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Formal Table Setting

The holiday season is upon us, and with this season comes gatherings around the dinner table. There's nothing quite like enjoying a delicious meal with loved ones, and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners have become a highlight of the season for many Americans. While our predecessors here on the plains did not have some of the amenities that we now have for preparing food and setting table, they too knew the joy of preparing a place for their guests, and did their utmost to make the occasion a memorable affair, with however much or little they had.

During the Victorian (c. 1820-1914) and Edwardian (c. 1901-1910) eras, one of the ways to make dinner a memorable affair was to set the table in a formal style, with a place for everything and everything in its place. Taking into account modern tastes and sensibilities, here are some of our tips and tricks for setting a Victorian and Edwardian-inspired table for your own holiday gatherings!

General Guidelines for Setting the Table

During the mid-18 to early-1900's, a formal dinner was meant to be an hours-long event, with the utensils and glassware determined by what foods were going to be served and when. As a general rule, utensils were placed with the first ones to be used set furthest away from the dinner plate, and the ones used last set closest to the plate. (Thus the one dining would work their way in from the outer utensils to the inner ones as the meal went on.) Forks were usually placed to the left of the plate, and knives and spoons were placed to the right. The number and variety of utensils was determined by what foods would be served, and how many courses. Glassware would be placed on the upper right-hand side of the place setting, and a bread plate in the upper left-hand side. A tea/coffee cup and saucer may also have been placed on the table, usually on the right-hand side of the place setting.

When it came to the napkin, it was usually folded and placed on the left-hand side of the dinner plate, or was placed atop the dinner plate. Sometimes when placed atop the dinner plate, the napkin would be folded in a fancy style, or a napkin ring was also a fun way to add some flair.

Learn some fancy napkin folds with the video down below:

As for the center of the table, this would be filled with fruit plates, other general dishes, and perhaps name cards set at the top of each place setting. Decorative centerpieces would also vary. This was a great opportunity for those hosting the event to get creative!

General Etiquette

In addition to the general rules of saying "please," "thank you," and chewing with your mouth closed, the Victorian and Edwardian eras also had some additional rules for formal table etiquette. For example, it was customary during this time for the hostess to sit at the head of the table, and the host to sit at the foot of the table. The guests would then be seated along the sides, with the ladies being seated first. If the guests were being attended by wait staff, it was of the utmost importance for the guests to be polite towards them, and any correcting of them was done in private. If those at table were serving themselves, they did so by passing the dishes between them when requested (usually between the men, who were expected to help serve the women at the time).

While making a merry atmosphere, it was also important for those dining to eat with decorum and to take a slow pace, as this was meant to be an affair for enjoying others' company, savoring the meal and soaking in the atmosphere. After dinner, it was considered polite for guests to withdraw to the drawing room (or, in many modern homes, the living room or parlor), and to stay an additional hour for further conversation, or for playing games.

We hope these general tips and tricks have inspired you as you prepare for your holiday gatherings, and may you all have a Happy Thanksgiving, and a Merry Christmas season!

"Cheers!" from the Plainsman Museum!



Edwardian Promenade. "Setting the Table." Last modified May 4, 2009, last accessed November 24, 2021.

Grim's Dyke Hotel. "The etiquette for Victorian dining." Last modified May 29, 2018, last accessed November 24, 2021.

Steinbach, Susie. "Victorian era." Encyclopedia Britannica, last modified March 12, 2021, last accessed November 24, 2021,


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