The objects used to lay a table spoke volumes about the host's standing in society.

by Sarah Nichols

In the 18th century, the pleasures of the table reached new gastronomic heights with the discovery of different and exotic foods and spices, and the creation of new recipes. Visually the table became more exciting and elaborate with new serving dishes such as tureens, sauceboats, and centerpieces to present the new recipes. In Europe, new porcelain factories competed with silver and goldsmiths to supply large and elaborate dinner and dessert services to the courts of Europe, and a growing number of glass factories florished as wine glasses found their way onto the table. In this century, for the first time the dining room became a clearly defined space within a house dedicated to one particular purpose-the service and enjoyment of food and all the pomp and circumstance that can surround it.

Just as today, with the spectrum of dining ranging from the T.V. dinner and fast food grazing to the formalities of Thanksgiving dinner and special events, dining in the 18th century was hierarchical and stratified by economic background and the type of occasion. For example, at the Court of Versailles, Louis XIV's dining possibilities ranged from the heights of "the Royal Feast" through five variations of "le grand couvert" ("the large placesetting") and two of "le petit couvert," each with added nuances of informality.

Louis XIV's Court at Versailles established the formal customs of dining throughout 18th century Europe via le service à la française (the French method of serving), which became universally accepted as the only civilized fashion of dining. In the French manner, at each course all the different dishes were placed on the table at the same time and in exactly prescribed locations. The diners would help themselves to whatever was near at hand without moving the dishes, and if necessary pass their plates to their neighbors to get food that was out of their reach. At large dinners this meant that it was impractical for guests to sample all the dishes, so it was important to have an interesting selection of foods near each guest.

A 1760 painting by Martin Van Mytens shows the feast given at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna before the marriage of the future Joseph II to Princess Isabelle of Parma, and it gives a wonderful sense of royal dining à la française at the most formal level. As with other aspects of royal daily life in the 18th century, such as at the levée (the ritual of getting up in the morning) aristocratic courtiers were required to watch these formal meals. In the painting, the Austrian royal family sits on a raised dias very much as though on stage. Servants number more than one per guest, an abundance that was typical at such state banquets. More modest households aimed for a ratio of one servant to four guests, and it was not unusual for guests to come with their own footmen to make up the shortfall. The function of the servants was to pass around the oil and vinegar and bread, and to replenish the drinking glasses after washing them at the sideboard fountain and cistern. It was considered extremely bad form for the servants to serve the diners or to disturb the dishes once the table was set.

The house steward, the servant in overall charge of the household, was responsible for devising the menu and drawing up the table plan for the placement of the dishes. Other servants crucial for the success of a grand dinner were the butler, responsible for the wine cellar, all the silver and plates, serving the meal and supervising the conduct and efficiency of the footmen; the clerk of the kitchen, responsible for ordering all the provisions; and the head cook. In France, extremely important feasts attended by the king might have had up to eight courses including dessert, and so last many hours. In England, even the most formal dinners seem to have been concentrated into three courses including dessert, after which the ladies retired to the drawing room for tea and the men remained behind for drinking.

But even an English dinner could be a long, drawn-out affair, as the author of Apician Morsels or Tales of the table, kitchen, and larder wrote in 1829: "Five hours at the dinner table are a reasonable latitude when the company is numerous and no lack of good cheer." At a grand dinner, each course should have the same number of dishes, as Elizabeth Raffald pointed out in The Experienced English Housekeeper, published in 1769: "As many dishes as you have in one course, so many baskets or plates your dessert must have, and as my bill of fare is tweny-five to each course, so must your dessert be of the same number and set out in the same manner," so making a total of 75 dishes. The York Courant in 1767 reported that Sir William Lowther offered 180 dishes at a party at Flatt Hall. That night, the house steward, butler, clerk of the kitchen and cook had their work cut out for them.

The first course usually consisted of soups and stews, vegetables and boiled fish and meats arranged around a grand centerpiece. As the first course neared its conclusion the servants brought in the "remove" dishes, such as impressive dishes of meat or fish. These were placed at each end of the table and intended as conversation pieces and as a way of spanning the lengthy time it took to replace all the first course dishes with those for the second course. The second course consisted of vegetables, meats and fish, with the addition of exotic pies, such as peacock, and other savoury baked fare such as gumballs and cheese wigs. (Gumballs were made from eggs, sugar, flour, butter, mace, aniseed and carroway seeds mixed together to form a paste, which was then baked. Cheese wigs were small bread buns coated with cheese sauce so they ressembled the shape of a wig resting on a wig stand.1

The second course dishes would be laid out in exactly the same arrangement as those from the first. Another "remove" dish-perhaps a mock boar's head made of sponge cake-would rekindle the guests' interest in the final course, dessert-the crowning glory of a grand dinner, as recent recreations using 18th-century recipes and tablewares show.

Elaborate desserts were in vogue in the 18th century. As Horace Walpole wrote in 1750, "all the geniuses of the age are employed in designing new plans for dessert." Gardens, architecture and pastoral scenes were evoked firstly in sugar and then in porcelain to provide a backdrop for the fresh and sugared fruits, sweetmeats, jams, jellies and creams. Sometimes such excesses overwhelmed the guests as was the case with a dessert table prepared by the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, as described by William Farington in 1756:

After a very Elligant Dinner of a great many dishes...The Table was Prepar'd for Dessert which was a Beautiful Park, round the Edge was a Plantation of Flowering Shrubs, and in the middle a Fine piece of water with Dolphins Spouting out water, and Deer dispersed Irregularly over the Lawn, on the Edge of the Table was all Iced Creams, and wet and dried Sweetmeats, it was such a Piece of work it was all left on the Table till we went to Coffee.2

A large household would employ a confectioner whose sole task was to prepare the sweetmeats and sugar sculptures for the dessert course. Smaller households such as Viscount Fairfax's in York would make use of independent chefs. In 1763 Fairfax held a party for 18 people to celebrate the completion of his magnificent York townhouse. The invoice for the dessert course shows he paid a staggering 16 pounds (the housekeeper's wage for the year was only 11 pounds) to the city chef William Baker for five pyramids of wet and dry sweetmeats, which included the rental of the glass and other structures necessary for the display of this extravaganza. Monsieur Seguin, a French confectioner and longtime resident of York, supplied the various sweetmeats.3

In the 18th century, as before and since, the objects used to lay a table spoke volumes about the host's standing in society. As one Mrs. Papendieck, the wife of a minor court official and one of the "middling ranks," wrote in 1783 on the occasion of her marriage: "our tea and coffee service were of common India China, our dinner service of earthenware, to which, for our rank, there was nothing superior, Chelsea porcelain and fine India China being only for the wealthy. Pewter and delft ware could be had but were inferior." Silver, gold and European porcelains from such factories as Sèvres and Meissen favored by royal and aristocratic patrons are not mentioned-probably because they were beyond Mrs. Papendieck's everyday experiences. On the other hand, at the wedding feast in the Hofburg Palace in 1760, everything on the table-the tureens, plates, individual salt boxes and cutlery-is either gold or silver gilt.

A large porcelain dinner and dessert service was often considered a suitable gift from a king to an ambassador or fellow monarch. Such services, like the famous Swan Service made by Meissen from 1737 to 1741 for Count Bruhl, might consist of more than 2,000 pieces. When production of the Copenhagen Porcelain Factory's Flora Danica Service suddenly stopped in 1802, it numbered 1,802 pieces. The service was originally intended for Catherine the Great of Russia, so the Danish crown took over the service after her death in 1796 and increased the order for the number of place settings from 80 to 100. Porcelain was ideally suited to the dessert course, as the decoration and forms could easily reflect the naturalist and Arcadian themes that dominated the dessert. All the pieces in the Flora Danica service, not just the dessert items, were painted with single flowers in a rigorous botanical style. The great Meissen service presented by Augustus III of Saxony to the British ambassador Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams in 1745 included dessert dishes in the form of artichokes, laurel leaves and sunflowers, and 166 figures of which 54 were pastoral in theme and 34 connected to the hunt. Such porcelain figures replaced those originally made in sugar.

The rules and customs associated with dining have changed over the years, but Anthelme Brillat Savarin's maxims for dining published in the early 19th century still hold true: "When you invite a man to dinner, never forget, that during the short time he is under your roof his happiness is in your hands."

Sarah Nichols is the curator of decorative arts at Carnegie Museum of Art.


1. Recipes for gumballs and cheese wigs are included in an 18th-century manuscript belonging to the Fairfax family of York, England.

2. Sykes, C. S. Private Palaces, London, 1985.

3. Brown, Peter. Pyramids of Pleasure, York, 1990.