Habits Of Good Society: Dinners, Diners, And Dinner-Parties


One of my favorite antique store finds, by far, is a book called Habits of Good Society, published in the early 1870’s by a publisher called Virtue and Company. I found the book in the cluttered upper floor of an antique shop in northern Pennsylvania a few winters ago, and have spent many a highly-entertained evening poring over its instructions on such truly important topics as how one should arrive at a ball, what precisely is a “Cut”, and on one’s presentation at court.

While I suspect most of us are still waiting on our debut at court, I know I quite enjoy throwing dinner parties, as do many of my friends, and wouldn’t you know it, Habits of Good Society has some instructions and tips on how best to do so. Therefor, in the interest of all your holiday parties going off without a hitch, I shall share with you some of the dinner party how-to’s of the 1870’s.

1. Don’t throw a boring party – “Never was a more solemn torture created for mankind than these odious dinner-parties,” the author laments, and then goes on to describe in a bit too precise of detail a few “examples” of boring dinner guests, followed by an incredulous, “really, is this society?”. The author advises that “A dinner, like a pun, should never be made public unless it be very good,” which is truly sound advice on both puns and dinners, in my opinion. The author actually suggests that, to avoid a bad, boring dinner party, one keep a book of who came to your dinner parties, with notes like when they last invited you to dinner, are they single, and their general level of not-boring-ness. I bet your friends would love to find that notebook and would thank you forever for keeping such fastidiously creepy notes. Definitely sound advice.

2. Carpet your dining room to keep the footfalls of your multitude of servants from interrupting your (very interesting, ’cause you made that notebook from point 1) guests’ conversations. I mean, that’s the whole reason I plan to carpet my dining room – all those servants I have who just can’t stop clomping around all the time.

3. “Lamps on the table itself are simply unpardonable, and must on no account be admitted.” ‘Nuff said.

4. Have a butler. – Apparently women can’t carve meat, so you need one of these. But you shouldn’t have too many manservants, because I guess unlike lady servants, the men will “only get in the way of one another, or stand pompously by staring while you eat.” How dare the help look at you. Better to employ ladies who will gaze demurely down at their folded hands, amirite?

5. Apparently you should put fountains and china and art on the table. Oh, and a fuckton of sweets. If you’re French, maybe you’ll have your small army of servants place tiny bouquets on each lady’s napkin. But don’t put anything tall on the table, because everyone has to look at everyone else and be non-boring (see point 1). I’m learning so much.

6. Have hot soup waiting at the table when your dining experience begins, because “the hungry do not talk well,”. You know, this is the first piece of advice I’m not going to mock.

7. “The amount of wine is… of far less importance than its quality.” Okay, now we’re really getting somewhere, Habits of Good Society. I mean, I like a good drunky drunk guest as much as the next hostess, but in the name of high society I can totally sacrifice dealing with that one (non-boring, obviously) super-drunk guest throwing up in my bathroom at 1am.

8. “One French wine during dinner, and sherry after it, or a German wine for the meal, and a claret for dessert, will leave you much happier than mingling sherry, champagne, claret, and port.” Oh, Habits of Good Society, you presume I know what claret is. You’re all writing this down, right? I mean, this feels like the good ol’ “don’t mix liquor and beer” advice, which honestly, I never really take.

9. Don’t ever serve a joint at your dinner party (the meat, not the controlled-in-most-states substance, which the author has yet to touch on), because apparently they are gross. If you must serve a joint (you animal) at least place it well out of sight of the poor guests who will be forced to eat it. And you’re a terrible human being anyway, fyi.

10. 10 course meal, for sure. Here it is:
– Soup
– Fish
– Patties (of oysters, lobsters, shrimps, or minced veal)
– Made-dishes, or entrees, which include poultry
– The roast, or piece de resistance
– Vegetables
– The game
– Pastry, puddings, omelettes
– The ice
– The dessert
You can take it up to 11 if you want salad, which, contrary to any dining experience you’ve probably had in 2013, should come after “the ice” and before “the dessert” and should definitely have cheese because – cheese.

So now you can set up a fabulous dinner party, a la the 1870’s, right? Nothing here seems too complicated or expensive or in any way offensive. Nope. Good luck!

Image and all quotes: Habits of Good Society, published by Virtue and Company


Margaret Bashaar’s poetry has been collected in 2 chapbooks – Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press, 2011) and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt, 2009) as well as in many literary journals and anthologies. She edits the chapbook micro press Hyacinth Girl Press, attempts to repair antique typewriters, and spends far too much time at haunted hotels in coal mining towns for her own good. She’s only been suspected of being possessed once and hopes to someday become a rogue taxidermist. She misses the Midwest and is making that notebook of which of her friends are allowed to come to dinner right now. Follow her on Twitter @myhyacinthgirl


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