Table Setting Ideas

by Foster Coates

table setting

How to Set a Formal Dinner Table

According to Delmonico, one must first learn how to set a table.

How many people know how to give a dinner, set a table properly, and serve foods and wines as they should be served, in an orderly, appetizing way?

Epicureans might differ as to what constitutes a perfect dinner, but no one will deny that a dinner properly cooked and well served, is a delight.  Moreover, if the company be agreeable, it is perhaps one of the chief pleasures of life. 


For generations, the restaurant Delmonico stood for all that was good in elegant dining. Many of the famous men and women who visited New York during the nineteenth century also crossed the threshold of this world-famed restaurant.  Famous dinners were given in its great white and gold dining room – politicians, statesmen, editors, artists and ministers dined and then thundered forth their after-dinner eloquence at Delmonico's.  Moreover, the big building has sheltered beauty and wealth at hundreds of great private entertainments, where rare gems gleamed and the odor of thousands of roses made one almost believe that fairyland was a reality.  During the late 1800s, Delmonico had no rival in America, if indeed in the world.  Everything was on the most lavish scale – rich, rare and costly. 


dinner party
Annual Banquet of the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, Delmonico's, Feb. 22, 1906
[Image: Library of Congress: #LC-USZ62-90311]




Also during the late 1800s, city dinner-giving was carried on to an extent only equaled in London and Paris. Much use was made of flowers, candelabra, colored lights, silverware, and silver and gold plate. But all people cannot have rare foods, served on gold or silver plates, and not all of us possess handsomely decorated dining rooms, and for the lack of these we must make up in less expensive ways.  And one of the most important is a well set and attractive table, snowy linen, polished glass and china, and brightly burnished silverware.  In 1891, Delmonico gave this advice to the readers of The Ladies Home Journal.


According to Delmonico, one must first learn how to set a table. A round table is better than a square table, if the dining-room is large enough to permit it. It is easier to seat people at, as well as it gives a suggestion of the famous "King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table."


table setting


If not available, then the ordinary oblong extension table must be used. Flowers should never be absent from the dinner table. No matter how homely, they add to the picturesqueness of the feast. Furthermore, it is important that the temperature of the room is kept a little cool, rather than a degree too warm. An over-heated dining-room is an abomination.

table setting

For a fashionable dinner-party, on the table is first placed a thick flannel cloth, the thicker it is the better as it prevents noise from the dishes as they are placed on it. Over this is spread a snowy white damask tablecloth; it should be monogrammed if possible.

Sometimes over this is placed still another, of elaborate embroidery and lace, lined with pink or yellow satin, as taste dictates, or whatever color is to predominate at the dinner. The plates are first placed upon the table. As these are to remain until after soup is served, they are always the handsomest in the gold or china sets, as the case may be.

table setting


Don't crowd. Each guest should be allowed a space of two feet or twenty-six inches, if the table will permit it, and the plates placed at equal distances apart. Place two dinner forks to the left of each plate and also an oyster fork with prongs resting on the edge of the plate. On the right must be a dinner knife and a spoon for soup. The glasses are arranged at the right of each guest on a line with the inner edge of the plate. The water glass is set next to the plate; then glasses for whatever other beverages are intended to be served. If wines are objectionable, any of the best mineral waters can be used throughout the dinner, with French coffee at the close. A glass, whether of water or any other liquid, should never be filled more than three-quarters full.

table setting


In the middle of the table is the big centerpiece of silver and at each end a handsome candelabra with colored satin or flower shades. In between are silver composers of fruit, one at each end, and four low compotiers — two at each end — filled with cakes and marron glacés. Two other dishes of fruits glacé are placed one at either end. These dishes of glacés are used principally at winter dinners. In the summer, different kinds of fresh fruit are substituted in their stead. Two compotiers, which stand on either side of the centerpiece, are filled with favors for the ladies, and may be anything that the fancy dictates. Six silver shells, three on each side, are filled with olives and salted almonds, to be served after the soup. Six or eight handsome salt-cellars are usually placed on the table, each one serving two guests. The napkins to be used are large damask, over-folded so as to reveal the monogram, and each forms the receptacle for a dinner bread roll. When the roll is taken out of the napkin by each guest, it should always be placed at the left of the plate. The name cards must be placed on the top of the napkin, and the menu cards at the right of the plate.



If decanters, handsome glass jugs covered with silver, are used, they are placed at opposite corners of the table — one at each corner, making four in all. These generally contain claret and sherry.

On a side table, is all the extra silver and china required. The plates are of course changed, after soup, with each course, until cream and fruits, which are the last things on the menu.

The finger bowls, which may be of gold, silver, or enamelware, or very fine glass, are not placed on the table until after the ices and fruits have been served. They are then put on handsome dessert plates with fine embroidered doilies.

table setting



The table decorations of flowers must always be in keeping with the color of the dinner decided on, and consist of a large center vase of flowers, not high enough to obstruct the view across the table. It should extend within ten inches of the inner edge of the plates. A few hostesses like to have large bouquets at each end of the table also, but this is not necessary. A pretty idea is to decorate the chandelier above with smilax and flowers.

The corsage bouquets for the ladies are placed at their right hand, just in front of the plate; while the gentleman's boutonnière is placed on his napkin, with his dinner card.

[Edited from The Ladies Home Journal, 1891]