The change in the English home can be traced to the restoration of the monarchy in England in 1661. Charles II and his court had spent the Cromwellian period in exile in France, and they brought many changes to English lifestyles upon their return. One was the habit of dining more intimately and privately. By the nineteenth century most of the Great Courts of Europe were looking to Versailles for their cues to fashion, with the lavish banquets of Louis XIV having set the royal standards much earlier.
There had been no rooms used exclusively for dining, until late in the eighteenth century, with the actual ‘dining room’ being a nineteenth-century innovation. Previously meals were eaten anywhere in the house, with the room deemed to be the most appropriate varying according to the number of diners, the status of the meal, and the whim of the mistress of the house. As such the movability of a dining table had been very important. Servants would set up the dining table wherever it was required.
Early ‘dining rooms’ in the nineteenth century were located in the basement, near the kitchen, because people believed that food was better digested in the dark. In later Victorian homes, the dining room was moved to the first floor of the house, which was a formal room, used only for dinner.
The pleasure and trend towards formal dining increased with the discovery of exotic foods and spices through trade and travel, as did the potential for displays of grandeur and culinary accomplishment. The pre-occupation with presentation was signalled by the fact that porcelain and silver dinner and dessert services were now considered very suitable gifts from a king to an ambassador or fellow monarch. This filtered down to the wealthiest households, who would commission their own services. Having commissioned them the owner would want to ensure that his guests knew whose it was, and as such monograms, ciphers, coats of arms and other heraldic devices were engraved, painted or etched on to tableware of all descriptions. With the variety of dishes served expanding throughout the nineteenth century the quantities of serving dishes and utensils required also grew. In addition glassware was now placed upon the actual table, along with individual carafes. Mirror-plateaux, candelabra, urns, trophies and covered dishes filled the centre of the tables. These could often reach great heights, for until the latter part of the nineteenth century it was considered impolite to speak across the dining table.
The excess of time required for dressing and preparation for these meals necessitated later dining hours, and set the upper-class members of society still further apart from the lower classes, who ate much earlier. Dinner had become more of social occasion than purely a time for sustenance.