Setting and Decorating the Victorian Dinner Table

Some Butler’s Tips

The Victorian dinner table was decorated to perfection with stunning white tablecloths, carefully folded napkins, elaborate floral centrepieces and an excessive array of cutlery and glasses.


Before serving dinner, the dining-room table was laid with two cloths, a felt cloth to protect the table from heat and a fresh white damask cloth which was removed before the dessert course. Table mats, leaving the table bare, were never used at dinner, although they were acceptable for lunch, for which the table was kept highly polished. Matching napkins were carefully folded into decorative designs, with names like ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ or ‘the Bishop’s Mitre’ (see worksheet). In the centre of the table was a silver épergne, an elaborate centrepiece with a large central basin and branches supporting candelabra and baskets. Its small silver side-dishes were filled with chocolates and mints, while the central bowl was filled with fruit, lavishly arranged in mouth-watering displays. Strawberries and cherries were piled in huge red pyramids, with the stalks carefully turned inward, while pineapples and melons were placed on vine leaves and surrounded by nectarines, grapes and other luscious fruits.


A low-key dinner table for a small dinner

(Mrs Beeton)

Silver candelabra provided ambient lighting, while stands of flowers, beautifully arranged in silver bowls and vases, completed the table, along with floral garlands. These floral arrangements were the work of the head gardener, and gardeners at Emo such as Mr Ponsford and Mr Ennis were regularly commended for their skilful displays, even winning prizes for ‘best stand of flowers for the dinner table’ at county horticultural shows. 

As the Victorians believed that every type of food required a special implement, the dinner table was a veritable excess of silver cutlery and glasses, all carefully laid in their correct positions. The first course utensils were placed on the outside of the setting, so that diners worked their way inward with each course. The silver was all highly polished and the butler wore cotton gloves when placing it on the table. Different wine was served with each course, each in different glasses, and these glasses were arranged in a circle, with a sherry glass for the soup course, a white wineglass for the fish, a claret or burgundy glass for the meat course, then a tumbler of water to rinse the palate, and finally a champagne glass for the pudding. Other glasses for port, brandy and liqueurs were laid later, when required. Finger bowls, containing a small amount of water topped with a scented sprig or flower petal, were laid before the dessert course.


When the table was ready, name cards were placed in position and menu cards were placed between diners, so they could see which dishes were coming next - which to choose and which to pass on, as few diners could manage to eat every course. Before the diners entered the room, the butler might also scent the air of the dining room. For this, he used a special instrument with an iron cup on a long handle. The cup was placed in the fire until red hot, then liquid perfume was poured into it, and the butler walked around the room, spreading clouds of scented air. The dining room was now ready for its illustrious guests.



Some Butler’s Tips for Serving at the Dinner Table

        Serve each course at the proper temperature.

          Courses should follow in an unbroken rhythm.

        Good service is quiet and unobtrusive, so as not to disturb the conversation at the table.

        For the correct order of service, begin with the lady to the right of the host and continue clockwise.

        Food is served from the left side of the guest, drinks from the right.

        A piece of cake or pie should always be served with the point facing towards the guest.


(Adapted from Dinner is Served. An English Butler’s Guide to the Art of the Table by Arthur Inch and Arlene Hirst, 2003)