The Victorians had many sets of behavior that citizens had to follow to be accepted into society. Not least was formal dining etiquette, where a guest was obliged to follow certain rules before, during and after a meal. Dining in the Victorian era was a highly complex affair both for whoever was hosting the dinner and for those guests attending. The first part of the dining etiquette was sending the appropriate invitations to guests. These invitations were always written and often delivered by hand, the guests were required to respond to the invitation also in writing with a confirmation. The next step was the table layout.

Victorian Dining Table Layout

Correct dining etiquette in the Victorian era just as much was for the host as the guests. And there was a certain way that the dining table had to be set out to conform to Victorian standards. Each place setting would have the following:

  • A large plate
  • A fish plate
  • A smaller bread plate
  • A soup bowl
  • 2 knives
  • 3 forks
  • A soup spoon, placed on the right with the knives
  • A water goblet to the right of the plate
  • A fish fork
  • A fish knife
  • An oyster fork, placed on the right with the knives
  • Dessert spoons
  • An assortment of wine glasses for red, white and liqueur

All of the above had to be immaculately laid out on a starched linen tablecloth. Sometimes a measuring tape would be used to get distances between place settings precise and exactly uniform.

At the Table Etiquette

It was the job of the hostess to form a seating plan, and to arrange who would be sitting where. Often this was to do with social standing. The higher up in society the guest was normally dictated where they would be sitting and how near the host and hostess they would be positioned. A second major influencing factor is which gentleman would accompany which lady to the table and sit next to them. It was very rare that man and wife would sit next to each other, the idea was to stimulate conversation around the table, but other motives like matchmaking were also a factor.

The host would sit at one end of the table directly opposite the hostess, and the guests would be positioned facing each other. The table decoration was also highly important and was made to look as beautiful as possible, adorned with fresh flowers and the finest china, silver cutlery, a crystal glassware. In the center of the table were bowls laden with exotic fruits. The first to take their seats would be the ladies, followed by their gentlemen chaperons. And the chaperon ensured that the ladies were served exactly what they had requested, and then to serve himself and pass the dish on.

Of course, there was a strict dress code for the gentlemen to wear dinner suits, ladies had more leeway but obviously had to be perfectly attired to look both glamorous but not in any way tarty. In part two of this blog we see the etiquette required at the table.