Setting an elegant table, then and now

 By Paula Kirwan

During Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), industrialization brought affluence and people in Europe and America sought ways to display their wealth.  Formal dinner parties provided a perfect setting, as they allowed the wealthy to blatantly flaunt their social position.  These dinners required a staggering array of china, silver and crystal as course after course of sumptuous food was served and the tableware was changed for each course. 

Coalport and Minton, among other fine china manufacturers of the Victorian age, produced specialty pieces for every conceivable use on the table (Royal Albert china, photo right; Booth B-310). There were dishes for asparagus, salt cellars, oyster plates, sauce boats, butter pats, soup tureens, bone dishes, and special plates for meat, fish or fowl, as well as differently shaped bowls depending on whether consommé or cream soups were served.


A typical Victorian china place setting would consist of up to fifteen plates and bowls (82 piece Limoges set, photo left; $820 at Booth T-254). Seven or eight different pieces of stemware would be found at each place setting, since each course required a different type of wine.  It was not unusual to have as many as 24 pieces of sterling silver flatware at each place setting, including seven forks and eight knives that were required for the various dishes. There were also special picks for butter, pickles and nuts and individual game shears for each person (silverplate demitasse spoons, photo right; $5 each at Booth B-510). There were distinctive and specialized sterling or fine china serving dishes for every type of food offered.  How the table looked was as important as how the food tasted, and the more extravagant the table, the more prestigious the family.


As the middle class became more prosperous and the costs of maintaining extravagant lifestyles became more prohibitive, entertaining became more relaxed and less formal.  Between the 1920s and 1940s the size of formal dinnerware sets decreased, and in the 1950s and beyond, pottery, melamine and freezer-to-microwave-to tableware became popular to reflect the casual lifestyles enjoyed by the majority of people.  Opulent dinner parties became special events rather than the norm even for the wealthy.  In today’s world, pictures from State Dinners for visiting dignitaries or the rare and extravagant parties given by the ultra-wealthy allow us a glimpse of the few occasions where such formal dinners still occur. 


Today, lovely pottery dishes, decorative stainless flatware and colorful glassware are readily available to everyone, and more and more young couples are opting for these casual options rather than formal dinnerware when they register for wedding gifts.  However, fine china, sterling flatware and crystal are still enjoyed by many who want to pull them out when enjoying a fine occasion.


A typical modern place setting covering salad through dessert consists of five pieces of china, 4 pieces of crystal, and a five piece place setting of silver, versus almost fifty pieces that made up a single place setting at a formal Victorian table (photo, left; set of 6 Minton diner plates from 1873, $160, Booth T-371).


Although it is rare to find complete china sets from the Victorian age, individual pieces are still available for the collector from Minton, Royal Albert, Haviland, Staffordshire, Lenox and more.  Some of these manufacturers continued to produce after the Victorian age and some are still creating beautiful fine china, so you should be able to find pieces that will give you the look of opulence without breaking the bank. 


Companies like Sheffield and Rogers made sterling silver and silver plate serving pieces and flatware during the era, and part of the fun of collecting them is finding pieces that had unusual and very specialized functions that are not found at our modern dining tables (photo, above right; silverplate bowl from 1890, Booth B-512, $35).

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