A Gentleman’s Guide to Table Manners, From an 1875 Manual on Etiquette and Politeness

The following is an excerpt from “The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness” by Cecil B. Hartley, published by Locke & Bubier in 1875.

IT may seem a very simple thing to eat your meals, yet there is no occasion upon which the gentleman, and the low-bred, vulgar man are more strongly contrasted, than when at the table. The rules I shall give for table etiquette when in company will apply equally well for the home circle, with the exception of some few points, readily discernible, which may be omitted at your own table.

A well-bred man, receiving an invitation to dine with a friend should reply to it immediately, whether he accepts or declines it.

He should be punctual to the hour named in the invitation, five or ten minutes earlier if convenient, but not one instant later. He must never, unless he has previously asked permission to do so, take with him any friend not named in his invitation. His host and hostess have the privilege of inviting whom they will, and it is an impertinence to force them to extend their hospitality, as they must do if you introduce a friend at their own house.

Speak, on entering the parlor of your friend, first to the hostess, then to the host.

When dinner is announced, the host or hostess will give the signal for leaving the drawing-room, and you will probably be requested to escort one of the ladies to the table. Offer to her your left arm, and at the table wait until she is seated, indeed wait until every lady is seated, before taking your own place.

In leaving the parlor you will pass out first, and the lady will follow you, still holding your arm. At the door of the dining-room, the lady will drop your arm. Pass in, then wait on one side of the entrance till she passes you, to her place at the table.

If there are no ladies, you may go to the table with any gentleman who stands near you, or with whom you may be conversing when dinner is announced. If your companion is older than yourself, extend to him the same courtesy which you would use towards a lady.

There are a thousand little points to be observed in your conduct at table which, while they are not absolutely necessary, are yet distinctive marks of a well-bred man.

If, when at home, you practice habitually the courtesies of the table, they will sit upon you easily when abroad; but if you neglect them at home, you will use them awkwardly when in company, and you will find yourself recognized as a man who has “company manners,” only when abroad.

I have seen men who eat soup, or chewed their food, in so noisy a manner as to be heard from one end of the table to the other; fill their mouths so full of food, as to threaten suffocation or choking; use their own knife for the butter, and salt; put their fingers in the sugar bowl, and commit other faults quite as monstrous, yet seem perfectly unconscious that they were doing anything to attract attention.

Try to sit easily and gracefully, but at the same time avoid crowding those beside you.

Far from eating with avidity of whatever delicacies which may be upon the table, and which are often served in small quantities, partake of them but sparingly, and decline them when offered the second time.

Many men at their own table have little peculiar notions, which a guest does well to respect. Some will feel hurt, even offended, if you decline a dish which they recommend; while others expect you to eat enormously, as if they feared you did not appreciate their hospitality unless you tasted of every dish upon the table. Try to pay respect to such whims at the table of others, but avoid having any such notions when presiding over your own board.

Observe a strict sobriety; never drink of more than one kind of wine, and partake of that sparingly.

The style of serving dinner is different at different houses; if there are many servants they will bring you your plate filled, and you must keep it. If you have the care of a lady, see that she has what she desires, before you give your own order to the waiter; but if there are but few domestics, and the dishes are upon the table, you may with perfect propriety help those near you, from any dish within your reach.

If your host or hostess passes you a plate, keep it, especially if you have chosen the food upon it, for others have also a choice, and by passing it, you may give your neighbor dishes distaseful to him, and take yourself those which he would much prefer.

If in the leaves of your salad, or in a plate of fruit you find a worm or insect, pass your plate to the waiter, without any comment, and he will bring you another.

Be careful to avoid the extremes of gluttony or over daintiness at table. To eat enormously is disgusting; but if you eat too sparingly, your host may think that you despise his fare.

Watch that the lady whom you escorted to the table is well helped. Lift and change her plate for her, pass her bread, salt, and butter, give her orders to the waiter, and pay her every attention in your power.

Before taking your place at table, wait until your place is pointed out to you, unless there are cards bearing the names of the guests upon the plates; in the latter case, take the place thus marked for you.

Put your napkin upon your lap, covering your knees. It is out of date, and now looked upon as a vulgar habit to put your napkin up over your breast.

Sit neither too near nor too far from the table. Never hitch up your coat-sleeves or wristbands as if going to wash your hands. Some men do this habitually, but it is a sign of very bad breeding.

Never tip your chair, or lounge back in it during dinner.

All gesticulations are out of place, and in bad taste at the table. Avoid making them.

Converse in a low tone to your neighbor, yet not with any air of secresy if others are engaged in tête-à-tête conversation: if, however, the conversation is general, avoid conversing tête-à-tête. Do not raise your voice too much; if you cannot make those at some distance from you hear you when speaking in a moderate tone, confine your remarks to those near you.

If you wish for a knife, plate, or anything from the side table, never address those in attendance as “Waiter!” as you would at a hotel or restaurant, but call one of them by name; if you cannot do this, make him a sign without speaking.

Unless you are requested to do so, never select any particular part of a dish; but, if your host asks you what part you prefer, name some part, as in this case the incivility would consist in making your host choose as well as carve for you.

Never blow your soup if it is too hot, but wait until it cools. Never raise your plate to your lips, but eat with your spoon.

Never touch either your knife or your fork until after you have finished eating your soup. Leave your spoon in your soup plate, that the servant may remove them both. Never take soup twice.

In changing your plate, or passing it during dinner, remove your knife and fork, that the plate alone may be taken, but after you have finished your dinner, cross the knife and fork on the plate, that the servant may take all away, before bringing you clean ones for dessert.

Do not bite your bread from the roll or slice, nor cut it with your knife; break off small pieces and put these in your mouth with your fingers.

At dinner do not put butter on your bread. Never dip a piece of bread into the gravy or preserves upon your plate and then bite it, but if you wish to eat them together, break the bread into small pieces, and carry these to your mouth with your fork.

Use always the salt-spoon, sugar-tongs, and butter knife; to use your own knife, spoon, or fingers, evinces a shocking want of good-breeding.

Never criticize any dish before you.

If a dish is distasteful to you, decline it, but make no remarks about it. It is sickening and disgusting to explain at a table how one article makes you sick, or why some other dish has become distasteful to you. I have seen a well-dressed tempting dish go from a table untouched, because one of the company told a most disgusting anecdote about finding vermin served in a similar dish. No wit in the narration can excuse so palpably an error of politeness.

Never put bones, or the seeds of fruit upon the tablecloth. Put them upon the edge of your plate.

Never use your knife for any purpose but to cut your food. It is not meant to be put in your mouth. Your fork is intended to carry the food from your plate to your mouth, and no gentleman ever eats with his knife.

If the meat or fish upon your plate is too rare or too well-done, do not eat it; give for an excuse that you prefer some other dish before you; but never tell your host that his cook has made the dish uneatable.

Never speak when you have anything in your mouth. Never pile the food on your plate as if you were starving, but take a little at a time; the dishes will not run away.

Never use your own knife and fork to help either yourself or others. There is always one before the dish at every well-served table, and you should use that.

It is a good plan to accustom yourself to using your fork with the left hand, when eating, as you thus avoid the awkwardness of constantly passing the fork from your left hand to your right, and back again, when cutting your food and eating it.

Never put fruit or bon-bons in your pocket to carry them from the table.

Do not cut fruit with a steel knife. Use a silver one.

Never eat so fast as to hurry the others at the table, nor so slowly as to keep them waiting.

If you do not take wine, never keep the bottle standing before you, but pass it on. If you do take it, pass. it on as soon as you have filled your glass. If you wish to remove a fish bone or fruit seed from your mouth, cover your lips with your hand or napkin, that others may not see you remove it.

If you wish to use your handkerchief, and have not time to leave the table, turn your head away, and as quickly as possible put the handkerchief in your pocket again.

Always wipe your mouth before drinking, as nothing is more ill-bred than to grease your glass with your lips.

If you are invited to drink with a friend, and do not drink wine, bow, raise your glass of water and drink with him.

Do not propose to take wine with your host; it is his privilege to invite you.

Do not put your glass upside down on the table to signify that you do not wish to drink any more; it is sufficient to refuse firmly. Do not be persuaded to touch another drop of wine after your own prudence warns you that you have taken enough.

Avoid any air of mystery when speaking to those next you; it is ill-bred and in excessively bad taste.

If you wish to speak of any one, or to any one at the table, call them by name, but never point or make a signal when at table.

When taking coffee, never pour it into your saucer, but let it cool in the cup, and drink from that.

If at a gentleman’s party, never ask any one to sing or tell a story; your host alone has the right thus to call upon his guests.

If invited yourself to sing, and you feel sufficiently sure that you will give pleasure, comply immediately with the request.

If, however, you refuse, remain firm in your refusal, as to yield after once refusing is a breach of etiquette.

When the finger-glasses are passed, dip your fingers into them and then wipe them upon your napkin.

Never leave the table till the mistress of the house gives the signal.

On leaving the table put your napkin on the table, but do not fold it.

Offer your arm to the lady whom you escorted to the table.

It is excessively rude to leave the house as soon as dinner is over. Respect to your hostess obliges you to stay in the drawing-room at least an hour.

If the ladies withdraw, leaving the gentlemen, after dinner, rise when they leave the table, and remain standing until they have left the room.

I give, from a recent English work, some humorously written directions for table etiquette, and, although they are some of them repetitions of what I have already given, they will be found to contain many useful hints:

“We now come to habits at table, which are very important. However agreeable a man may be in society, if he offends or disgusts by his table traits, he will soon be scouted from it, and justly so. There are some broad rules for behavior at table. Whenever there is a to you, never help yourself. Never put a knife into your mouth, not even with cheese, which should be eaten with a fork. Never use spoon for anything but liquids. Never touch anything edible with your fingers.

“Forks were, undoubtedly, a later invention than fingers, but, as we are not cannibals, I am inclined to think they were a good one. There are some few things which you may take up with your fingers. Thus an epicure will eat even macaroni with his fingers; and as sucking asparagus is more pleasant than chewing it, you may, as an epicure, take it up au naturel. But both these things are generally eaten with a fork. Bread is, of course, eaten with the fingers, and it would be absurd to carve it with your knife and fork. It must, on the contrary, always be broken when not buttered, and you should never put a slice of dry bread to your mouth to bite a piece off. Most fresh fruit, too, is eaten with the natural prongs, but when you have peeled an orange or apple, you should cut it with the aid of the fork, unless you can succeed in breaking it. Apropos of which, I may hint that no epicure ever yet put a knife to an apple, and that an orange should be peeled with a spoon. But the art of peeling an orange so as to hold its own juice, and its own sugar too, is one that can scarcely be taught in a book.

“However, let us go to dinner, and I will soon tell you whether you are a well-bred man or not; and here let me premise that what is good manners for a small dinner is good manners for a large one, and vice versa. Now, the first thing you do is to sit down. Stop, sir! pray do not cram yourself into the table in that way; no, nor sit a yard from it, like that. How graceless, inconvenient, and in the way of conversation! Why, dear me! you are positively putting your elbows on the table, and now you have got your hands fumbling about with the spoons and forks, and now you are nearly knocking my new hock glasses over. Can’t you take your hands down, sir? Didn’t you learn that in the nursery? Didn’t your mamma say to you, ‘Never put your hands above the table except to carve or eat?’ Oh! but come, no nonsense, sit up, if you please. I can’t have your fine head of hair forming a side dish on my table; you must not bury your face in the plate, you came to show it, and it ought to be alive. Well, but there is no occasion to throw your head back like that, you look like an alderman, sir, after dinner. Pray, don’t lounge in that sleepy way. You are here to eat, drink, and be merry. You can sleep when you get home.

“Well, then, I suppose you can see your napkin. Got none, indeed! Very likely, in my house. You may be sure that I never sit down to a meal without napkins. I don’t want to make my tablecloths unfit for use, and I don’t want to make my trousers unwearable. Well, now, we are all seated, you can unfold it on your knees; no, no; don’t tuck it into your waistcoat like an alderman; and what! what on earth do you mean by wiping your forehead with it? Do you take it for a towel? Well, never mind, I am consoled that you did not go farther, and use it as a pocket-handkerchief. So talk away to the lady on your right, and wait till soup is handed to you. By the way, that waiting is the most important part of table manners, and, as much as possible, you should avoid asking for anything or helping yourself from the table. Your soup you eat with a spoon—I don’t know what else you could eat it with—but then it must be one of good size Yes, that will do, but I beg you will not make that odious noise in drinking your soup. It is louder than a dog lapping water, and a cat would be quite genteel to it. Then you need not scrape up the plate in that way, nor even tilt it to get the last drop. I shall be happy to send you some more; but I must just remark, that it is not the custom to take two helpings of soup, and it is liable to keep other people waiting, which, once for all, is a selfish and intolerable habit. But don’t you hear the servant offering you sherry? I wish you would attend, for my servants have quite enough to do, and can’t wait all the evening while you finish that very mild story to Miss Goggles. Come, leave that decanter alone. I had the wine put on the table to fill up; the servants will hand it directly, or, as we are a small party, I will tell you to help yourself; but, pray, do not be so officious. (There, I have sent him some turbot to keep him quiet. I declare he cannot make up his mind.) You are keeping my servant again, sir. Will you, or will you not, do turbot? Don’t examine it in that way; it is quite fresh, I assure you, take or decline it. Ah, you take it, but that is no reason why you should take up a knife too. Fish, I repeat, must never be touched with a knife. Take a fork in the right and a small piece of bread in the left hand. Good, but? Oh! that is atrocious; of course you must not swallow the bones, but you should rather do so than spit them out in that way. Put up your napkin like this, and land the said bone on your plate. Don’t rub your head in the sauce, my good man, nor go progging about after the shrimps or oysters therein. Oh! how horrid I declare your mouth was wide open and full of fish. Small pieces, I beseech you; and once for all, whatever you eat, keep your mouth shut, and never attempt to talk with it full.

“So now you have got a pâté. Surely you are not taking two on your plate. There is plenty of dinner to come, and one is quite enough. Oh! dear me, you are incorrigible. What! a knife to cut that light, brittle pastry? No, nor fingers, never. Nor a spoon—almost as bad. Take your fork, sir, your fork; and, now you have eaten, oblige me by wiping your mouth and moustache with your napkin, for there is a bit of the pastry hanging to the latter, and looking very disagreeable. Well, you can refuse a dish if you like. There is no positive necessity for you to take venison if you don’t want it. But, at any rate, do not be in that terrific hurry. You are not going off by the next train. Wait for the sauce and wait for vegetables; but whether you eat them or not, do not begin before everybody else. Surely you must take my table for that of a railway refreshment-room, for you have finished before the person I helped first. Fast eating is bad for the digestion, my good sir, and not very good manners either. What! are you trying to eat meat with a fork alone? Oh! it is sweetbread, I beg your pardon, you are quite right. Let me give you a rule,—Everything that can be cut without a knife, should be cut with a fork alone. Eat your vegetables, therefore, with a fork. No, there is no necessity to take a spoon for peas; a fork in the right hand will do. What! did I really see you put your knife into your mouth? Then I must give you up. Once for all, and ever, the knife is to cut, not to help with. Pray, do not munch in that noisy manner; chew your food well, but softly. Eat slowly. Have you not heard that Napoleon lost the battle of Leipsic by eating too fast? It is a fact though. His haste caused indigestion, which made him incapable of attending to the details of the battle. You see you are the last person eating at table. Sir, I will not allow you to speak to my servants in that way. If they are so remiss as to oblige you to ask for anything, do it gently, and in a low tone, and thank a servant just as much as you would his master. Ten to one he is as good a man; and because he is your inferior in position, is the very reason you should treat him courteously. Oh! it is of no use to ask me to take wine; far from pacifying me, it will only make me more angry, for I tell you the custom is quite gone out, except in a few country villages, and at a mess-table. Nor need you ask the lady to do so. However, there is this consolation, if you should ask any one to take wine with you, he or she cannot refuse, so you have your own way. Perhaps next you will be asking me to hob and nob, or trinquer in the French fashion with arms encircled. Ah! you don’t know, perhaps, that when a lady trinques in that way with you, you have a right to finish off with a kiss. Very likely, indeed! But it is the custom in familiar circles in France, but then we are not Frenchmen. Will you attend to your lady, sir? You did not come merely to eat, but to make yourself agreeable. Don’t sit as glum as the Memnon at Thebes; talk and be pleasant. Now, you have some pudding. No knife—no, no. A spoon if you like, but better still, a fork. Yes, ice requires a spoon; there is a small one handed you, take that.

“Say ‘no.’ This is the fourth time wine has been handed to you, and I am sure you have had enough. Decline this time if you please. Decline that dish too. Are you going to eat of everything that is handed? I pity you if you do. No, you must not ask for more cheese, and you must eat it with your fork. Break the rusk with your fingers. Good. You are drinking a glass of old port. Do not quaff it down at a gulp in that way. Never drink a whole glassful of anything at once.

“Well, here is the wine and dessert. Take whichever wine you like, but remember you must keep to that, and not change about. Before you go up stairs I will allow you a glass of sherry after your claret, but otherwise drink of one wine only. You don’t mean to say you are helping yourself to wine before the ladies. At least, offer it to the one next to you, and then pass it on, gently, not with a push like that. Do not drink so fast; you will hurry me in passing the decanters, if I see that your glass is empty. You need not eat dessert till the ladies are gone, but offer them whatever is nearest to you. And now they are gone, draw your chair near mine, and I will try and talk more pleasantly to you. You will come out admirably at your next dinner with all my teaching. What! you are excited, you are talking loud to the colonel. Nonsense. Come and talk easily to me or to your nearest neighbor. There, don’t drink any more wine, for I see you are getting romantic. You oblige me to make a move. You have had enough of those walnuts; you are keeping me, my dear sir. So now to coffee [one cup] and tea, which I beg you will not pour into your saucer to cool. Well, the dinner has done you good, and me too. Let us be amiable to the ladies, but not too much so.”

Champ, champ; Smack, smack; Smack, smack; Champ, champ;—It is one thing to know how to make a pudding, and another to know now to eat it when made. Unmerciful and monstrous are the noises with which some persons accompany the eating—no, the devouring of the food for which, we trust, they are thankful. To sit down with a company of such masticators is like joining ‘a herd of swine feeding.’ Soberly, at no time, probably, are the rules of good breeding less regarded than at ‘feeding time,’ and at no place is a departure from these rules more noticeable than at table. Some persons gnaw at a crust as dogs gnaw a bone, rattle knives and spoons against their teeth as though anxious to prove which is the harder, and scrape their plates with an energy and perseverance which would be very commendable if bestowed upon any object worth the trouble. Others, in defiance of the old nursery rhyme—

‘I must not dip, howe’er I wish,
My spoon or finger in the dish;’

are perpetually helping themselves in this very straightforward and unsophisticated manner. Another, with a mouth full of food contrives to make his teeth and tongue perform the double duty of chewing and talking at the same time. Another, quite in military style, in the intervals of cramming, makes his knife and fork keep guard over the jealously watched plate, being held upright on either side in the clenched fist, like the musket of a raw recruit. And another, as often as leisure serves, fidgets his plate from left to right, and from right to left, or round and round, until the painful operation of feeding. is over.

“There is, we know, such a thing as being ‘too nice’—’more nice than wise.’ It is quite possible to be fastidious. But there are also such inconsiderable matters as decency and good order; and it surely is better to err on the right than on the wrong side of good breeding.”

Epoch Inspired Staff

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