During the 18th century, the dining room had become one of the biggest and best rooms in the grand house, with plate on the sideboard and large numbers of liveried footmen attending to individual needs and wants.

Where previously in the 17th century the saloon had been the room used for formal meals the dining room had now become an essential element of houses of grandeur.

As the house was now used for eating in and nothing else, the table was now permanently in the centre of the room, frozen in position (previously formal rooms may have needed quick arranging, they having more than one use)[1]

The formal dinner arrangement was intended to feast the eye, to provide a free ranging tasting menu and of course, impress the guests.

The table made for an impressive sight, the footman having laid out the arrangement under the Butler’s eye with the best pieces of silver and plate on display both on the table and sideboard all aiming to impress and demonstrate wealth and status, the candlelight enhancing the effect.

The Dining Room at Castletown House


Previously the Mistress would take her place at the top of the table amongst the ladies with the important female guests next to her. The men in order of rank seated at the other end. Around 1788 a new mode of seating was gaining preference, Ladies and gentlemen sitting alternatively, though still in rank order. As the old method of seating went out so did the boisterous drinking of health and loyal toasts and male joviality became tempered with female sensibility.

Rank order was critical. In the early nineteenth century, in  Jane Austen’s  Pride and Prejudice at Catherine de Bourgh’s dinner, Mr. Collins is sitting in the chair in which the gentleman of honor sits. To be able to sit next to the hostess and be considered the gentleman of honor is a great privilege for Mr. Collins or any man dining with Catherine de Bourgh.[1]

‘He took his seat at the bottom of the table, by her ladyship’s desire, and looked as if he felt that life could furnish nothing greater.’(184-185)

Women who were not married were considered lower and must take their place accordingly, and Austen writes that ‘Lydia, with anxious parade, walk up to her mother’s right hand, and hear her say to her eldest sister, ‘Ah! Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.’ (353)

Formal dinner was a lavish affair becoming later in the day as the century progresses, in the earlier 18thc served at 2 or 3 pm but by late 18thc served at 6 or 7pm.

Generally served as 2 courses each of 7/8 dishes, geometrically arranged and set out on the table at one time. It was customary during middle 18th c to divide dinner into courses of mixed sweet and savoury dishes followed by dessert.

John Trusler’s Honours of Tables 1788 describes the rules of behaviour during meals and gives us a glimpse into the dining etiquette amongst middle classes, gentry and aristocracy. His instructions to guests how to behave, describes how it is vulgar to eat too quickly or too slow showing you are either too hungry or do not like the food. He advised how it was also seen as vulgar to eat the soup with your nose in the plate and advised against smelling the meat whilst on the fork as it would show suspicions that the meat was tainted!

Also advised that should a call of nature require one to leave the table to steal away unobserved and return without announcing where you had been. Chamber pots had been kept in or just outside the dining room but now delicacy of feelings shrank from such crudeness.

Soup was served first, the tureen removed and a fish dish replaced it. Meats were on standby (warming in the Butler’s pantry). Made dishes such as venison pasty were larder standbys, table fillers to give hard-pressed domestics respite to get the meat to the table. Sauces and gravies were served and Trusler advised removing of ‘the cold fat that swims upon the gravy in cold weather’, a fact no doubt aggravated by the distance the food had to travel from the kitchens to the dining room.

The 1st course mainly consisted of meats, the favoured method of cooking was roasting), stewed, fried and as with the neck of mutton, boiled. Turkey, pork, roast loin of veal, venison, plum pudding

The 2nd course was lighter for example partridge, sweetbreads, pigeon, collared pig, apple tarts, fricassee of eggs.

Variety was the key, a good balance of flavours, symmetry was important without overcrowding the table.

After the 2nd course the tablecloth was removed and dessert followed with  jellies, sweetmeats, fruits, nuts, cheeses,signalling the end of formalities, conversation relaxed with topical discussions hitherto avoided and the children might even visit at this time.

A large household would employ a confectioner whose sole task was to prepare the sweetmeats and sugar sculptures for the dessert course. Smaller households such as Viscount Fairfax’s in York would make use of independent chefs. In 1763, Fairfax held a party for 18 people to celebrate the completion of his magnificent York townhouse. The invoice for the dessert course shows he paid a staggering 16 pounds (the housekeeper’s wage for the year was only 11 pounds) to the city chef William Baker for five pyramids of wet and dry sweetmeats, which included the rental of the glass and other structures necessary for the display of this extravaganza. Monsieur Seguin, a French confectioner and long-time resident of York, supplied the various sweetmeats[2]

After dessert the ladies withdrew to the drawing room where it was customary to brew tea. Tea drinking had become synonymous with polite, domestic sociability, fashionable and gentile and very much a feminine pursuit. An opportunity also to showcase the refined ceramic goods necessary for the activity[3]

(The taking of coffee had, at the same time become a masculine pursuit, often in male dominated coffee houses and linked to uncivil behaviour.

Punch was also taken and material culture developed for shared punch drinking, punch houses places of debauchery ref Hogarth’s Modern Midnight conversation)[4] Interestingly by  1750 there were punch pots. Much like a teapot but larger, thereby bringing punch drinking into the domestic setting of the home.[5])

It may be that what was to become one of the institutions of English upper class life started as a short practical interval in which the ladies retired to brew tea after which gentlemen joined them to drink it. If so, the interval grew longer and longer, by 1778 Robert Adams was celebrating it as a period that men of the ruling class discussed politics together. They still joined the ladies unless incapable!

Therefore, dining rooms became mainly a masculine space and the drawing room a feminine space.[6]

Formal dinner was an impressive ritual involving an assembly in formal dress in the drawing room beforehand, a procession to the dining room, the serving of the meal in splendour with plate on display and numerous footmen waiting on the master, mistress and guests.  An oasis of calm prevailed behind which the feverish preparation and delivery of the numerous dishes was controlled by the footmen under the Butler’s eye. The real theatre of operations for the Butler and footmen was the dining room. It was indeed a performance.

The Butler stood by the serving table and was in charge of the wine, the footmen toing and froing with the glasses from the table on silver salvers to be refilled (rinsed in a cistern under the serving table).  The footmen was ever watchful of his master’s eye to indicate when to remove the first course. On a signal, he would remove food covers, knives, forks, dishes without bustle and lose no time. The Footman’s Directory by Thos. Cosnett instructs on which part of the foot, the toe, ball and heel the footman should use when handing a plate to a diner, his movements therefore choreographed. He advised the footman not to lean on the back of chairs, be deaf to conversation, attentive only to waiting, gentle with the plates making little noise and never linger after dinner when diners were drinking their wine. The butler was his superior having responsibility for the plate, the masters wine cellar and supervision of the male servants.[7]

Much is written about leisure and the importance of public spaces like museums,coffee houses, tea houses even punch houses in the eighteenth century. The domestic space however, was an essential space for recreation for both genders in the big house. Visitors were received to the home almost every day of the year whereas it was unlikely that public spaces would be visited on a daily basis. Women are traditionally linked with domesticity and housekeeping, but men who  certainly did spend time in coffee houses, clubs and taverns in the company of other men, also spent much of their time  at home.[8]

In most houses, the dining room was the most important space for recreation after the drawing room/parlour. Unlike the multi purpose drawing room/parlour where diverse objects could be found, items in the dining room generally related to food consumption. The room was more elaborately decorated than bedrooms or the service areas of the house. Decoration was important for such an essential sociable space, for amidst eating, drinking and chatting, the primary activity in the room focused on tables.[9]

John Linnell’s account of 1768-1769 describes the furniture provided by him for the dining room in Landsdowne House in London, sold to Lord Shelbourne in 1765:-

To a neat Mahog 2 flapt Dining table the corners rounded

To making and carving 2 Sideboard tables with Mahog tops and the frames painted flake white

To a small Mahog 2 flapt Dining table

To a small Mahog 2 flapt Breakfast Table with a drawer and handle lock and key compleat

To making and carving a large sideboard[10]

Once people moved past the front door into the house, they negotiated their way to a proper location within the household and evaluated their host’s provisions for entertaining. Homes and their residences were most often judged by their reception spaces and the ability of those spaces to accommodate guests comfortably[11]

And judge they did! A hostess would be very aware of letters that would be written by visitors to her home describing the hospitality received and greatly desiring that her home would be spoken of in effusive terms. Much like a review we might see online today!


Pauline Flanagan, Guide and Information Officer

[1]  Mark Girouard, Life in an English Country House, p 239.

[2] https://carnegiemuseums.org/magazine-archive/1996/sepoct/feat5.htm.

[3]Harvey, K., 2008. Barbarity in a Teacup? Punch, Domesticity and Gender in the Eighteenth Century. Journal of Design History, 21(3), pp.205-221. /www-jstor-org.jproxy.nuim.ie/stable/25228589

[4] Barbarity in a teacup p 213.

[5] Barbarity in a teacup p 217.

[6] Mark Girouard 204.

[7] Mark Girouard 203.

[8] HELLER, B. (2010). LEISURE AND THE USE OF DOMESTIC SPACE IN GEORGIAN LONDON. The Historical Journal, 53(3), 623-645. Retrieved March 27, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/40865672.

[9] leisure and the use of domestic space p 637.

[10] Rieder, W. (1993). JOHN LINNELL’S FURNITURE FOR THE DINING ROOM OF LANSDOWNE HOUSE. Furniture History, 29, 66-71. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23407785.

[11] leisure and the use of domestic space p 645.