Monday, November 18, 2013

Victorian Etiquette; Proper Use of Utensils and Small Talk at the Table

Victorian Etiquette; Proper Use of Utensils and Small Talk at the Table

One of the fundamental rules for graceful carriage is, keep your elbows at your sides, and this rule should dominate the movement of the arms while at table. Its workings are felt rather than seen, but they are nevertheless evident in the graceful methods of those who understand the difference between dining elegantly and merely consuming food. Modern cookery is of such a high degree of excellence, modern table-implements so luxurious and varied, that elegant enjoyment and graceful ease may reasonably "be expected of those who gather round a well-appointed table. Even if the general verdict falls a little short of this, the standard is sure to grow toward it. It cannot be otherwise where the desire for improvement exists, and it would be false to assume that there are not many who feel the need and seek the means of improvement. Progress is more quickly noticeable in city than in country life for many reasons, first among them being the necessity for quick and ready adaptation to rapidly moving events.

Although the four-pronged silver fork was in use upon the continent of Europe in the first decade of the present century, it is noticeable that the use of the knife in carrying food to the mouth is by no means obsolete among some of the most advanced of the European nations. One can easily draw a mental picture in which the dogmatists of etiquette a half century ago are seated about a tempting board, all eating with their knives, but using them daintily ; and the retrospect need not go back of the times of those whose manners at table, as well as elsewhere, are defined as models of elegance. Since then the steel fork has been banished, the knife subjugated and the spoon subdued. The reason for all this is commonly supposed to be the danger of cutting the lips with the knife, but such danger is very slight, unless one be persistently stupid in handling it. It is much more sensible to assume that mankind was not slow to perceive the more agreeable sensation of putting to the lips the delicate tines of a fork, which were close enough to convey all except liquid edibles with comfort and convenience. Then, too, there are many varieties of food which deteriorate from even the slightest contact with steel, a metal still much in use for knives. There is, however, an inclination to force the use of the fork to the point of affectation, and excess in this direction is quite as deplorable as the indiscriminate use of the knife. The proper use of any table implement at a table where one is a guest is no different from what it would be at the most informal meal, except as it may be influenced by the special preparation of an edible.

In seating one's self at table a comfortable posture is not incompatible with a dignified attitude. The shoulders should not be thrown back too far, nor should they drop forward. It is the latter pose which produces the inclination of the arms suggestive of the " all elbows" idea which some people give of themselves.

When oysters on the shell are served, at the beginning of a dinner, oyster forks are provided, and in eating such shell-fish the right or left hand may be employed to carry them to the mouth. Of course, the right hand is most frequently used, because it is the best trained for such service; but those who believe it to be an oversight not to train both hands to do our bidding with equal skill are not slaves to the dictum of never raising the fork with the left hand, nor is it supposable that in such a minor matter personal opinion should cause one to relinquish a carefully considered habit or adopt a new one. Etiquette only advises that, if the fork is used in the left hand, it be carried to the mouth with the tines pointing downward. This applies to its use with all kinds of food and to all varieties of forks, but is emphasized here in its application to the oyster fork, because there are many people for whom the smallest blue-points lose their relish if the eyes are forced to rest upon them as they approach the mouth.

Rolls used to be placed in the napkin, on the plate

The bread or dinner roll is removed from the napkin on which it is found and placed at the left side, but aside from doing this and placing the napkin the diner does not interfere with the arrangement of the cover until the servant removes the plate. Fingering the glasses, etc., is evidence of a vacuous state of mind.

The servant, if well trained, omits no one in passing such condiments as the various dishes call for, or in replenishing anything of which a first supply may not suffice; consequently, a gentleman's duties in this respect are light, but, trivial as they may be, he should not neglect them.

Even though decanted wines be placed upon the table and the attendant be only a maid, do not offer any kind to a lady until she has finished her soup and do not undertake to assume the duties of the butler, if there be one, in this respect. It is one thing to see that a lady is provided for, and quite another to perform the service in such a way that it interferes with pre-arranged plans.

Soup should be lifted with an outward motion of the spoon and taken from the side of the spoon when possible, and the impossible instances are very rare. A man with a heavy moustache may be excused if he deviates somewhat from this rule, but not until after he has acquired the dexterity necessary to raise his spoon with the end toward him without thrusting his elbow out or making the movement of his arm conspicuous. Such skill can be cultivated, but not so easily as the movement of lifting the spoon sidewise to the mouth. It ought to be unnecessary to add that soup should be taken noiselessly. If the variety served is not agreeable to the palate, let it remain until the servant is ready to remove it.

It is not good form to refuse soup, even if you do not care for it, it being an easy matter to take up the time of this course with conversation. Indeed, when dinner is served a la Russe, that is, each course placed separately before the diners, it is not judicious to refuse any course unless the list is very long and a menu from which to select is provided. Superabundance in this direction, and the use of the cards as well, are, however, neither fashionable nor refined. No one is obliged to partake of a dish placed before him, and ladies especially are excusable from partaking of richly made dishes and highly seasoned compounds. They may sip their wine and partake of the bread or dinner roll, and if they desire more of this satisfying and healthful food they are entitled to express their desire at the most formal dinner. Their escorts should see that they are provided, and this can best be done by attracting the attention of the waiter in an unostentatious manner. A New Yorker, whose appearance at any dinner, private or public, gives it the cachet of success, and whose delightfully entertaining qualities are recognized both here and abroad, when asked how he preserved his digestion and kept his head clear under pressure of attendance at so many social dinners and formal banquets, replied, "By avoiding made dishes and eating bread while others are partaking of them, and by taking only one variety of wine."

As each course is ended, readiness to have your plate removed may be expressed by placing the knife and fork across it, with the handles to the right, and when the next plate is placed before you, if the knife and fork to be used for the succeeding course be upon it, remove them deftly to the table, placing them at the right side without touching the plate, even though it be the one from which you are to eat.

In the use of the knife and fork, daintiness should be cultivated without impairing or interfering with the proper function of either implement. Some varieties of fish do not require the use of the knife, the fork and a piece of bread being sufficient. Others, notably those having many small bones, cannot be properly managed without one, and a small silver knife accompanies their service. Both knife and fork should be held with the handles resting in the palms of the hands when cutting or separating food, but in carrying food to the mouth the handle of the fork should not be kept against the palm, as conveying it in that position gives the effect commonly expressed as "shovelling " the food into the mouth. A firm hold upon both knife and fork does not necessitate gripping them as if they were endowed with the ability to fly. It is inelegant to appear busy with both knife and fork all the time. Such foods as require special preparation upon the plate may be prepared neatly and quickly before beginning to eat them, and while it is not desirable to cut one's portion of roast in small bits, as for a child, it may be divided into morsels as wanted without appearing to be incessantly sawing upon it. Whoever is given to "loading up'' a fork or holding upon it a quantity of food pending its deposit in the mouth, had best dine by himself until such gaucheries are overcome.
Crumbing the table
 Eating and drinking at the same time are reprehensible for more than one good reason; but the fact that the practice is contrary to good manners condemns it sufficiently in the minds of the well-bred. Hurry, the bane of our epoch and the foe of self-possession, has implanted the tendency to do everything in the shortest possible time, and the habit of hurrying clings after the necessity has sped. There should be no evidence of haste at a dinner-party, and even the suggestion of it should be guarded against. The napkin should be touched to the lips in the interval between partaking of greasy food and drinking; otherwise the rim of the glass will not be inviting to look upon. In eating or drinking, the fork, spoon, glass, or cup is carried to the mouth, but not beyond the lips. Throwing the head far back, thrusting the spoon or fork far into the mouth, turning the bowl of the spoon over in the mouth, draining the glass, emptying it at a single draught, or reversing it so that the stem is inverted, are not merely sins against the social gods—they are coarse and repulsive habits, which should be cured as speedily as possible.
It was a pleasing and proper acknowledgment when an invitation to one's table signified the most sacred form of social hospitality, but though an invitation to dine still suggests a desire for some degree of social intimacy, the giving of dinners has grown to be more of a formality since that time.
No more nonsensical statement could be made than that everything eatable should be carried to the lips with a fork. The spoon is the proper medium for conveying many varieties of semi-liquid foods; but methods of preparing certain foods differ according to locality, and to this difference is attributable much of the misunderstanding existing between the use of the fork and spoon. Tomatoes cooked without anything to absorb their liquid contain but little pulp which can be eaten with a spoon, but the delicious manner of thus preparing them, which prevails throughout New England, more than counterbalances the satisfaction that the remnant of solid matter conveyed to the mouth upon a fork would bestow; and those to whom the preparation is agreeable would merely proclaim themselves ridiculously automatic in their ideas by attempting to eat them without the aid of a spoon. On the other hand the same vegetable, prepared so that but little moisture remains, is as easily lifted upon the fork as mashed potato. We have made an every-day selection to illustrate this point, but the rule applies as practically to the daintiest viand that rejoices in a French name, and should be as faithfully adhered to at the table of a king as at the humblest board.

Many people, believing it bad manners to ask for anything not provided by their hosts, inconvenience themselves by refraining from asking for anything which the table equipment does not include. There is, however, no reason why a spoon or any similar implement should not be asked for, if needed; but never on any account should a person signal conspicuously to the waiter nor address him as " waiter." In a restaurant you may ask the usher to send a waiter to you if the service is slow or the attendant negligent, but not even in this public place does a well-bred man call out "waiter," and he who commits such a blunder beneath a private roof might as well hope for future canonization as for present social success. Primus, a dinner party pre-supposes enjoyment of the viands; secundus, it does not require that a guest shall express his pleasure by waving his napkin, gesticulating with his knife, fork, or spoon, or talking while his mouth is full of food. Fleeting as is time, there is enough of it for all things, and when conversation is in order, let eating be suspended. Exciting topics may be banished without excluding those which have an exhilarating interest.
A lady is entitled to special attention from her escort, but she should not monopolize his time
Long stories are to be avoided, and so is the habit of asking questions; but there is a subtle way of wishing, or, at least, of being willing to hear more that gives the inflection without being too interrogative; and if it be not expedient to tell all we know in response to its gentle insinuation, it does not compel an ungracious refusal or a chilling reticence. A lady is entitled to special attention from her escort, but she should not monopolize his time. Not merely the pairing but the grouping of guests is considered by an accomplished hostess, and a lady may exercise her conversational graces impartially to right and left and likewise across the table, provided its width and adornments do not interfere.; but neither in front of nor behind an intervening guest should anybody attempt to converse. When a word or sentence to one so separated suggests itself, the intervening person should be included in the conversation. In other words, the conversation becomes general to a lesser or greater extent, according as the subject under discussion may interest those present.

Architecture may be frozen music to you in the most rigid sense, and you may be seated next to some one who draws out its harmonies in grand and classic shapes, and to whose latest triumphs the company may allude in brief but pleasing terms. You feel called upon to add something to the general tribute, but can think of nothing apt. Said a young girl who was thus placed, " I could not think of anything to say that would indicate an intelligent knowledge of the subject and I did not feel privileged to lead the conversation from the channel in which it had been directed, so I could only speak of a mite of a country house which always comes to mind because of the beautiful roses that grow all about it and seem intent upon surmounting its diminutive height. I scarcely know how it happened, but in a very short time he was telling me how artistically the rose works into decorative purposes, and from that passed to other things until I felt the subject to be more interesting than I ever supposed it could become to one who knows next to nothing about architecture, and who cannot become familiar with it." Such a frank avowal is not discreditable to one who has tact enough to make up for it, and tact quite often takes the place of many qualities commonly supposed to belong to the mental equipments of bright women. It made a good listener in the instance referred to, and it gave a good talker the opportunity to air his gifts agreeably.

Worries and all disquieting subjects should not be mentioned outside the circle they affect, and even though one may have but just emerged from a sea of them, it is not permissible to seem otherwise than happy and content.

There must have been some unexplained condition attached to the circumstances which led to the question, "Is it proper to thank a servant for a service rendered," because well-bred people instinctively acknowledge the slightest service; but the question came to us as quoted and in that form we answer it. By all means thank a servant for replacing a dropped napkin, a knife or fork, for bringing you anything not at hand or for doing anything you may require; but do not assume the air or attitude of wishing the company to understand that you are punctilious in such matters. "Thank you," in a low tone, a gratified but not a familiar nod of approval or a gracious acceptance of what you desire is all that is needed. A lady is not often called upon to say " thank you " in such circumstances, because a well-bred man is always on the alert to direct attention to her wants. It is her prerogative to acknowledge both favor and service with a smile, which need not part the lips, but which expresses her appreciation as effectually and with less formality than even a simple, "thank you." .

The habit of clipping words perhaps explains why "thanks," passes current for the finer and more gracious "thank you." The intimacy of "chums" permits the use of the abbreviated form, but the general adoption of such scant verbiage is as objectionable as verbosity; and if the question, "should one say 'thanks' to servants" were asked, the answer would be emphatically, no, unless you wish to suggest that all social difference between you and them is removed.

In taking leave of your entertainers, be gracious but not effusive in expressing your pleasure. It is to your hostess that you will make acknowledgment in a few words. Just what they shall be, no pen can write and few people need be told; but they will give the impression that you have enjoyed your evening. Beware—this to the young —that your words do not savor of the fact that your enjoyment has been a surprise to yourself. To youth is also addressed this injunction: do not attempt to compliment your hostess upon her menage. Verbally expressed compliments of any kind are rarely the prerogative of the young. If the hostess be your dearest school-friend, tell her privately, when you are admitted to a boudoir chat, how much you admire her qualities as housewife and hostess; but do not allow your appreciation to effervesce when she is doing her best to bear her blushing honors with meekness and dignity, for it is a hard combination for a young hostess to sustain. "Although I have remained late, the evening has seemed very short," says one; "Time is very unkind, and so I must say 'good evening,' " says another. A matron who has enjoyed years of complete social success extends her hand to a younger entertainer and says, "Before saying adieu, let me thank you for a most delightful evening;" but she does not prolong her leave-taking further than to add a brief good-night.

There was a time when appreciation of the dinner was expressed in the leave-taking, but the custom does not prevail among men and women of the younger generation. It was a pleasing and proper acknowledgment when an invitation to one's table signified the most sacred form of social hospitality, but though an invitation to dine still suggests a desire for some degree of social intimacy, the giving of dinners has grown to be more of a formality since that time.


  1. "Although the four-pronged silver fork was in use upon the continent of Europe in the first decade of the present century, it is noticeable that the use of the knife in carrying food to the mouth is by no means obsolete among some of the most advanced of the European nations." Wonder just how early this was in Victorian England and Europe. Had to be pretty early!

  2. We need more of these tips. The ability dine gracefully make small talk, is becoming a lost art and risks extinction.