New Year's Tea

On New Year's day I sometimes like to have a tea party, using a few of my favorite porcelain and silver pieces to serve a variety of sweets and savories. The day's tea menu rests on an English porcelain menu stand, a charming 6" high table accessory from the 19th century. Although neither menus nor such accompanying stanchions are used in domestic settings today, these were once useful articles of dining that revealed the coming meal, and its inherent social expectations, to guests. Menu stands first appeared after 1870 in England and America, correlating with revisions to established dining rituals.

Handpainted Porcelain Menu Board, C.T. Maling, England, 1875-1908.

At Table: Using Menus in the 19th Century

Whether in elite or middle-class homes, eating at the 19th century Euro-American dining table involved a delicate negotiation of prevailing class mores-- a social drama enacted between the hosts and their guests. The handling of utensils and food was subtly observed and critiqued with regard to prescribed decorum. Dining manuals were published regularly, describing the correct procedures for hosts and guests to follow. It was not until the third quarter of the 19th century that dining fashions shifted in England and America, catching up with continental European trends.

Until the 1870s, the longstanding English dining custom had followed service à la francaise, in which the entire meal was first placed on the dining room sideboard, a brilliant, conspicuous display that unfortunately also meant one's food was usually cold by the time it was served at table. Service à la russe was introduced in France in the early part of the century, via the Russian court, and finally caught on in England and then in America after the 1860s. In this manner of presentation (most closely resembling today's) diners are seated at a table, often extravagantly decorated with floral and sweetmeat arrangements. Dishes are brought out and served in individually apportioned courses once they are prepared, and the serving pieces and food-specific eating implements are duly changed in anticipation of the next course's requirements.

Despite the advantages of service à la russe, diners were initially reluctant to change styles. As Esther Aresty frames the argument in The Exquisite Table: A History of French Cuisine (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980), "how could one judge what quantity to eat of a dish, not knowing what was to follow-- and even more important, how could one adequately measure the bounty of a host?" (101). With these thoughts in mind, the daintily rendered menu card and its stand provided diners with a literal preview of the meal to follow. An entry in one 19th century treatise on domestic management reads:

Menus, or Bills of Fare.-- These are generally placed by the side of each individual, so that he may know at once what is to be set before him, and may partake of that which he most approves. A small menu stand, containing the bill of fare, may be placed before each guest, and most beautiful and artistic cards are sold upon which the order of the dinner can be written. The task of drawing up the bill of fare is generally undertaken by the mistress of the house or by the experienced cook to whom she trusts the execution of her orders. Knowledge, taste and judgment are called for in its accomplishment, and the crowning honor of a successful banquet certainly belongs to the person who conceived the idea of it...Menus may be made as souvenirs by the hostess, being either hand-painted or embroidered.
--Scammell's Universal Treasure-House of Useful Knowledge: an encyclopedia of valuable receipts in the principal arts of life, 1885, published by H.A. Hess of Salt Lake City in 1889.

Several sample menus are then provided, of which the seasonal tea menu is shown below:

By the turn of the century, menu stands became a common feature at dinner gatherings and silver menu stands were often presented to guests at commemorative events.

Silver Menu Stands, Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Co. Catalogue, 1899, London.

Eating out came into fashion in the latter part of the century in relation to new dining habits, and table menus and stands became a feature of restaurant establishments. This novel requisite of the table provided a platform for invention as seen in an 1883 patent for a napkin ring cum menu holder, below.

Indeed, the menu stand took on a few uses beyond the obvious. As one column in the periodical "Table Talk" quips, "The inventor of the menu-holder, with mirror back, was undoubtedly a woman. She understood the value of a sly look at hair, flowers and complexion. It is such a tonic to wit and conversation to be assured one is looking their best. ("Table Talk," Vol. 7, 1892)


Mattie said...

How delightful! I would love to be a guest at one of your tea parties :) Why do you think menu stands went out of fashion and disappeared from modern table settings?
Excellent research and pictures, by the way!

Rajani said...

very insightful post... love the menu holder, some of your images are not showing up though. i am really torn between choosing elaborate mealtimes of the past or our fuss free times! one is practical while the other we can fantasize about.

the five o'clock teaspoon said...

As domestic dining styles changed after WWI, and restaurant dining became more common, the menu became more commonly associated with public dining. Many such specialty pieces disappeared in this era.