Let’s say that you wanted to give a dinner party in the 19th century. Or maybe you were invited to one. What were these dinners like? And how did you avoid making ghastly faux pas?
A selection of at least 32 kinds of wine was offered at John Hunter’s sumptuous dinner for his friend President Martin Van Buren on July 10, 1839. The lavish event for about 24 guests took place on Hunter’s private island in Long Island Sound and was given in honor of the president during his summer tour of New York. A multi-course menu—in French, of course—included dishes served at Van Buren’s state dinners in Washington, such as potage de tortue (turtle soup); saumon, sauce d’anchois (salmon in anchovy sauce); calf brains au suprême; and gelée au champagne rosé, all served on “gold and silver plate.”
By five o’clock the whole of the company arrived and were ushered into the drawing room; the ladies discussed fashion and dresses, and parties and soirées, and music, and poetry, and painting, and wisely eschewed dirty, trashy politics. The gentlemen very wisely listened to the ladies, and a few strolled round the room to admire the paintings. [John Hunter had a well-known and extensive collection of Old Masters.] . . . About six o’clock the dinner was on the table. “A Day with His Democratic Majesty amongst the Old Noblesse,” Morning Herald (New York), July 12, 1839
The extravagant private affair was unabashedly regal. And Hunter’s country estate—which was modeled on those of the British aristocracy—was the perfect setting for entertaining Van Buren, “His Republican Highness,” as the Herald reporter called him. The neighbors would have discussed it all around their own dining tables, including Robert and Maria Bartow, who lived a mere half-mile from Hunter Island. It wasn’t every day that people entertained a head of state at their home. Obviously, not all dinner parties were over the top, like this one, which was not unlike dining at Buckingham Palace.
Nineteenth-century American etiquette guides agree that one reason for a dinner party was to honor a person or an occasion.
Sometimes it is the birthday of the honored guest, the return of a bridal party, a reentrance into society after an illness, or following a sorrowful retirement from gayety; or it may be the celebration of an achievement, literary, artistic, political, or financial. Social Etiquette of New York (1880)
In planning a dinner, the first thing that the hosts had to do was decide on the guest list. “Those invited should be of the same standing in society,” writes John H. Young in Our Deportment (1882). “Good talkers are invaluable at a dinner party—people who have fresh ideas and plenty of warm words to clothe them in; but good listeners are equally invaluable.” In the Ladies’ Book of Etiquette (1872), Florence Hartley agrees that good conversation is an absolute must. “Conversation will be the sole entertainment for several hours, and if your guests are not well chosen, your dinner, no matter how perfect or costly the viands, will prove a failure.”
The number of guests varied, “but certainly more than ten or twelve in number is not desirable,” Mrs. William Parkes instructs in the American edition of Domestic Duties, or Instructions to Young Married Ladies (1831). The numbers should allow “all the guests to engage in a common conversation,” Florence Hartley advises. And the author of The Habits of Good Society (1872) writes that “there is another reason for limiting the number, namely, that to give a good dinner, your means, your establishment, your dining-room, the capacities of the table, and so forth, must all be taken into consideration. . . . One cook, for instance, cannot serve up properly for more than a dozen people; three men cannot wait properly on more than ten.” A favorite rule of thumb in the 19th century was that guests should number “neither less than the graces, nor more than the muses.” Nevertheless, some dinners accommodated larger numbers of guests, such as the two dozen at John Hunter’s party.
The next step was to prepare the invitations. “Cards for a dinner party should be issued a fortnight, three weeks, or even a month beforehand,” Mrs. Parkes writes. However, Sarah Annie Frost notes in her Laws and By-Laws of American Society (1869) that “for a small company, and when gayety is not at its height, a week’s notice is sufficient.” “Printed cards of invitation are not en règle,” she adds, “excepting for public occasions. A small note paper is the only appropriate one, and may have the initial letter or monogram stamped upon it, and the envelope. Any more fanciful decoration is in excessively bad taste.” On the other hand, in 1880, Social Etiquette of New York offers another option: “It is the customary style of those who give frequent dinner-parties to order their cards engraved with a blank left for the written insertion of the name of the guests” and for the date. The author also includes the following advice (take note, social climbers of New York!):
Until very recently, the initials R. S. V. P. (Répondez s’il vous plait) have been engraved upon all formal cards, but they are less and less frequently seen. To thus ask, or even remind, a lady or gentleman that an invitation should be answered is, to say the least, a faint reproach upon their breeding. All refined people who are accustomed to the best social forms are fully aware that it would be an unpardonable negligence to omit replying to such an invitation for a single day.
The hard work was now up to the servants, under the direction of the lady of the house. “The preparations for a dinner party should be commenced the day before. The waiter should have a bill of fare given to him in time, that he may know what arrangements to make,” Eliza Leslie advises in her 1840 Lady’s House-Book. (The cook, of course, would have started to prepare days before.) In 1827, Robert Roberts—an African-American butler in Boston—writes in The House Servant’s Directory that “there is not any part of a servant’s business that requires greater attention and systematical neatness, than setting out his dinner table.” He goes on to discuss in precise detail how to set the table, lay out the sideboard and side table, and serve at the dinner. The sideboard, he reminds us, is where “splendid and costly articles” are to be “seen and set out to the best advantage,” where “your glasses should form a crescent, or half circle, as this looks most sublime.” Announce dinner with “a graceful motion of your head,” he suggests.
In Our Deportment, John H. Young describes the ideal table of 1882:
A snow-white cloth of the finest damask, beautiful china, glistening or finely engraved glass, and polished plate are considered essential to a grand dinner. Choice flowers, ferns and mosses tastefully arranged, add much to the beauty of the table. A salt-cellar should be within the reach of every guest. Napkins should be folded square and placed with a roll of bread upon each plate. . . . An epergne, or a low dish of flowers, graces the center.
By 1869, place cards were becoming popular, according to Sarah Annie Frost.
The day of the party finally arrives. “The lady of the house should be in her drawing-room, ready to receive her guests, ten or fifteen minutes before the hour fixed,” states Frost’s Laws. Oh, and by the way, her husband “should also be present.” Dinner is announced by the chief waiter. “Before all the guests have arrived, the lady should have made her arrangements as to what gentleman and lady are to go in to dinner together.” The host should offer his left arm to his dinner partner. The “most distinguished” gentleman escorts the hostess, and the other paired couples follow to the dining room.
Once seated, guests had better be up on the fine points of etiquette and how to avoid gaucheries. Here is a taste of (many) pointers from Frost’s 1869 treatise:
Never take a long, deep breath after you finish eating, as if the exercise had fatigued you.
Never, even with cheese, put your knife into your mouth.
When you are helped, begin to eat, without regard to those who have already, or have not yet, been helped. (Who knew?)
To affect an air of mystery or secrecy at a dinner-table is an insult to your companion and company assembled.
Any gentleman propounding a conundrum at the dinner-table deserves to be taken away by the police.
None but a low-bred clown will ever carry fruit or bons bons away from the table.
Never touch fruit with your fingers.
The butler Robert Roberts advises servants to ensure that the lamps and chandeliers in the drawing room are lighted in good time “as the ladies never stop long in the dining room after the dessert is over.” After this final course, Frost instructs hostesses to catch “the eye of the principal” of her lady friends. “An interchange of ocular telegraphing takes place, the hostess rises,” and the ladies “retire to the drawing-room and occupy themselves until the gentlemen again join them. It is well for the hostess to have a reserve force for this interval, of photographic albums, stereoscopes, annuals, new music, in fact, all the ammunition she can provide to make this often tedious interval pass pleasantly.” As for the gentlemen, those “who smoke light their cigars. . . . Their absence from the drawing room should not be a prolonged one,” declares Social Etiquette of New York. If coffee was not served at the table after dessert, it was offered to guests in the drawing room. “After coffee, any guest may take leave, and it is not expected that the latest lingerer will remain longer than two hours after dinner.”
John Hunter was a member of the “old noblesse” who “had chosen his guests most admirably” for the dinner party in honor of President Martin Van Buren in 1839. The ladies were “all remarkable for elegance of manners,” and the gentlemen had “superior sense and erudition” and “sound judgment.” Would you have passed the test?
Margaret Highland, Historian