There’s a story about the rather richly named Armand Jean du Plessis that circulated throughout Victorian-era New England during the 1880’s. The story goes that du Plessis, better remembered by the world as the 17th-century Cardinal Richelieu of France, once exposed an impostor pretending to be a nobleman by the way the man ate his olives. Those watching this spectacle, the Cardinal included, were nonplussed when the impostor nobleman, upon failing to find an olive fork at the table, exposed himself as a fraud when he substituted an ordinary fork when procuring his olives. The proper thing to do, the Cardinal and his tablemates knew, was to fish those olives from the dish with one’s fingers.
This story resonated with Victorian listeners. Observing table manners provided a means by which one could identify the ‘uncultivated’ who were attempting to ‘rise above their condition’ and masquerade among the wealthier classes of society. Mary Barr Munroe, writing for the March 2, 1889 edition of Good Housekeeping, reflected on some people-watching she herself had recently done in New York. As she sat at a New York City restaurant she “saw a richly dressed woman with every evidence a lady, handle her knife, fork, and napkin in a way that bespoke anything but gentle breeding”. At another table, she watched “a man take from his pocket a medicine bottle, shake it, pour out a dose and swallow it with evident disgust.”
Apparently, to the Victorians, the list of crimes against proper table manners was long. Munroe advised that it was improper to:
- Let food fall upon one’s clothes;
- Grasp for food across the table;
- Gulp one’s meal or tea down lustily;
- Pick that same meal from one’s teeth moments later;
- Smack one’s lips after finishing that meal (including any bits caught within one’s teeth);
- ‘Loll’ at the table; and
- Misunderstand the various utensils at the table, including butter knives, salt-spoons, sugar tongs, and napkins.
Other table faux-paus included ordering too much from the menu or not being able to find an item there to one’s liking. In addition to the aforementioned olives, table manners grew specific depending on the type of food consumed. A soft-boiled egg, for instance, could be eaten in the English manner, that is, directly from its shell, using a small egg cup and egg spoon. Alternately, the soft-boiled egg could be eaten in the American fashion, by striking the egg against the cup and then pouring its contents within that cup.
Rules were prescribed for the consumption of celery too. ‘Strictly finger food’, the Victorians advised. To add salt, one should hold the stalk in one’s left hand, while shaking the salt dispenser over the celery with the other. Always be mindful, etiquette advised, that a plate is positioned under the shaking effort in order to catch any errant salt. Corn on the cob presented a specific challenge to Victorian table watchers. Some advised that consumers of the corn should hold the ears in “pretty little doylies”; others thought this a perfectly absurd use of table linen. Rules even existed for the ‘after-meal’: one should never pile dirty dishes or fold spent napkins.
Some claim that table manners make a pleasant dining experience possible for all. Others argue that they serve as a method by which the upper classes of society can identify and further ostracize the ‘uncultivated’. Before the Victorian era and even before Cardinal Richelieu‘s day, table manners were observed during what today’s society calls ‘people watching’. But, whether you consider them important or not, they do provide some interesting viewpoints into societies of the past and the interrelations of the classes within them.