Honours of the Table
Mr. Adams the Butler
Mr. Adams, a butler in a stately home in 1812 traveled to 2013 to tell us all about setting the table and dining etiquette. Mr. Adams is employed by an older gentleman who likes things done a certain way and NOT the new French way. He noted the differences between setting the table in our time vs. his time and discussed the etiquette of dining.
He showed us how to set the table: everything has to be symmetrical. There is one centerpiece and two of everything else. They put a lot of knick-knacks on their table like china shepherdesses and nymphs and other things like that. He says they so often pop up in antique shops in “your time” because they had so many of them in his time and two of every kind. Then there are two candlesticks. Then you add the plates. If someone cancels or shows up unexpectedly it upsets the numbers of the symmetry of the table.
Blue Willow China was very popular and expensive. It had to be imported from Chinaduring the Georgian era. Then Josiah Spode figured out the process of underglaze blue transfer printing on earthenware in 1783-84. Now transferware is very popular and less expensive.
The cutlery is placed face down - a tradition that goes back to when men wore lacy cuffs and didn’t want to ruin them by getting them caught on the cutlery. The forks had four tines. He explained that it’s a myth that “two tines for George II, three for poor George III and four for George IV and later.” He said that’s nonsense and it all depended on the deepness of your pocketbook and how much you wanted to show off. It also had to do with mechanization. They also don’t have separate forks and spoons for every dish. That came later in the Victorian era.
Mr. Adams explained the politics of the wine served: We don’t drink French wine because we’re at war with France. We’re patriotic and drink Port from our old ally, Portugal.
When dinner is announced, the mistress of the house asks the lady first in rank to lead the way to the rest, and walk first into the room where the table is served, then every other woman follows according to rank, ending with the hostess. The same with the gentlemen. The mistress sits at the upper end of the table and the master at the lower end with those highest in rank closest to them. The new fashion is for promiscuous seating with ladies and gentlemen sitting alternately around the table. The best families would serve up two courses of a variety of dishes spread over the table in a pleasing arrangement and would be set down at the beginning of the meal. The new fashion is for dining a la russe with the courses being served in the modern way. Dessert was the last course. If you dine alternating gentlemen and ladies it’s called promiscuous seating
The table is laid and the food is served. It’s impolite to reach across and grab what you want. You eat what is in front of you. If you are younger and more fashionable, you can ask for something to be passed to you. After the first course, the table was removed and the table reset on a green table cloth for the next course. Then that was removed and the table reset for the third course on the bare table.
Then the ladies retired to the withdrawing room and the gentlemen stayed to drink more port. By this time, they had drunk so much they were pretty well to go. During dinner if you had to use the facilities, you got up and just went out to the hall where there was a chamber pot behind the screen. After dinner, the men could get up and go in the chamber pot concealed in the sideboard. However, sometimes they were too inebriated to walk so they sat around and passed the chamber pot around the table! Sometimes they missed and watered their neighbor. There was a code phrase they used when that happened… It fell to the servants to clean up the mess. While the ladies sipped tea, the gentlemen got drunk and looked at naughty books. In the drawing room the ladies passed around a bourdeloue which looks like a gravy boat. The ladies wore split crotch drawers to make it easier.
Mr. Adams was very entertaining. He was not a stately butler like Carson in Downton Abbey. Mr. Adams is a real character. His talk was laced with a lot of humor and audience participation. Everyone laughed and squealed "ew" at the description of what happens after dinner! It was such a different time period. They didn't have the same concept of privacy that we do and would probably find us very puritanical in that respect. It was a great talk and if you should happen to have the opportunity to meet Mr. Adams, I highly recommend doing so.