

“’What did I do with my table-napkin? Why, I did like the rest of the guests: I shook it out of the folds, spread it before me, and fastened one corner to my button-hole.’

“’Very well, mon cher; you were the only person who did so. No one shakes, spreads, and fastens a table-napkin in that manner. You should have only laid it across your knees. What soup had you?’


“’And how did you eat it?’

“’Like every one else, I suppose. I took my spoon in one hand, and my fork in the other—‘

“’Your fork! Good heavens! None but a savage eats soup with a fork.

But go on. What did you take next?’

“’A boiled egg.’

“’Good; and what did you do with the shell?’

“’Not eat it, certainly. I left it, of course, in the egg-cup.’

“’Without breaking it through with your spoon?’

“’Without breaking it.’

“’Then, my dear fellow, permit me to tell you that no one eats an egg without breaking the shell and leaving the spoon standing in it. And after your egg?’

“’I asked for some bouilli.’

“’For bouilli! It is a term that no one uses. You should have asked for beef—never for bouilli. Well, and after the bouilli?’

“’I asked the Abbe de Radonvilliers for some fowl.’

“’Wretched man! Fowl, indeed! You should have asked for chicken or capon. The word “fowl” is never heard out of the kitchen. But all this applies only to what you ate; tell me something of what you drank, and how you asked for it.’

“’I asked for champagne and Bordeaux from those who had the bottles before them.’

“’Know then, my good friend, that only a waiter, who has no time or breath to spare, asks for champagne or Bordeaux. A gentleman asks for vin de champagne and vin de Bordeaux. And now inform me how you ate your bread?’

“’Undoubtedly like all the rest of the world. I cut it into small square pieces with my knife.’

“’Then let me tell you that no one cuts bread. You should always break it. Let us go on to the coffee. How did you drink yours?’

“’Pshaw! At least I could make no mistake in that. It was boiling hot, so I poured it, a little at a time, in the saucer, and drank it as it cooled.’

“’Eh bien! then you assuredly acted as no other gentleman in the room. Nothing can be more vulgar than to pour tea or coffee into a saucer. You should have waited till it cooled, and then have drunk it from the cup. And now you see, my dear cousin, that so far from doing precisely as others did, you acted in no one respect according to the laws prescribed by etiquette.’”

An invitation to dine should be replied to immediately, and unequivocally accepted or declined. Once accepted, nothing but an event of the last importance should cause you to fail in your engagement.

To be exactly punctual is the strictest politeness on these occasions.  If you are too early, you are in the way; if too late, you spoil the dinner, annoy the hostess, and are hated by the rest of the guests.  Some authorities are even of opinion that in the question of a dinner-party “never” is better than “late;” and one author has gone so far as to say, “if you do not reach the house till dinner is served, you had better retire, and send an apology, and not interrupt the harmony of the courses by awkward excuses and cold acceptance.”

When the party is assembled, the mistress or master of the house will point out to each gentleman the lady whom he is to conduct to table.  The guests then go down according to precedence of rank. This order of precedence must be arranged by the host or hostess, as the guests are probably unacquainted, and cannot know each other’s social rank.

When the society is of a distinguished kind the hostess will do well to consult Debrett or Burke, before arranging her visitors.

When rank is not in question, other claims to precedence must be considered. The lady who is the greatest stranger should be taken down by the master of the house, and the gentleman who is the greatest stranger should conduct the hostess. Married ladies take precedence of single ladies, elder ladies of younger ones, and so forth.

When dinner is announced, the host offers his arm to the lady of most distinction, invites the rest to follow by a few words or a bow, and leads the way. The lady of the house should then follow with the gentleman who is most entitled to that honor, and the visitors follow in the order that has been previously arranged. The lady of the house frequently remains, however, till the last, that she may see her guests go down in their prescribed order; but the plan is not a convenient one. It is much better that the hostess should be in her place as the guests enter the dining-room, in order that she may indicate their seats to them as they enter, and not find them all crowded together in uncertainty when she arrives.

The number of guests at a dinner-party should always be determined by the size of the table. When the party is too small, conversation flags, and a general air of desolation pervades the table. When they are too many, every one is inconvenienced. A space of two feet should be allowed to each person. It is well to arrange a party in such wise that the number of ladies and gentlemen be equal.

It requires some tact to distribute your guests so that each shall find himself with a neighbor to his taste; but as much of the success of a dinner will always depend on this matter, it is worth some consideration. If you have a wit, or a particularly good talker, among your visitors, it is well to place him near the centre of the table, where he can be heard and talked to by all. It is obviously a bad plan to place two such persons in close proximity. They extinguish each other. Neither is it advisable to assign two neighboring seats to two gentlemen of the same profession, as they are likely to fall into exclusive conversation and amuse no one but themselves. A little consideration of the politics, religious opinions, and tastes of his friends, will enable a judicious host to avoid many quicksands, and establish much pleasant intercourse on the occasion of a dinner-party.

The lady of the house takes the head of the table. The gentleman who led her down to dinner occupies the seat on her right hand, and the gentleman next in order of precedence, that on her left. The master of the house takes the foot of the table. The lady whom he escorted sits on his right hand, and the lady next in order of precedence on his left.

As soon as you are seated at table, remove your gloves, place your table-napkin across your knees, and remove the roll which you find probably within it to the left side of your plate.

The soup should be placed on the table first. Some old-fashioned persons still place soup and fish together; but “it is a custom more honored in the breach than the observance.” Still more old-fashioned, and in still worse taste is it to ask your guests if they will take “soup or fish.” They are as much separate courses as the fish and the meat; and all experienced diners take both. In any case, it is inhospitable to appear to force a choice upon a visitor, when that visitor, in all probability, will prefer to take his soup first and his fish afterwards. All well-ordered dinners begin with soup, whether in summer or winter. The lady of the house should help it, and send it round without asking each individual in turn. It is as much an understood thing as the bread beside each plate, and those who do not choose it are always at liberty to leave it untasted.

In eating soup, remember always to take it from the side of the spoon, and to make no sound in doing so.

If the servants do not go round with wine the gentlemen should help the ladies and themselves to sherry or sauterne immediately after the soup.

You should never ask for a second supply of either soup or fish; it delays the next course, and keeps the table waiting.

Never offer to “assist” your neighbors to this or that dish. The word is inexpressibly vulgar—all the more vulgar for its affectation of elegance. “Shall I send you some mutton?” or “may I help you to grouse?” is better chosen and better bred.

As a general rule, it is better not to ask your guests if they will partake of the dishes; but to send the plates round, and let them accept or decline them as they please. At very large dinners it is sometimes customary to distribute little lists of the order of the dishes at intervals along the table. It must be confessed that this gives somewhat the air of a dinner at an hotel; but it has the advantage of enabling the visitors to select their fare, and, as “forewarned is forearmed,” to keep a corner, as the children say, for their favorite dishes.

As soon as you are helped, begin to eat; or, if the viands are too hot for your palate, take up your knife and fork and appear to begin. To wait for others is now not only old-fashioned, but ill-bred.

Never offer to pass on the plate to which you have been helped. This is a still more vulgar piece of politeness, and belongs to the manners of a hundred years ago. The lady of the house who sends your plate to you is the best judge of precedence at her own table.

In helping soup, fish, or any other dish, remember that to overfill a plate is as bad as to supply it too scantily. Silver fish-knives will now always be met with at the best tables; but where there are none, a piece of crust should be taken in the left hand, and the fork in the right. There is no exception to this rule in eating fish.

We presume it is scarcely necessary to remind our fair reader that she is never, under any circumstances, to convey her knife to her mouth.  Peas are eaten with the fork; tarts, curry, and puddings of all kinds with the spoon.

Always help fish with a fish-slice, and tart and puddings with a spoon, or, if necessary, a spoon and fork.

Asparagus must be helped with the asparagus-tongs.

In eating asparagus, it is well to observe what others do, and act accordingly. Some very well-bred people eat it with the fingers; others cut off the heads, and convey them to the mouth upon the fork.  It would be difficult to say which is the more correct.

In eating stone fruit, such as cherries, damsons, &c., the same rule had better be observed. Some put the stones out from the month into a spoon, and so convey them to the plate. Others cover the lips with the hand, drop them unseen into the palm, and so deposit them on the side of the plate. In our own opinion, the last is the better way, as it effectually conceals the return of the stones, which is certainly the point of highest importance. Of one thing we may be sure, and that is, that they must never be dropped from the mouth to the plate.

In helping sauce, always pour it on the side of the plate.

If the servants do not go round with the wine (which is by far the best custom), the gentlemen at a dinner-table should take upon themselves the office of helping those ladies who sit near them. Young ladies seldom drink more than three glasses of wine at dinner; but married ladies, professional ladies, and those accustomed to society and habits of affluence, will habitually take five or even six, whether in their own homes or at the tables of their friends.

The habit of taking wine with each other has almost wholly gone out of fashion. A gentleman may ask the lady whom he conducted down to dinner; or he may ask the lady of the house to take wine with him.  But even these last remnants of the old custom are fast falling into disuse.

Unless you are a total abstainer, it is extremely uncivil to decline taking wine if you are invited to do so. In accepting, you have only to pour a little fresh wine into your glass, look at the person who invited you, bow slightly, and take a sip from the glass.

It is particularly ill-bred to empty your glass on these occasions.

Certain wines are taken with certain dishes, by old-established custom—as sherry, or sauterne, with soup and fish; hock and claret with roast meat; punch with turtle; champagne with whitebait; port with venison; port, or burgundy, with game; sparkling wines between the roast and the confectionery; Madeira with sweets; port with cheese; and for dessert, port, tokay, Madeira, sherry, and claret. Red wines should never be iced, even in summer. Claret and burgundy should always be slightly warmed; claret-cup and champagne-cup should, of course, be iced.

Instead of cooling their wines in the ice-pail, some hosts have of late years introduced clear ice upon the table, broken up in small lumps, to be put inside the glasses. This is an innovation that cannot be too strictly reprehended or too soon abolished. Melting ice can but weaken the quality and flavor of the wine. Those who desire to drink wine and water can ask for iced water if they choose; but it savors too much of economy on the part of a host to insinuate the ice inside the glasses of his guests when the wine could be more effectually iced outside the bottle.

A silver knife and fork should be placed to each guest at dessert.

It is wise never to partake of any dish without knowing of what ingredients it is composed. You can always ask the servant who hands it to you, and you thereby avoid all danger of having to commit the impoliteness of leaving it, and showing that you do not approve of it.

Never speak while you have anything in your mouth.

Be careful never to taste soups or puddings till you are sure they are sufficiently cool; as, by disregarding this caution, you may be compelled to swallow what is dangerously hot, or be driven to the unpardonable alternative of returning it to your plate.

When eating or drinking, avoid every kind of audible testimony to the facts.

Finger-glasses, containing water slightly warmed and perfumed, are placed to each person at dessert. In these you may dip the tips of your fingers, wiping them afterwards on your table-napkin. If the finger-glass and doily are placed on your dessert-plate, you should immediately remove the doily to the left of your plate, and place the finger-glass upon it. By these means you leave the right for the wine-glasses.

Be careful to know the shapes of the various kinds of wine-glasses commonly in use, in order that you may never put forward one for another. High and narrow, and very broad and shallow glasses, are used for champagne; large, goblet-shaped glasses for burgundy and claret; ordinary wine-glasses for sherry and Madeira; green glasses for hock; and somewhat large, bell-shaped glasses, for port.

Port, sherry, and Madeira, are decanted. Hocks and champagnes appear in their native bottles. Claret and burgundy are handed round in a claret-jug.

The servants leave the room when the dessert is on the table.

Coffee and liqueurs should be handed round when the dessert has been about a quarter of an hour on the table. After this, the ladies generally retire.

The lady of the house should never send away her plate, or appear to have done eating, till all her guests have finished.

If you should unfortunately overturn or break anything, do not apologize for it. You can show your regret in your face, but it is not well-bred to put it into words.

To abstain from taking the last piece on the dish, or the last glass of wine in the decanter, only because it is the last, is highly ill-bred. It implies a fear on your part that the vacancy cannot be supplied, and almost conveys an affront to your host.

To those ladies who have houses and servants at command, we have one or two remarks to offer. Every housekeeper should be acquainted with the routine of a dinner and the etiquette of a dinner-table. No lady should be utterly dependent on the taste and judgment of her cook.  Though she need not know how to dress a dish, she should be able to judge of it when served. The mistress of a house, in short, should be to her cook what a publisher is to his authors—that is to say, competent to form a judgment upon their works, though himself incapable of writing even a magazine article.

If you wish to give a good dinner, and do not know in what manner to set about it, you will do wisely to order it from Birch, Kuehn, or any other first-rate restaurateur. By these means you ensure the best cookery and a faultless carte.

Bear in mind that it is your duty to entertain your friends in the best manner that your means permit. This is the least you can do to recompense them for the expenditure of time and money which they incur in accepting your invitation.

“To invite a friend to dinner,” says Brillat Savarin, “is to become responsible for his happiness so long as he is under your roof.” Again:--“He who receives friends at his table, without having bestowed his personal supervision upon the repast placed before them, is unworthy to have friends.”

A dinner, to be excellent, need not consist of a great variety of dishes; but everything should be of the best, and the cookery should be perfect. That which should be cool should be cool as ice; that which should be hot should be smoking; the attendance should be rapid and noiseless; the guests well assorted; the wines of the best quality; the host attentive and courteous; the room well lighted; and the time punctual.

Every dinner should begin with soup, be followed by fish, and include some kind of game. “The soup is to the dinner,” we are told by Grisnod de la Regniere, “what the portico is to a building, or the overture to an opera.”

To this aphorism we may be permitted to add that a chasse of cognac or Curacao at the close of the dinner is like the epilogue at the end of a comedy.

Never reprove or give directions to your servants before guests. If a dish is not placed precisely where you would have wished it to stand, or the order of a course is reversed, let the error pass unobserved by yourself, and you may depend that it will be unnoticed by others.

If you are a mother, you will be wise never to let your children make their appearance at dessert when you entertain friends at dinner.  Children are out of place on these occasions. Your guests only tolerate them through politeness; their presence interrupts the genial flow of after-dinner conversation; and you may rely upon it that, with the exception of yourself, and perhaps your husband, there is not a person at table who does not wish them in the nursery.

The duties of hostess at a dinner-party are not onerous; but they demand tact and good breeding, grace of bearing, and self-possession in no ordinary degree. She does not often carve. She has no active duties to perform; but she must neglect nothing, forget nothing, put all her guests at their ease, encourage the timid, draw out the silent, and pay every possible attention to the requirements of each and all around her. No accident must ruffle her temper. No disappointment must embarrass her. She must see her old china broken without a sigh, and her best glass shattered with a smile. In short, to quote the language of a clever contemporary, she must have “the genius of tact to perceive, and the genius of finesse to execute; ease and frankness of manner; a knowledge of the world that nothing can surprise; a calmness of temper that nothing can disturb; and a kindness of disposition that can never be exhausted.”


Copyright © D. J.McAdam· All Rights Reserved