Table settings throughout the years


A custom that is lacking in many homes today is the evening meal where most, if not all, members of the family sit together and converse in a friendly, homey manner.

In those days, if the family business was farming, most families enjoyed the two or three meals together.

During our country’s early years, one of the most important articles for setting the table was the trencher. This item was usuallly made from a block of wood. It often measured 10 or 12 inches square and about 3 or 4 inches deep, which was scooped out to form a bowl.

The trencher held soup, gravy, vegetables, meats and more.

Two people often ate out of one trencher. For example, the mom and dad would eat out of one and the two children would eat out of another.

This custom began in England and was used for decades by not only commoners but also by nobility.

It was also easier to sit on benches when sharing the trenchers. Not only did this indicate close ties in the family, but also unity in the marriage and affection.

Trenchers were important pieces of the table; therefore, wills often mentioned them. Even the higher educational establishments used them in their dining rooms. Harvard is an example.

Another style. Some families enjoyed an unusual table that didn’t use trenchers or plates at all.

This type of table was made of heavy oak. It was several inches thick, thus allowing the necessary depth for bowls to be built into the table. At measured intervals about 1 1/2 feet apart, the wood was scooped out to form a hollow bowl shape. The bowl was about a foot in diameter and each person’s food was served in the indentation.

After meals, the table top, which was placed on devices similar to saw horses, was removed and washed thoroughly so it would be ready for the next meal.

Many years. Trenchers and round plates made of poplar were used in New England well after 1900. During the Colonial days, local Indians made and sold or traded many trenchers and bowls made from maple wood knots.

Tankerds, bottles, cups and all serving utensils were made of sturdy wood.

One rather attractive article was the noggin, a tankard with a handle. The name tankard was at first given to the rather large container of wood, held together by a band of metal. It was used to haul water.

As time passed, similar but smaller vessels were made to drink fluid from. These were made in Europe and brought to America by the immigrants. The most common drinking tankard was made of staves and held together by hoops of metal and a handle was held in place by metal bands.

Wealthy charger. To serve the food in well-to-do homes, chargers were used. This was a large, round platter made of pewter. Pewter, as you know, contained lead and tin.

Originally the large settings of this metal were referred to as a garnish of pewter. Although used by the affluent member of the Colonial days, it was later called poor man’s silver, which it may have been.

Middle-class folks able to afford better dinner ware could buy pewter much cheaper than silver. Polished pewter appears somewhat like silver.

Utensils. Spoons are not as old as knives but, as an old saying goes, spoons are as old as soup.

The spoon was an important utensil to all Colonists due to the fact that the common meals were thick stews and soups prepared with vegetables and chopped meats.

Spoons were carved by hand from heavy wood. Some fortunate families had pewter spoons.

Another more common spoon from Europe, but also occasionally used in the Colonies, was made of alchymy, also named occamy, arkamy or alcamy. This was a combination of arcenium and pan brass.

Some wooden spoons were made of spoon wood or laurel, a rather attractive white wood. Horn was also used to make spoons and other utensils; the renown quote, “By the great horn spoon,” relates to that. Many veteran service people will tell you that without a spoon, they were at a loss at mealtime.

China. There was rarely any china in homes, even the well-to-do or royalty homes, until well into the 1800s. Delft ware was manufactured in Holland by the time of New York City’s settlement, however, even in the town of its origin, Delft ware was not used as table ware.

Any china pieces were usually large and named state pieces, which meant they were placed on cabinets or merely used as decor.

Dutch settlers brought purslin with them, which was an import in Holland. A lesser quality ware was also used by Colonists, but it was far less desired. This ware was made in Spain and Portugal and was low fired and fragile.

After the American Revolutionary War, china services became common on tables of affluent families. This was made available due to increased trade to the Far East.

Sit down. Seating during this time was almost always on a bench. Rarely were stools or chairs used to sit on during a meal. The bench was long and uncomfortable. Many children had to stand to eat or stand quietly until the adults were done eating. Old-fashioned families continued having their children do this even into 1900.

Remembering when. At our home, Dad sat down first, took the first bite and rose from the table first. There was no conversation, no asking for extras unless they were given, and the children left the table after Dad had left.

During the 1700s, the behavior of the children was restricted by many of the “then” proper manners. This list of no-noes was quite lengthy and was adhered to by faithful children.

After the meal in Colonial days, a voider was passed around. Utensils, trenchers, cups, crumbs and any other item used at the table was placed in the voider.

The voider was a deep wooden, wicker or metal basket.


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