Gilded Age Etiquette

  The Gilded Age unofficially is believed to be the period between 1870-1900. "Gilding" is to cover, or coat, with gold, as many silver items were at the time. The period also got its name from the title of a book. "The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today" was an 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner

Macaroni Server with Gilded Bowl & Tines, c 1880 
The Breakers Dining Room, Newport R.I.
A young man or a young woman, unaccustomed to the settled observances of such occasions, can hardly pass through a severer ordeal than a formal dinner.  Its terrors, however, are often greatly magnified.  Such a knowledge of the principal points of table etiquette as you may acquire from this book, complete self-possession, habits of observation, and a fair share of practical good sense, will carry one safely if not pleasantly through it.  You may entertain the opinion that such dinners, and formal parties in general, are tiresome affairs, and that there might be quite as much real courtesy and a great deal more enjoyment with less ceremony, and we may entirely agree with you; but what is, and not what might be, is the point to be elucidated. We are to take society as we find it. 

You may, as a general rule, decline invitations to dinner parties without any breach of good manners, and without giving offense, if you think that neither your enjoyment nor your interests will be promoted by accepting; or you may not go into what is technically called "society" at all, and yet you are liable, at a hotel, on board a steamer, or on some extraordinary occasion, to be placed in a position in which ignorance of dinner etiquette will be very mortifying and the information contained in this section be worth a hundred times the cost of the book.

We now proceed to note the common routine of a fashionable dinner, as laid down in books and practiced in polite society. On some points usage is not uniform, but varies in different

countries, and even in different cities in the same country, as well as in different circles in the same place. For this reason you must not rely wholly upon this or any other manners book, but, keeping your eyes open and your wits about you, wait and see what others do, and follow the prevailing mode.

Dinner Etiquette

1. Invitations.

Invitations to a dinner are usually issued several days before the appointed time—the length of time being proportioned to the grandeur of the occasion. On receiving one, you should answer at once, addressing the lady of the house. You should either accept or decline unconditionally, as they will wish to know whom to expect, and make their preparations accordingly.

2. Dress.

You must go to a dinner party in "full dress." Just what this is, is a question of time and place. Strictly interpreted, it allows gentlemen but little choice.  A black dress coat and trowsers (sic), a black or white vest and cravat, white gloves, and pumps and silk stockings were formerly rigorously insisted upon. But the freedom-loving "spirit of the age" has already made its influence felt even in the realms of fashion, and a little more latitude is now allowed in most circles. 

The "American Gentleman's Guide" enumerates the essentials of a gentleman's dress for occasions of ceremony in general, as follows: 
"A stylish, well-fitting cloth coat, of some dark color and of unexceptionable quality, nether garments to correspond, or in warm weather, or under other suitable circumstances, white pants of a fashionable material and make, the finest and purest linen, embroidered in white, if at all; a cravat and vest of some dark or neutral tint, according to the physiognomical peculiarities of the wearer and the prevailing mode; an entirely fresh-looking, fashionable black hat, and carefully-fitted modish boots, white gloves, and a soft, thin, white handkerchief."

A lady's "full dress" is not easily defined, and fashion allows her greater scope for the exercise of her taste in the selection of materials, the choice of colors, and the style of making. Still, she must "be in the fashion."

3. Punctuality.

Never allow yourself to be a minute behind the time. The dinner can not be served till all the guests have arrived. If it is spoiled through your tardiness, you are responsible not only to your inviter (sic), but to his outraged guests. Better be too late for the steamer or the railway train than for a dinner!

4. Going to the Table.

When dinner is announced, the host rises and requests all to walk to the dining-room, to which he leads the way, having given his arm to the lady who, from age or any other consideration, is entitled to precedence. Each gentleman offers his arm to a lady, and all follow in order.  If you are not the principal guest, you must be careful not to offer your arm to the handsomest or most distinguished lady.

5. Arrangement of Guests.

Where rank or social position are regarded (and where are they not to some extent?), the two most distinguished gentlemen are placed next the mistress of the house, and the two most distinguished ladies next the master of the house. The right hand is especially the place of honor. If it is offered to you, you should not refuse it. It is one of the first and most difficult things properly to arrange the guests, and to place them in such a manner that the conversation may always be general during the entertainment. If the number of gentlemen is nearly equal to that of the ladies, we should take care to intermingle them. We should separate husbands from their wives, and remove near relations as far from one another as possible, because being always together they ought not to converse among themselves in a general party.

6. Duties of the Host.

To perform faultlessly the honors of the table is one of the most difficult things in society; it might indeed be asserted, without much fear of contradiction, that no man has as yet ever reached exact propriety in his office as host. When he receives others, he must be content to forget himself; he must relinquish all desire to shine, and even all attempts to please his guests by conversation, and rather do all in his power to let them please one another.  Help ladies with a due appreciation of their delicacy, moderation, and fastidiousness of their appetites; and do not overload the plate of any person you serve.  Never pour gravy on a plate without permission.  It spoils the meat for some persons. Do not insist upon your guests partaking of particular dishes; never ask persons more than once, and never put anything by force upon their plates. It is extremely ill-bred, though extremely common, to press one to eat of anything. The host should never recommend or eulogize any particular dish; his guests will take it for granted that anything found at his table is excellent. The most important maxim in hospitality is to leave every one to his own choice and enjoyment, and to free him from an ever-present sense of being entertained.  You should never send away your own plate until all your guests have finished.

7. Duties of the Guests.

Gentlemen must be assiduous but not officious in their attentions to the ladies. See that they lack nothing, but do not seem to watch them.  If a "grace" is to be asked, treat the observance with respect.  Good manners require this, even if veneration fails to suggest it.  Soup will come first.  You must not decline it; because nothing else can be served till the first course is finished, and to sit with nothing before you would be awkward.  But you may eat as little of it as you choose.  The host serves his left-hand neighbor first, then his right hand, and so on till all are served. Take whatever is given you, and do not offer it to your neighbor; and begin at once to eat. You must not suck soup into your month, blow it, or send for a second plate.  

The second course is fish, which is to be eaten with a fork, and without vegetables.  The last part of this injunction does not, of course, apply to informal dinners, where fish is the principal dish.  Fish, like soup, is served but once. When you have eaten what you wish, you lay your fork on your plate, and the waiter removes it.  

The third course brings the principal dishes—roast and boiled meats, fowl, etc., which are followed by game.  There are also side dishes of various kinds.  At dessert, help the ladies near you to whatever they may require. Serve strawberries with a spoon, but pass cherries, grapes, or peaches for each to help himself with his fingers. You need not volunteer to pare an apple or a peach for a lady, but should do so, of course, at her request, using her fork or some other than your own to hold it.  We have said in our remarks on table manners in general, in a previous chapter, that in sending your plate for anything, you should leave your knife and fork upon it.  

For this injunction we have the authority of most of the books on etiquette, as well as of general usage. There seems also to be a reason for the custom in the fact, that to hold them in your hand would be awkward, and to lay them on the table-cloth might soil it; but the author of the "American Gentleman's Guide," whose acquaintance with the best usage is not to be questioned, says that they should be retained, and either kept together in the hand, or rested upon your bread, to avoid soiling the cloth. Eat deliberately and decorously (there can be no harm in repeating this precept), masticate your food thoroughly, and beware of drinking too much ice-water.  If your host is not a "temperance man," that is, one pledged to total abstinence, wine will probably be drunk.  You can of course decline, but you must do so courteously, and without any reflection upon those who drink.  You are not invited to deliver a temperance lecture. 

Where finger-glasses are used, dip the tips of your fingers in the water and wipe them on your napkin; and wet a corner of the napkin and wipe your mouth.  Snobs sometimes wear gloves at table.  It is not necessary that you should imitate them. The French fashion of having the principal dishes carved on a side-table, and served by attendants, is now very generally adopted at ceremonious dinners in this country, but few gentlemen who go into company at all can safely count upon never being called upon to carve, and the art is well worth acquiring. Ignorance of it sometimes places one in an awkward position. You will find directions on this subject in almost any cook-book; you will learn more, however, by watching an accomplished carver than in any other way. 

Do not allow yourself to be too much engrossed in attending to the wants of the stomach, to join in the cheerful interchange of civilities and thoughts with those near you. We must leave a hundred little things connected with a dinner party unmentioned; but what we have said here, together with the general canons of eating laid down in Chapter VI, (Section 7, "Table Manners"), and a little observation, will soon make you a proficient in the etiquette of these occasions, in which, if you will take our advice, you will not participate very frequently. An informal dinner, at which you meet two or three friends, and find more cheer and less ceremony, is much to be preferred. – From 1887,  Samuel Well's,"How to Behave"


  1. This is great information. With the cold weather now, I am staying in many evenings with soup, good movies and books. This info helps with my own writing too. Thanks and keep them coming!


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