The strange, creative, and occasionally tacky history of table setting
In daily life, setting the table is often just a chore: laying a plate, fork, knife, and napkin in front of every chair. But, on special occasions, many people try to transform their tables into dreamscapes—and these days, there’s a whole sector of the media devoted to churning out new table-setting ideas. (…)
A dining table was once a simple, knockdown affair. In the Middle Ages, when life was rough and uncertain, “setting the table” meant placing a wooden board on top of two trestles in order to make a somewhat sturdy but ultimately moveable table. The table was merely a platform for food to be laid upon. Even at royal feasts, the only ornament on the table was a nef, a vessel made to hold salt. People brought their own knives and spoons, and ate on slices of bread instead of plates. Tables might be covered with cloth, but this was less decoration and more a giant, communal napkin for diners to wipe their hands on.Over time, improved manufacturing technologies led to a boom in utensils and flatware. Elite European tables have displayed silver dishware since the Middle Ages, but the variety of dishes for holding food continually increased, as they became more specific and more ornate. This trend peaked in the Victorian Era, when an abundance of silver, glass, and porcelain contributed to the table’s shiny new look, with about 20 pieces per place setting (including dishes, glasses, and silverware). However, it was the shift from service à la française to service à la russe between 1750 and 1900 that led to elaborate, sometimes absurd, table settings.
Service à la française brought all the dishes to the table at once, so the concerns of laying a table focused on where to place each dish. By contrast, service à la russe left the table bare as servants brought out each course one at a time to be placed on the sideboard, and served to guests on individual plates, as exemplified in Downton Abbey. The void had to be filled with pretty things for the eye to latch onto, leading to an elaborate visual culture that persists on our tabletops.
Centerpieces quickly became another way for the aristocracy and high society to display their wealth. In the mid-18th century, the wealthy laid their tables with ornate silver baskets called epergnes, long mirrored trays called plateaus, flowers, and candelabras.