The History of Table Setting: A Timeline

Today, if you walk into any two restaurants, chances are their table setting styles will be different from one another. This difference is also clearly visible if you walk into any household.

But this choice of cloth or paper napkin, tablecloth or rustic wooden table, the color palette of your table linens, and what centerpieces adorn the table stems from a long history of table setting.

Here is our timeline of the history of table setting:

Medieval Period – At this point in time, tables were often just a simple wooden board held up by supports. Table ornaments were not common or popular at this time – the only ornament really used would be a salt cellar. But this one ornament was important for distinguishing the societal importance of those dining at the table. Those who “sat above the salt” were considered the most honored members at the table, and those who sat farthest below the salt were considered the lowest class at the table.

Unlike today’s dining, there were no forks to eat with and spoons and knives were not provided. Each individual would need to bring their own knives and spoons to the gathering. Eating was rather slovenly, where individuals would eat right off their knife or with their hands, and any food scraps would get thrown to the floor. There were no napkins, so individuals would wipe their mouths and hands on their clothing. However, tablecloths were in use in Medieval times at higher-class gatherings.

Renaissance – During the Renaissance period, the function of the tablecloth began to shift. Instead of simply dressing the table, tablecloths became a communal napkin. Individuals strayed away from cleaning their mouths and hands on their clothing and instead would wipe their hands directly on the cloth. Over time throughout the Renaissance period, the concept of the communal napkin shifted and shrunk in size. The communal napkin was no longer a full-size tablecloth but instead a smaller cloth that a servant would carry on their left arm.

Up until the late Renaissance period, dining knives were fairly sharp. At this point in time, the French dulled their knives to make them more suitable for table use. As knives became more dull, forks became more popular to use, ultimately making dining less messy. As dining became less chaotic, the great need for the communal napkin faded.

1700s – As we make our way out of the Renaissance, individual cloth napkins saw a rise and table manners with how one uses the napkin became a value. As etiquette shifted, so did the way a table was set. Shiny table ornaments, such as silver baskets and mirrored trays, became popular and the upper class began hiring decorators to help them develop elaborate table settings.

1800s – Dishes began to vary in height and heavy candelabras would often adorn tables. Flowers began to be expected as a part of table decoration, especially the heavy use of flowers at nice gatherings. Splashes of color began to take hold at this time, with glasses and table runners changing from the standard white to reds and greens. Meanwhile, the home table setting started gaining value as well and we begin to see more creativity and difference between the way tables are adorned.

1900s – Creativity in table settings really branched out at this time, with themed table settings becoming fairly popular. Tablescape competitions appeared where individuals would compete for creating the best table setting.

Today – We see a huge variety in table settings today – all varying depending upon the type of restaurant, brand colors and current trends.

Now that you’ve learned about the history of table setting, consider your own table setting. Is it giving off an ambiance that is truly representative of your restaurant? Does your color selection fit your restaurant’s brand? And are your table settings appealing to your customers?

Get the best quality napkins and tablecloths for your specific restaurant when you work with Mickey’s Linen.

Contact us today at 800-545-7511 to learn how we can raise the bar for your restaurant’s table setting!