The Regency Circulating Library

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Hey there gals and gents, 

We all, at one point or another, have attended a dinner party or two. Ranging from small family dinner parties to large formal events they are an important part of the social life of many cultures. But when did they start? And what did they look like in our favorite era?

The word “dinner” is from the Old French “disner”, meaning “dine” and eventually, the term shifted to refer to the heavy main meal of the day.

The history of dinner parties is well documented from as far back as Ancient Rome. 

A dinner party was referred to as a convivium and was a significant event for Roman emperors and senators to congregate and discuss their relations. A fine example is shown in the painting “Roman Banquet” by Pierre Olivier Joseph Coomans (below)

When looking at the Regency Era we see the typical custom reflected in the 17th century, when Louis XIV dined at noon, with supper at 10 pm. But in Europe, dinner began to move later in the day during the 1700s, due to developments in work practices, lighting, financial status, and cultural changes. The fashionable hour for dinner continued to be incrementally postponed during the 18th century, to two and three in the afternoon, and in 1765 King George III dined at 4 pm. 

By about 1850 English middle-class dinners were around 5 or 6 pm, allowing men to arrive back from work, but there was a continuing pressure for the hour to drift later, led by the elite who did not have to work set hours, and as commutes got longer as cities expanded. In the mid-19th century, the issue was something of a social minefield, with a generational element. 

In Regency-era London, dinner parties were formal occasions that included printed invitations and formal RSVPs. There were many strict rules to be followed by the hosts, the guests, and of course the servants. (A beautiful depiction in “The Dinner Party” – bellow – by Sir Henry Cole)

Examples of these rules are:

  • Cards for a dinner party would be issued a fortnight, three weeks, or even a month beforehand; using expert care to the selection of the guests. 

  • Every lady must exercise her judgment as to the dinner party’s expense, and then show her taste in its arrangement. 

  • Fashion, the great arbiter of everything connected with social life, varies so that the dinner which might be considered as elegant at one time would have an air of vulgarity at another.

  • A china or glass dish containing rose-water might be passed around the table, into which each guest dips the corner of his table napkin, for the purpose of refreshing his mouth and fingers, prior to the appearance of dessert.

  • Sometimes liquor is handed to the guests in small glasses, immediately after the ice has been served; the pails and glass plates are removed before the servants leave the room.

(A Christmas Dinner by Johns S Goodall – above)

  • The decanted wines placed on the table during dinner are white wines, but those circulated after dinner are Port, Madeira, and Claret. 

  • Directions to the cook should always be closed with strict injunctions to be punctual to time, and to send everything, which is intended to be eaten hot, to table in proper season. 

  • The butler, or footman, should be furnished with a plan of the dinner, drawn out in an intelligible manner, so that he may know how to arrange the dishes on the table. 

  • The servants should be quiet and rapid in their movements; observant in supplying changes of plates, and in attending to the demands of each guest. The courses should be quickly removed but without a bustle.

(My Friends, a painting by Viggo Johansen – above)

  • Wax lights should be in readiness, and the lamps, particularly those not in common use, should be cleaned- and trimmed.

  • The table, which is to be used, must be so proportioned to the size of the party, as neither to inconvenience the guests, by over-crowding them, nor yet to admit of too much space, which has always an uncomfortable appearance. 

  • The glasses of every description should look clean and bright; and the water in the decanters should be clear, and without sediment. 

  • The wines, when not in charge of a butler, should be given out in good time, to be properly decanted and cooled.

  • When dinner is announced, the hostess arranges the guests according to their rank, or according to what she imagines their expectations may be. This arrangement should be effected in an easy, gentle manner, and with as little form as possible.

  • The trouble of carving generally devolves on the gentlemen next to the lady. The gentlemen around the table are supposed to pay every attention to the ladies next to them

  • It is the duty of the servants to hand round the fish and soup, which are presumed to be generally eaten.

  • Every lady should be able, when the occasion calls for it, to carve without awkwardness, and should know what are considered the delicate parts of every dish that comes before her, that she may be able to point them out to others.

(Old Christmas, a 1916 Christmas Dinner Poster Print by Frank Dadd)

  • Servants should be instructed to attend to the drawing-room fire and to prepare the lights after dinner. 

  • Prints, periodical works, or other publications of a light kind, ought to be dispersed about the room, and are sometimes useful to engage the attention when anything like ennui is observable. 

  • Coffee should be brought up soon, and the gentlemen summoned.

  • The dress of a lady at dinner parties should be plainer at home than abroad.

I can’t even imagine the pressure one endured when hosting or attending such an elaborate event. But I will definitely keep some of these in mind to make my next dinner party most elegant indeed…

Written byHanna Hamilton!

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