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Beau Nash: do manners matter?

Words by Duncan Campbell | Antique silver specialist

Navigating the treacherous waters of dining etiquette has long been a British obsession. The jeopardy involved in picking up the correct fork is a well worn cliche in film and literature.

Silver eating utensils are some of the principal players in the angst drenched theatre of ‘Good Table Manners’, and must have felt like implements of torture to uncertain guests already squirming with embarrassment.

The remnants of our ancestors’ dining rooms tell the background story of what they thought were good manners and how usage turns first into good manners and then sometimes gets corrupted into brutal snobbery.

These days it would be comical to turn up at someone’s house at dinner time with a fork and spoon in your top pocket, but before about 1700 it was quite the thing to do. Nobody ‘set the table’ until into the 18th century and even then you were lucky if you got more than one spoon and fork per place setting.

By 1800, the nation’s dining arrangements were pretty well established. A polite table would be laid with a soup spoon, a large knife and fork and then, after the first course had been cleared, a smaller spoon and fork for dessert. This habit was so deeply embedded that any deviation from the norm was a social minefield. Fish knives and forks for example, initially an American idea, were considered a clear sign of ‘new money’ because ‘old money’ families had been brought up to eat fish with 2 table forks.

In the same way, round bowl soup spoons were once sneered at as a trans-atlantic affectation. Gradually these protocols change. Since most families these days don’t keep a team of footmen on hand for mealtimes, laying out silverware for more than one course is allowable even in the grandest homes.

If you find all this is just too maddening, there is only one rule of table that really matters, if your guests feel comfortable, your manners are good.

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