Five items that have been on dinner tables for hundreds of years

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Verica Sitnik
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All human societies are typified by certain cultural norms and standards of etiquette that apply to social interactions. Many of these rules apply to occasions and rituals around food. For example, clothing, behavior, and menus are strikingly different between dining occasions from casual afternoon picnics to formal evening balls.

Over the last three centuries, decorations and tableware in common use have changed with the times. Here we list five items that people used to set their tables and how their designs have evolved.

Tablecloth, Rybnik museum. Photo Credit

Tablecloth

Tablecloths are a covering for dining tables, typically made of cotton, though any type of fabric is possible. Usually, the role of a tablecloth is to protect the table from scratches and stains, though others are more decorative in nature and made to match the other elements of the table setting.

Narrower, decorative tablecloths spread over the central part of the table are called runners. The tablecloth has been the standard covering for dining tables throughout European cultural history. White linen or cotton cloths were generally the most formal option available, though many different colors and patterns are often used. During the Victorian period, tablecloths were fringed with deep colors and reached from the table to the floor.

 

Decorative tablecloth with ornate decorative detail, Château de Compiègne. Photo Credit

Doily

A doily is an ornamental mat used for protecting surfaces that is made with open lacework allowing the underlying surface to show through. Doiley was a 17th-century London draper who developed the fabric as a type of summer wear in the late 17th century.

The word eventually came to refer to doily-napkins, small, decorative cloths used when serving dessert. These cloths protect tables and other furniture from scratches and spills. They are made out of cotton or linen thread and typically feature organic or floral decorative motifs.

Seaweed pasted on colored construction paper and framed by a paper lace doily, 1848. Brooklyn Museum. Photo Credit

European doily from the mid-19th century, mercerized cotton.

Napkin

Napkins, also known as serviettes, are cloths used for wiping the mouth and fingers and protecting the clothes while eating. They come in many shapes and sizes, but are typically quite small and presented folded on a set table. Napkins have been used since Roman times, but the earliest recorded reference to table napkins in English dates from the 1380s.

Ancient Greeks used bread instead of cloth to wipe their hands. Paper was invented in ancient China in the 2nd century BC and there is documentation of it being used to make napkins. These were known as “chih pha,” and were folded into squares to accompany tea. Besides paper, the napkins can be made out of textiles and can be folded in a variety of simple or elaborate origami shapes. They can be plain, colored, or patterned, held in place by a napkin ring or napkin holder and are placed to the left side of the plate in a table setting.

Table setup, folded napkin in the plate. Photo Credit

Silver napkin ring with rolled towel. Photo Credit

Beverage Coaster

A coaster is an item that protects surfaces from condensation and temperature damage caused by drinking vessels. The first beer mats were made out of cardboard and were designed in the 1880s in Germany. 1892 saw the first beermat made from wood pulp, and in 1920 Watney Brewery introduced the beverage coaster to the United Kingdom. By the mid-twentieth century, they were common household items made from a variety of materials.

Sandstone beverage coasters decorated with flowers in different colors. Photo Credit

 

Beverage cork coasters. Photo Credit

Table Crumber

A table crumber is a tool used in fine-dining situations that is designed to remove crumbs that may have spilled on the table during a meal. Restauranteur John Henry Miller invented the modern table crumber in Baltimore in 1939 and was granted a patent for his invention in 1941. The table crumber was intended to be carried in the pocket and much smaller than the brush and pan.

Wooden table crumber from China. Photo Credit

 

Pocket brush-style table crumber made of silver. Photo Credit

Although there are many designs and different forms of table crumber, they are typically made of metal, half an inch wide, 6 inches long, and curved in shape. Miller sold his patent to Ray Machine in Baltimore and the company still manufactures and sells the tool. In 2010, the Ray Machine company was selling about 85,000 crumbers per year.