Table setting today has become such an art it has spawned a new name: "Tablescaping." Elaborate decorative elements are incorporated into formal table settings that reflect the theme of the occasion and the type of food. It is a practice that has been developing for more than a thousand years--the history of table setting goes back before the medieval era.
Before there were place settings, flower arrangements and candelabras, there was the saltcellar--the small container that held the salt for the meal. So important was salt that the placement of the saltcellar on the table determined seating arrangements. Sitting "above the salt" was to sit in a place of honour. And while guests mostly ate with their hands and threw bones and scraps to the floor, how clean the tablecloth, or "Nappe," was was extremely important.
Forks were introduced in the 17th century and helped contribute to the development of table settings by encouraging a standard arrangement of the items needed for a meal. Elaborate napkin folding became popular and metalworkers began creating a variety of plates, platters and bowls for use on the table. As silversmiths and woodworkers honed their crafts, table settings became extremely elaborate, especially for royalty and the rich.
The 19th century saw the arrival of dining according to rigid rules of "service." French service was an impractical process of serving each dish as a separate course. English service was more practical, with all similar food belonging to course placed on the table at the same time for the host to serve. Service in the Russian style soon became popular, emphasis on presentation of both the food and the table setting. Guests arrived at the table before the food was served, and found place cards to indicate their seating arrangement. A printed menu was often provided, and each person's place was laid out with the dishes, plates, glasses and utensils needed. So many rules were developed for the large variety of flatware, glasses and plates; the first etiquette books began to appear.
The Victorian Table
Color, mirrors, figurines and flowers adorned the Victorian table. Especially popular were coloured wine glasses. Maids were trained in the placement of items, with such exacting standards as knives needed to be 1/2 inch from the edge of the table. The Edwardian table eliminated some of the Victorian decor, ushering in the era of candelabras. The Russian style of service also brought with it the idea of wines for each course, meant to enhance the flavour. This increased the number and kind of wine glasses needed at each place.
Table Setting Today
Today, a standard format for setting a formal table can be found in any number of etiquette or home entertaining books. The art of "tablescaping" now lets you choose designs ranging from the elaborate to the minimalist. What hasn't changed is the love of food and of dining together.