The Colonial American child was better versed in manners or deportment than is oft the case today, and books were written on how to train the child thusly very early on. The Babees Book; The Lytill Children’s Lytil Boke; the Boke of Nurture were published in 1577, The Boke of Curtasye in 1460, The Schole of Vertue in 1557, and The School of Manners was published in 1701, and reprinted by Isaiah Thomas in 1787. Some of the books underwent several editions and remained in print quite a long time.
Never sit down at the table till asked, and after the blessing. Ask for nothing; tarry till it be offered thee. Speak not. Bite not thy bread but break it. Take salt only with a clean knife. Dip not the meat in the same. Hold not thy knife upright but sloping, and lay it down at right hand of plate with blade on plate. Look not earnestly at any other that is eating. When moderately satisfied leave the table. Sing not, hum not, wriggle not. Spit no where in the room but in the corner… – The School of Manners.
The Mirror of Compliments was printed in England in 1635 and many pages were still being printed in 1795 by Thomas in America. Some of the early books were still being used after the household furnishings had changed enough to bear little resemblance to the rooms and fixtures described in the books.
Aristotle the Philosopher, this worthye saying writ, That manners in a chylde, are more requisite, Than playing on instruments, and other vayne pleasures; For virtuous manners is a most precious treasure. – Chaucer. Canterbury Tales.
By 1850, the following statements pretty much summed up what was expected at table.
Never go to the table with untidy clothes or disorderly hair…be particularly careful in regard to your nails.
Having taken your seat at the table, do not sit so far from it that there will be danger of dropping your food into your lap…Do not lean your arms on the table, or loll over it.
If you are served soup at a strange table, do not refuse it, though you may not wish it, but take it and sip a little, or eat the bread which accompanies it, that you may not make your hostess feel uncomfortable, or disturb the order of the meal by putting her to the trouble of helping you to fish or meat before others are ready for it.
When eating fish use your fork and a piece of bread to separate it, remove the bones…Remove the meat from all kinds of bones before raising it to your mouth…
If you are asked what you would like at the table, reply quickly and distinctly, and do not hesitate or change your mind, or say you “don’t know”; all this takes the time of others, and calls attention to your capricious appetite…
If you are served without first being asked what you wish, it is not worth while usually to refuse anything; you can lay it upon one side of your plate, and after a while ask for something you like better.
If a choice of a part of a fowl be offered to you, say what you really prefer, unless you know another wishes it, and perceive there is not enough for both of you. Then kindness, or true politeness, requires that you shall not name it, but express a willingness to take any part.
The author went on to say she had seen young people use their own knife in helping themselves to butter, and their own fork in taking articles of food which had a fork laid by them for use. “Those who would do this would be very likely to eat with their knives instead of forks or spoons; the gravy, or whatever else was on it when it left their mouth, is now transferred to the butter, to the annoyance and probably disgust of those who next take some. The same thing may be said of putting your knife into the salt, or your spoon into the sugar.”
Sound familiar? Didn’t we read from almost a100 years earlier that putting one’s knife into the salt was impolite? Salt was placed on the table in salt cellars prior to the general use of salt shakers, and was meant to be taken out with a tiny salt spoon, and thus, not the diner’s knife tip.
The next thought was to lay a soiled knife on the plate if the hostess had not provided knife rests. Those objects are unfamiliar to most today, but in times past, every well set table provided a rest for the knives. They were most often clear glass or cut crystal, with bulbous ends to raise the knife above the table cloth.
Instructing leaving coffee or tea in the cup rather than pouring it into the saucer to cool may have fallen on deaf ears in most Southern households as older people were still doing this well into the 20th century. If the cup had a handle, as most did by 1850, one was to use it and not grasp the cup around its middle.
Be especially careful to make as little noise as possible with your lips, or teeth, or throat, while eating or drinking, or swallowing.
Besides the usual, “please”, or “thank you”, proper etiquette at table included , “I will thank you”, “please hand” or “pass” or “serve me”, or “I will take it, if you please”. In refusal, one might say “No, sir, I thank you”, or “I am very well served, thank you”. – Mrs. Manners. At Home and Abroad, or, How to Behave. 1854. NY.
In closing, today being St. Valentine’s Day, a day when most of us are especially attentive to our loved ones, let’s look at how Robert Lewis Stevenson summed up proper children’s behavior at table.
A Child should always say what is true, And speak when he is spoken to, And behave mannerly at table, At least as far as he is able. – Stevenson, Robert Lewis. A Child’s Garden of Verse. 1895.
Blissful Meals, and Happy Valentine’s Day. I hope your special one makes you feel as loved as mine did.
De Valcourt, Robert. The Illustrated Manners Book. 1855. NY.
Allinson, William. Friends’ Review. 1869. Philadelphia.