What a better way to elevate the occasion than to delight the senses, not only with a wonderful spread of food, but a beautiful display of etiquette and artistry. At M.S. Rau, we have a wealth of beautiful antique tableware that is sure to inspire an exquisite holiday table. Drawing on the knowledge of art and antiques expert, Bill Rau, we have compiled a helpful guide to setting the perfect holiday dinner table. Read on to get a historical glimpse into the wonderful art of dining.
The Heart of the Home
Sitting around the dining table to enjoy a meal has always been about so much more than the consumption of food. While conventions and etiquette have changed over the centuries, one thing has not – the importance of the dining room. Where we eat often becomes the place where we connect, and, in many ways, the dining room is the heart of the home.
While this room is essential for entertaining guests today, it was even more so previously.
“It is my personal belief that the dining room is the most important part of the home. Whereas it’s certainly the center of the home for us in the 21st century, in the 18th and 19th centuries it was without a doubt. People didn’t go out to eat with the regularity that they do today...and many of the most important events that ever happened, happened in the dining room,” says Bill.
So, in creating the perfect holiday dining experience, where does one start? The perfect foundation lies in the arrangement of the guests and, therefore, in the perfect table.
Especially in the modern day, the ideal table for any dinner party is a round table. “It solves a problem,” says Bill. The round table enables better conversation, as everyone has the equal ability to speak to any guest.
This beautiful English mahogany expanding table, crafted in 1850, is a perfect example of the ingenuity and innovation born out of dining convention. Most round expanding tables at the time became oblong as leaves were added to extend it, losing the benefit of the coveted circular shape. This table, however, maintains it shape even as it expands to make room for a larger dinner party.
Conversely, in medieval times long rectangular trestle tables were favored, as it made it possible to arrange guests based on social hierarchy. The most important guests, such as the lord or lady, would be seated at the middle of the “high table,” which was a table set atop a dais, or raised platform. The guests at this table would only be seated on one side, so that they could look out upon the banquet. (This arrangement is not far off from what you see at some weddings today). It was also critical that people of differing classes didn’t share food and, therefore, were never seated together.
Setting the Table
Especially for the holidays, a pop of color is needed to add exuberance to the table. This can be accomplished through linens. If you plan to use bright pieces of tableware or elaborate floral arrangements, the traditional white tablecloth is also a sufficient option. There are no rules in picking a color; personal preference is always the best way to go. However, some thought should be given to choosing a tablecloth over placemats and/or a runner.
The tablecloth originated in ancient Rome and was called a mantele. It essentially functioned as a large napkin and was often used to clean the hands at the end of a meal. In medieval times, tablecloths became more elaborate and displayed a person’s wealth and social status. By the 16th century, tablecloths became even more intricate and delicate; the use of small personal napkins became popular solely for the protection of these tablecloths.
In early 18th-century England, doilies (named after D’Oyley, a London draper) were invented to showcase the beautiful wooden tables of the era. These eventually gave rise to the creation and use of placemats and runners. If you want to display the surface of your table, use placemats and/or a runner in place of the traditional tablecloth.
When adding the finishing touches to your table, don’t forget to add your cloth napkins, which should match or complement your tablecloth, runner, and/or placemats. These can be rolled into a napkin ring and placed on dinner plates or folded in a triangle and placed to the left of your place setting.
Perhaps the most important element on the table is the plating as it will – of course – be used to serve the great holiday meal. The aesthetic value, however, should not be overlooked. Plates and tableware should ideally complement the colors and motifs of your dinner party theme. As the holidays come but once a year, don’t be afraid to go for the finer and more ornamental patterns.
The size of your place setting should reflect the formality of your dinner party and the meal being served. Typically, dinnerware comes in a 3-, 4-, or 6-piece place set, although English dinnerware makers were known for creating 7-piece sets that included a dinner plate, salad plate, bread-and-butter plate, cup, saucer, soup bowl and soup bowl saucer. Many full dinnerware sets also come with serveware.
Crafted by the Royal Copenhagen Porcelain Manufactory, this monumental dinner service is adorned by the famed Flora Danica motif, which was first commissioned by King Christian IV of Denmark as a gift for Catherine the Great of Russia. It is a stunning example of the care and exquisite artistry put into dinnerware pieces. Each piece is decorated with a flower of Denmark with the Latin name of the flower painted on the back. “They made the set for Catherine the Great with every single piece different. Now that is so rare in a set. In fact, it is unheard of... It’s the only completely hand-painted pattern that is in existence today,” says Bill.
Although a common place object for us today, the use of flatware, and forks in particular, didn’t gain popularity until the 18th century. The fork was first introduced to Europe in the 11th century in Venice by Byzantine Princess Theodora Anna Doukaina. It eventually became the favored dining tool of Catherine de Medici, who attempted to popularize this custom in France, however unsuccessfully.
While utensils may seem to be a simple intermediary tool between the hand and mouth, they are perhaps the most dynamic facet of the modern table setting. There are many different flatware arrangements, varying by occasion, culture and style of service. The most common formal arrangement used today comes from the Russian style of dinner service which was popularized in England and America in the 1860s and 1870s. It is what we would recognize as a typical dinner service today, where courses are brought out one after the other. Flatware in this service is arranged in order of use.
Traditional flatware sets usually contain 7 pieces per place setting, including a soup spoon, a knife and fork for the main course, a knife and fork for a salad or dessert course, a dessert spoon and a teaspoon. However, there are many more formal and elaborate sets, including pieces such as a fish fork and knife, an oyster fork, a coffee spoon and many more.
This elaborate flatware set was produced by Tiffany & Co. and features their most popular pattern, the Chrysanthemum pattern. “Flatware, in a sense, was an American invention...The Americans created pieces for every single course, and it was the American way of showing their wealth. This [set] is an extraordinary example of that. The single finest sets ever made in America were made by Tiffany & Co.,” says Bill.
The most dramatic and eye-catching piece on the dinner table should undoubtedly be the centerpiece. As the finishing touch, the goal of the centerpiece is to thematically tie the presentation of your table together.
Choosing the perfect centerpiece will likely be the most difficult decision when setting your table, as there are so many varying options. As a rule of thumb, it is good to first consider the purpose of the piece. Do you want to add light and ambience to your table? Greenery? Or do you want to simply add an artistic element to an otherwise ordinary setting?
For a truly elaborate decorative element that is sure to delight your guests, consider a nef. “A nef was a French sailing ship from the 11th century, and it was the most efficient ship out there, supposedly. Someone began making something that remotely looked like this [one pictured] for drinking. Drinking games were major events. The most important part were the wheels on the bottom, so they could roll it down the table. So, it started as a drinking game toy. Then, nefs became a centerpiece and would have been used to hold condiments and salt. Salt was expensive, so if you could have something that held a lot of salt, you were wealthy. You were ‘worth your salt,’” says Bill. Today nefs are used solely as decorative centerpieces.
To get even more inspiration for your holiday table, watch this informative video of Bill Rau discussing 12 of his favorite dining treasures.