“Nothing is more fatal to good table manners than haste; therefore be deliberate.” That was the first of nineteen rules of table etiquette listed by the Aberdeen Evening Express, a newspaper in the Victorian Era. If you thought it a simple matter to have a meal during Victorian times, it was not, as author John H. Young noted in Our Deportment, Or, The Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society:
“There are so many little points to be observed, that unless a person is habitually accustomed to observe them, he unconsciously commits some error, or will appear awkward and constrained upon occasions when it is important to be fully at ease. To be thoroughly at ease at such times is only acquired by the habitual practice of good manners at the table, and is the result of proper home training.”
Etiquette of all forms was popular , but table etiquette was particularly important in the Victorian Age because as author Walter Raleigh Houghton wrote in Rules of Etiquette & Home Culture, “the distinction between the gentleman and the boor is more clearly noted at [the] table than anywhere else.” Another author, Cecil B. Harley, clarified the sentiment further in The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, when he stated, “there is no occasion upon which the gentleman, and the low-bred, vulgar man are more strongly contrasted than when at the table.” So, to ensure a gentleman remained a gentleman, there were three main points of observance: etiquette before the meal, etiquette during the meal itself, and etiquette after the meal.
Before the meal began, a gentleman had to respond to the invitation accepting or declining it. He was to do this promptly. On the day of the meal, he was admonished to “be punctual to the hour … five or ten minutes earlier if convenient, but not one instant later.” After arriving and entering the parlor, his first duty was to speak to the hostess and then address the host.
If dining with women, gentlemen were usually assigned to escort a lady to the table. To accomplish this, he was to offer her his left arm and proceed through the parlor door first but with the lady following and still holding his arm. When they reached the dining room, before entering, the lady would drop his arm, the gentleman would pass through, wait until the woman passed him, and then take her to her assigned seat at the table. The gentleman was also not to seat himself until every woman invited was seated. If a gentleman dined with no women, a gentleman could go to the table with the gentleman he was conversing with or he could accompany any gentleman near him. However, if the companion was older, the gentleman was to “extend him the same courtesy … use[d] towards a lady.”
During the meal, besides the thousand little common rules, such as not chewing with your mouth open or placing your elbows on the table, a gentleman was supposed to follow other rules. Some of the more interesting ones listed here are almost verbatim from various sources:
- Always wipe your mouth before drinking, as nothing is more ill-bred than to grease your glass with your lips.
- Be careful to avoid the extremes of gluttony or over daintiness at the table. To eat enormously is disgusting; but if you eat too sparingly, your host may think that you despise his fare.
- If a person wishes to be served more tea or coffee, he should place his spoon in his saucer. If he has had sufficient, let it remain in the cup.
- If by chance anything unpleasant is found in the food, such as a hair in the bread or a fly in the coffee, remove it without remark. Even though your own appetite be spoiled, it is well not to prejudice others.
- If you wish to remove a fish bone or fruit seed from your mouth, cover your lips with your hand or napkin, that others may not see you remove it.
- If you wish for a knife, plate, or anything from the side table, never address those in attendance as “Waiter!” as you would at a hotel or restaurant, but call one of them by name; if you cannot do this, make him a sign without speaking.
- Strive to keep the table-cloth as clean as possible, and use the edge of the plate or a side dish for potato skins and other refuse.
- Watch that the lady whom you escorted to the table is well helped. Lift and change her plate for her, pass her bread, salt, and butter, give her orders to the waiter, and pay her every attention in your power.
- Whenever one or both hands are unoccupied, they should be kept below the table, and not pushed upon the table and into prominence.
- After the table-cloths have all been removed, finger-glasses, filled with cold water, and having fresh lemon-leaves, or something of the sort, in them, are placed upon the table. You dip your fingers in them, moisten your lips, and dry them upon your napkin.
- This is a good rule, which, if followed will make you an acceptable guest anywhere: Be not obtrusive. Do not make a fuss, but do everything smoothly, quietly, and deliberately.
After the meal, a gentleman still had to behave properly. The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness noted a gentleman should “never leave the table till the mistress of the house gives the signal.” When that signal was given, a gentleman was expected to leave his napkin unfolded on the table. He then offered his arm to the lady he escorted to the table and escorted her to the next room. However, if for some reason the ladies withdrew beforehand and left the gentlemen alone after dinner, a gentleman was expected to “rise when [the women left] … the table, and remain standing until they … left room.”
A gentleman also could not leave immediately after dinner. It was considered disrespectful and peopled were obliged to stay in the drawing-room at least an hour after dinner ended. Sometimes, after dinner entertainment was requested, and and it was noted that if a gentleman was invited to sing and felt sufficiently sure his entertainment would provide pleasure, he was to comply immediately with the request. If, however, he refused, he was to “remain firm in [the] refusal as to yield after once refusing is a breach of etiquette.”
Proper etiquette could make a gentleman shine and avoid him being labeled vulgar by his peers. Vulgar manners could mark a man for life:
“However agreeable a man may be in society, if he offends or disgusts by his table traits, he will soon be scouted from it, and justly so.”
The English biographer, essayist, lexicographer, moralist, and writer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, believed similarly and pronounced the dinner hour “to be, in civilized life, the most important hour of the twenty … [as] the etiquette of the dinner-table has a prominence commensurate with the dignity of the ceremony.” This ceremony was what a gentleman was supposed to master, and he was to achieve it with composure and ease making it appear as if it were nothing more than an “ordinary” thing. One summation of the expectations of a gentleman at the dinner table stated:
“[T]here is no appearance of trifling or want of gravity in his manner; he maintains … dignity … He performs all the ceremonies, yet in the style of one who performs no ceremony at all. He goes through all the complicated duties of the scene, as if he were ‘to the manner born.'”
-  “Table Etiquette,” in Aberdeen Evening Express, July 25, 1879, p. 4.
-  Young, John H. Our Deportment, Or, The Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society, 1879, p. 121.
-  Houghton, Walter Raleigh, Rules of Etiquette & Home Culture, 1893, p. 89.
-  Harley, Cecil B., The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, 1873, p. 50.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid., p. 51.
-  Ibid., p. 57.
-  Ibid., p. 58.
-  Ibid., p. 57.
-  Ibid., p. 58.
-  Etiquette for Gentlemen, Or Short rules and Reflections for Conduct in Society, 1847, p. 135.
-  Ibid., p. 165.