Dining “Downton Abbey” Style

By Karen Parr-Moody


The dining room has historically been a stage upon which to display one’s wealth and taste. Excess equaled success, as fans of “Downton Abbey” know. This television period drama, which originally aired on British TV in September 2010, has taken the U.S. by storm, enchanting us with the sumptuousness of its Edwardian period.


Now in its fifth season and currently set in 1924, this PBS show invites viewers to enter the world of the aristocratic Grantham family each week. As soap operatic as it is historic, “Downton Abbey” is the height of escapism, especially when the family sits down to a meal in the impeccably-decorated dining room.


Like the wealthy Victorians who came before them, the elite Edwardians went for lavishness in their meals, which ranged from six to 22 courses. And since they ate four times a day – breakfast, lunch, teatime and dinner – meals necessitated many gold-standard accoutrements, including multiple types of stemware and silverware.


The photo, above right, is from a “Downton Abbey” scene and gives one a sense of the grandiosity of each meal. In the lower right-hand corner one gets a glimpse of the accoutrements, including four types of stemware, a silver mustard pot, a menu and what historians call an “open salt cellar” or, simply, an “open salt.” The salt cellar contains a tiny salt spoon – an item that became popular in the 1700s, along with individual salt cellars. Prior to that time, the typical custom was for the master of the house to sit before one large and ornate salt cellar. (Photo, left: Individual salt cellars in swan motifs from GasLamp Too; $54 per cellar at Booth T-140).


Salt cellars date back to ancient Rome, when they were simple affairs. The salt shaker didn’t become popular until the late Victorian period, after its invention in 1858 by John Mason (who also brought us the Mason jar). Since the first salt shaker was no objet d’art – a jar with a top pierced by holes – it would not typically do for the tables of the upper class.


Even as the salt shaker’s design became more sophisticated, Europeans in general didn’t adapt to shakers as quickly as did Americans. And in better households, salt cellars remained with their formal settings. (During the Kennedy administration of the 1960s the White House opened its doors to an ornate salt cellar pedestal with two molded female figures, and in recent administrations individual salt cellars have been used for official entertaining.)


Today, salt cellars are once again en vogue, in part due to the popularity of artisanal salt among foodies, who keep an open salt cellar in the kitchen for cooking. Additionally, some people still bring out the salt cellars for special occasions and holidays.


If you want to pull out all of the stops, a la “Downton Abbey,” buy the salt cellar featured in the photo, above right, then start a collection ($32 at Booth T-140). This is a sterling silver salt cellar in the shape of a Viking ship with five shields. It bears the marks of Norwegian silversmith Magnus Aase; such salt cellars range in date from the 1930s to the 1980s.


Inexpensive glass salt cellars – such as the ones in the photo, left – became popular after the invention of pressed glass in the 1820s. The pedestal shape on these is grace itself ($8 each at Booth T-140).


As mentioned, diners at such a fine table as the Granthams’ would have also had their own diminutive salt spoon, such as the one in the photo, right ($16 at Booth T-140). This sterling silver spoon is one of a small collection at this dealer’s booth. (Some antique collectors are so specialized that they collect salt spoons in ornate, hard-to-find patterns, such as Grand Baroque.)


In one of the many dining scenes in “Downton Abbey” the persnickety butler, Carson, schools a young footman on the difference between the oyster fork and some other fork. Indeed, aristocrats of the past used an astounding array of forks: dinner fork, fish fork, luncheon fork, lobster fork, fruit fork, salad fork, seafood fork, strawberry fork, dessert fork, ice cream fork, pastry fork, snail fork and oyster fork. In the photo, left, are eight oyster forks that date to 1886 ($78 for the set at GasLamp Too Booth T-140).


The photo, right, features Cora – a.k.a. Lady Grantham – having tea on the grounds of Downton Abbey. Note that on the table before her is a silver bowl with tongs for sugar. The sugar cube was invented in the 1840s in Moravia, but it was decades before it was put into widespread use in Europe. Another sugar-delivery system used by Victorians was the block of solid sugar cone; their servants would snip off slivers of sugar from this cone with special a pair of iron sugar scissors. With either type, sugar tongs were a necessity.


At GasLamp Too one will find this dainty pair of sugar tongs with a shell motif to use at your next tea party (photo, left; $16 at Booth T-140). And if you are going for true authenticity, you will want a small stirring spoon for your tea, as well as silver cake tongs for any delicacies served.


Those Edwardians made meals complicated. But why not take a page out of their etiquette book? Maybe you don’t need an ice cream fork, but let’s face it – if you want to squeeze every bit of fun out of an event, dress up your table with antique accoutrements. After all, a salt cellar or sugar tongs will surely invite more conversation than their modern counterparts.  

Print this page