City of Riverside California Metropolitan Museum

Dining Room...

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An 1834 etiquette writer stated that, "Nothing indicates a well-bred man more than a proper mode of eating his dinner. A man may pass muster by dressing well, and may sustain himself tolerably in conversation; but if he is not perfectly, 'au fait', dinner will betray him." In response to this hazard, etiquette manuals flew off the presses of the United States in the nineteenth century.

Once the food is prepared and the table is ready, the dinner party is often called to the table, often by a dinner bell. There is a dinner bell on our sideboard. Gentlemen remained standing until all of the ladies were seated. 

In the late nineteenth century, forks were still relatively new to the American table. As late as 1837, Eliza Ware Fairer wrote in a manners guide on the most polite way to bring food to mouth with a knife. Until forks were imported from Europe, people were accustomed to using only a knife and a spoon while eating. As late as the 1888 edition of Hill's Manual of Social and Business Forms, it was noted that, "As years have passed on, bringing their changes, the three or four-tined forks have come into use ... the advantage being that there is less danger to the mouth from using the fork, and food is less liable to drop from it when being conveyed to the plate. Thus the knife, which is now only used for cutting meat, mashing potatoes and for a few other purposes at the table, is now longer placed in the mouth by those who give attention to the etiquette of the table."

The provision of special implements for moving food from plate to mouth came about slowly. "There used once to be a rule," wrote a Mrs. Humphrey in 1897, "that a bone might be picked, if only the finger and thumb were used in holding it. But that was in the days when table cutlery was far from having been brought to its present condition of perfection. There is now no excuse ... ."

Dinner was properly served in courses. The first course was soup. The plates were then removed, and the next course was served, and then the next. Dessert, being the most decorative part of the meal, was sometimes on the table from the beginning. On entering the dining room, guests at a banquet found at their places written menus, rather like theater programmes. Because dishes arrived with each course, and then were taken away, there was a lot of unused table space that, in the 1890s, was being filled by rich floral decorations. Besides flowers, other popular centerpieces included epergnes, as is found on our table. An epergne consists of fanciful glass, silvered basketwork, or silver and gold salvers, lifted on branches, and containing sweetmeats and fruits, or candle holders, or sugar, mustard, and other condiments.

One never properly praised the food that was served. Receiving food with exclamations of joy could be taken as a sign of surprise or relief. Not praising it (while showing unmistakable, if subdued, appreciation) showed that you expected nothing less than excellence from your host. Likewise, guests were to never criticize the food. The host must under no circumstances praise his or her own food, or comment upon it. "One rejoices silently in one's success," wrote one Victorian manners writer.

The Ladies' Book of Etiquette (1860) encouraged it readers to, even when dining alone, exercise the most finished and elegant manners, "thus avoiding the stiff, awkward air you will wear if you keep your politeness only for company ... . Use the butter-knife, salt-spoon, and sugar-tongs as scrupulously when alone, as if a room full of people were watching you. Otherwise, you may neglect to do so when the omission will mortify you."

One 1855 American manners manual warned the hostess never to send her plate away until everyone had finished, because that could be interpreted as a wish that everyone would stop eating. Hosts and hostesses also led the way when it came to issuing toasts.

Toasting one's dinner companions is an ancient tradition. However, toasting guests was the prerogative of the host, and a guest was never to toast the host.

Despite the popularity of toasting, one should not take for granted that alcoholic beverages might be served. According to The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, "It is not necessary; hospitality and generosity do not require it, and you will have the approval of all who truly love you for your good qualities, if you resolutely refuse to have either wine or any other intoxicating liquor upon your supper-table." No matter what, though, this book continues, "No lady should drink wine at dinner. Even if her head is strong enough to bear it, she will find her cheeks, soon after the indulgence, flushed, hot, and uncomfortable; and if the room is warm, and the dinner a long one, she will pay the penalty of her folly by having a headache all the evening." Certainly, the consumption of alcoholic beverages might impair the ability of the hostess to fulfill her prime role at the dinner table, that of keeping the conversation going.

Successful hostesses tried everything they could think of to keep the conversation flowing upon safe subjects. Rather than trying to outshine her guests, a good hostess was encouraged to maintain a mental list of small talk topics to bring up in the event that dinner conversation dropped. Young girls were encouraged to cultivate a pleasant voice that was clear, distinct, and musical ... with the notion that any utterance would be pleasing to a dinner partner if the voice was modulated and musical.

According to Mrs. E. B. Duffey in her 1877 book, The Ladies' and Gentlemen's Etiquette: A Complete Manual of the Manners and Dress of American Society, we are advised that, "No lady, if she wishes to preserve unsullied her patent of ladyhood, will be guilty of any feminine substitute for profanity. The woman who exclaims, 'The dickens!' or 'Mercy!' or 'Goodness!' when she is annoyed or astonished is as vulgar in spirit ... as though she had use expressions which in print are generally indicated by an initial letter and a dash!"

Mrs. Sophie Johnson, writing under the name Daisy Eyebright, said, in the years immediately after the Civil War, that the usual custom was for the men to remain in the dining room with their cigars, wine, and after-dinner stories, while the ladies repaired to the parlor. The Ladies' Book of Etiquette and The Manners Book (1888) agreed, but suggested that the separation should be brief, perhaps twenty or thirty minutes. The author of The Manners Book called it an act of "social courage" when the host indicated that the men should adjourn with the women guests.

Husbands and wives should avoid, according to The Ladies' Book of Etiquette, unless among relatives, calling each other by their first names. By speaking in respectful terms yourself, we are told, others will also adopt the desired respect. Likewise, ladies are admonished to never speak of gentlemen by their first name unless they are related to them. They are also advised that it is considered rude to question professional gentlemen upon matters connected with their employment. "Professional or business men, when with ladies, generally wish for miscellaneous subjects of conversation, and, as their visits are for recreation, they will feel excessively annoyed if obliged to 'talk shop'." Other etiquette manuals warned that women had to realize that men had larger appetites than they and that ladies should not ask questions which forced men to forego too much of their eating time.

FIREPLACE & POLE SCREENS     (Fire place Picture...)  (Pole Screen Picture...)

Fireplaces throughout the house had fireboxes meant for either a wood fire or a coal fire. A firebox for burning wood is deeper than one meant for coal. This fireplace was meant for coal fires.

The small pole screens at either side of the fireplace were used to keep the glare and heat of the fire from the eyes and faces of the diners who sat nearest that end of the table. The height of these protective screens may be adjusted to suit the stature of the adjacent person. The needlework is a fine petit point, the framing is a rosewood veneer, and the screens are early English Victorian.

SASH DOOR     (no picture)

Just to the left of the sideboard is a tall window that opens from the floor -- a sash door -- that leads onto a small porch. One presumes that its placement off of the dining room allowed gentlemen to step outside for a post-dinner smoke or chew after the ladies' had adjourned to the parlor.

Smoking was typically forbidden at the table mostly because it offended gourmet standards, ruining the palate of the smoker, and the aroma of the food for everybody. Away from the table, however, the increased use of tobacco in the nineteenth century, especially in the United States, where it was both smoked and chewed, led to a heightened need to spit.

Visitors to the United States in the nineteenth century bemoaned the necessity of witnessing tobacco-spitting in public. The provision of spittoons was an important proof of civilized forethought. Spitting at the dinner table, however, was by this time out of the question. "If you must spit," the Illustrated Manners Book advised men in 1855, "then leave the room." By the early twentieth century, spitting had become officially unhealthy, thanks to the understanding that spitting helped to spread tuberculosis and other diseases.

SIDEBOARD CABINET     (No Picture...)

The dining room sideboard is part of a magnificent Renaissance Revival set that also includes the table, chairs, and corner cabinet. The set was made in about 1890 and brought to Riverside from New York shortly after 1900. 

By the twentieth century, such massive and glorious furniture would become less common as new homes were more frequently constructed with built-in cabinetry which efficiently utilized space within the dining room and which saved the homeowner the expense of free-standing cabinetry.


This versatile table acts as either a decorative screen, when the table top is set to be parallel to the wall, or as an auxiliary serving table, when the top is perpendicular to the wall. Its marquetry table surface depicts an alpine scene, suggesting its European origin. It came west to Riverside from Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1874 and was a fixture in the home of our city's first popularly elected mayor.

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